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News Maryland Baltimore County Catonsville

More land on Spring Grove campus in Catonsville may be for sale

A 21.9-acre parcel of land on the Spring Grove Hospital Center campus in Catonsville may soon be up for sale.

The Maryland Department of Planning has recommended that the land, which is zoned for office technology and lies adjacent to Interstate 695, be used for mixed-use development, according to a letter obtained by The Catonsville Times.

The property recently went through Maryland State Clearinghouse review, which ensures projects are consistent with state and local laws, regulations and guidelines, said Peter Conrad, director of local planning assistance at the Maryland Department of Planning.

A report prepared in 2011 for the Maryland Economic Development Corporation (MEDCO) and Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH), analyzed the economics of consolidating the hospital into a replacement hospital on the campus, which would leave portions of the campus available for redevelopment.

In the report, the 21.9-acre tract is set aside for mixed-use development. The land would generate an estimated $1.6 million in state and local property taxes, $1.47 million of which would go to Baltimore County, the report said.

First District Councilman Tom Quirk, who represents the area that includes the campus between Frederick Road and Wilkens Avenue, said it is "too premature" to say what will happen with the property.

"If the Board of Public Works does declare this surplus, it's open for public bidding, " Quirk said. "Because it's close to the Beltway, you're probably looking at people who are looking at commercial mixed-use."

The area has sparked the interest of residents and developers, who don't see eye-to-eye on the future of the land.

Catonsville developer Steve Whalen, owner Whalen Properties, has expressed a vision for the future of the property, which he plans to turn into "The Promenade at Catonsville", a mixed-use development, which typically includes a combination of hotels, shops and residential units. He owns property adjacent to the 21.9 acre parcel.

A Spring Grove Task Force was created by former Baltimore County Executive James Smith Jr. in 2010 to develop recommendations for future use of land at the campus. Among its recommendations was the acquisition of 15 to 17 acres of land to support Whalen's "Promenade".

Whalen said he is interested in purchasing the property, but is waiting to see what the state's "offering" will be.

"They're going to specify what the offering is and we really need to react to that," Whalen said. "Until we understand what the offer is, we won't know how this will play out."

Del. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, who represents District 10 that includes the area, said regardless of what is done with the land, she would like to see the state hospital maintained on the property.

"If [Whalen] happens to be the one that gets the property, I hope he would not do anything the community would not like," Nathan-Pulliam said. "I don't think he would want that type of controversy."

Residents have voiced opposition to the project in the past, with some forming the group "Catonsville PromeNOT" to keep the issue in the public eye.

Paul Dongarra, a Catonsville resident who is part of the group, said he wasn't surprised to hear the parcel of land may be up for sale.

Dongarra said the project may, "create jobs in the short term, but it may hurt jobs on Catonsville's main street."

Whalen's proposal for the Promenade isn't "smart growth" development, Dongarra said.

Smart growth development is listed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as development:

• with mixed land uses;

• takes advantage of compact building design;

• creates a range of housing opportunities;

• creates a walkable neighborhood;

• fosters distinct, attractive communities with a distinct sense of place;

• preserves open space and critical environmental areas;

• directs development toward existing communities;

• provides a variety of transportation choices;

• makes development decisions predictable, fair and cost effective;

• encourages community and collaborator decisions

"This is not transit oriented development — this is car oriented," Dongarra said. "It's right next to the Beltway."

Catonsville resident Jim Himel, a former city planner for Baltimore, would like to see an arboretum on a portion of the Spring Grove campus.

Himel's vision for an arboretum, which has the support of Whalen Properties, has been in the works for the past 10 years. It would be a natural outdoor recreation area on a 50-acre portion of the Spring Grove campus and include three recreation fields and a natural amphitheater.

Himel said a development like the Promenade isn't an issue.

"It's absolutely in no conflict with the 50 acres we'd like to use for the arboretum. There's no better use than high rise buildings that act as some type of sound barrier [from the highway]," Himel said. "Do we want old historic, vacant buildings, or do we want to make sure of the space?"

Himel said he'd rather see mixed use development than an expansion of the UMBC research park, and believes that development will give residents a place to shop closer to home.

Quirk said his number one priority for the land is recreation use and his second priority is expansion of the UMBC research facilities.

Still, he supports mixed use development if it is "done right."

"I do think there is a compelling need for 55+ residential, perhaps a nice hotel, and other mixed use to consider," Quirk said. "But that is way down the process, because we don't even know if land is going to be surplused, and if it is, we don't know who's going to win the bid.

"The key thing for mixed use is that it has to be synergistic with the Catonsville and Arbutus business community. I will not approve any project that hurts the Arbutus or Catonsville business community area," he said.

Baltimore County will purchase an 8.8-acre parcel on the campus, with plans to transform it into a regional park, which, Quirk said, is, "a really good start, but we need more property and acreage toward a bigger park.

"Whatever happens at Spring Grove will be one of the most transparent and community involved processes on my watch," Quirk said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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