When Baltimore County officials gathered for a news conference in the fall to reveal plans to revitalize the half-empty Owings Mills Mall, a cheery slogan lit up a screen behind them:
"Owings Mills — it's happening!"
The mall event was one of three major economic development announcements within six months for an area that has long awaited a makeover. But behind the scenes, a battle is brewing between the prominent developers investing in the projects.
Plans for Owings Mills include a $65 million revamping of the mall; a huge, mixed-use development called Metro Centre near the end of Baltimore's subway line; and Foundry Row, an upscale retail complex anchored by a Wegmans grocery store at the Solo Cup manufacturing site off Reisterstown Road.
The developers of the mall and the long-planned Metro Centre are concerned that the project featuring Wegmans would clog Reisterstown Road and create a glut of retail space. The Foundry Row builders say there's room for healthy competition.
State Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Democrat who represents Owings Mills, said no one is asking hard questions about how the county will handle the growth.
"To rush headlong, singing 'Kumbaya,' off a cliff really is not a good way to do government," he said. "County officials are so busy sending out press releases that they're kind of forgetting their responsibilities in terms of looking at the infrastructure."
Those developing the mall and Metro Centre say that together, their projects can form the heart of Owings Mills. They already have the zoning approvals and infrastructure to do it, they say. The company that wants to build the shopping center at Solo Cup still must seek approval in the county's zoning process this year.
County leaders say the three projects go hand in hand. They also point to County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's efforts to secure state funding to improve Reisterstown Road at Painters Mill.
"Clearly, this is a coordinated strategy on the county executive's part to make sure that we address [the traffic]," said Dan Gundersen, Baltimore County's economic development chief.
Glenn Barnes, a board member of the Reisterstown-Owings Mills-Glyndon Chamber of Commerce and president of the Reisterstown Improvement Association, called the news exciting for the area and said he thinks the revitalization would be good for existing businesses.
"There's enough business for everybody," Barnes said. "Success breeds success usually."
Including Solo Cup, about 600,000 square feet of space along Reisterstown Road could be approved for retail use, said Geoffrey Glazer, vice president of acquisitions and development for Kimco Realty.
His company — the nation's largest owner of shopping centers — has joined with the mall's owner, General Growth Properties, to "de-mall" the complex, turning it into an outward-facing "town center."
"There's not enough retail players to support all these [projects]," said Glazer, who contends there is too much vacant retail space now along Reisterstown Road.
Glazer's company wants to demolish most of the mall, leaving only Macy's, J.C. Penney, and the AMC movie complex. It plans to include both big-box and smaller, "junior box" retailers in the new shopping center. Construction is to be completed by late 2014.
Potential tenants are waiting to see how zoning turns out on Reisterstown Road, he said.
"We are trying to make this change very dramatic," Glazer said. "As long as there are multiple choices out there, the retailers are in a little bit of a holding pattern until they know where everybody lands."
Developer Howard Brown of David S. Brown Enterprises said his Metro Centre project and the mall "are really one piece."
The Metro Centre — which finally broke ground last year after many delays — will feature the county's largest library branch and a community college campus in a six-story building slated for completion in spring 2013. Plans call for more than 1 million square feet of commercial office space eventually, as well as 1,700 residential units and 300,000 square feet of retail.
The idea is to create a high-density, urban-style area in a suburban location, Brown said.
"People who want to live in a transit-oriented development will have 24-hour, seven-day-a-week restaurants and offices, and a connection not only to downtown, but the airport and D.C. from this location," Brown said. "It's all about mass transportation."
The county should preserve the Solo Cup land for nonretail uses, Brown contends, such as a biotech park or other enterprise that would provide high-paying jobs.
Brian Gibbons, chairman and CEO of Greenberg Gibbons Commercial, which wants to redevelop the Solo Cup site, said there's room for everyone.
"They don't want competition," Gibbons said.
Wegmans, a sought-after tenant, will set the tone for Foundry Row, he said.
"The mall has been asking for Wegmans for 10 years, and Wegmans said no," he said.
Gibbons hopes he can secure zoning approval by fall. He plans to demolish the Solo Cup plant, which is to shut down completely March 31, and build a 400,000-square-foot development anchored by Wegmans. It would include several other anchors, including a fitness center, as well as small shops and restaurants. The center would feature industrial-style architecture with glass, metal and brick elements as a nod to the site's industrial history.
He said he might be seeking some of the same junior-box tenants as the mall but believes the projects would attract different types of stores.
"There is extraordinary tenant demand in the market," said Gibbons, whose firm redeveloped the once-struggling Hunt Valley Town Centre. "We have come up with a beautiful, creative project."
The company plans a traffic signal and four-lane access to alleviate traffic concerns, and to invest in improvements at Painters Mill and Reisterstown roads, he said.
For years, county leaders pushed investment in the area around the Metro station. Together, the state and county have spent $57 million on the Metro Centre project. Now, former County Executive James T. Smith Jr.'s law firm represents Greenberg Gibbons.
Western Baltimore County has long been underserved by retail, said Mark Mueller, a commercial real estate broker with the firm Sierra U.S.
He thinks there's enough demand in the area to sustain the developments.
"The good news is, in my opinion, I think they're all three distinctly different kinds of retail projects," said Mueller, though he added that the developers are likely to vie for some of the same restaurant tenants. "Should they all three come on at the same time? That may be asking a lot."
That kind of timing could generate traffic problems, he said.
Business owners along Reisterstown Road worry that a Wegmans at Foundry Row would worsen traffic congestion and hurt existing stores, said Bruce Levine, director of commercial real estate for M. Leo Storch Management Corp., which owns Garrison Forest Plaza.
"Reisterstown Road lately has suffered from high vacancy," Levine said. "The addition of another major retail component on Reisterstown Road would really exacerbate that."
County Council Chairwoman Vicki Almond, who represents the area where Solo Cup is located, said she's met with key players and community members to take their concerns into account.
"One of the things that we're concerned about is to make sure we don't make Reisterstown Road a ghost town," she said. "And then, of course, the traffic issue."
But Almond said she believes the projects are viable, pointing to White Marsh as an area that has been able to support multiple retail developments.
"I still tend to believe that we can support all three," she said of the projects in Owings Mills. "There just may have to be some compromises made as far as the amount of retail at each place."
The developers' plans indicate that they're seeking distinctive shopping experiences, tenants and pricing, Gundersen said.
"When you look at all of those different ingredients, and you look at the proposals that are on the table, you realize that they are different," Gundersen said. "The plans as proposed by the developers themselves do not suggest competing products. In fact, they can complement one another."
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