"Every cloud has a silver lining," reads the sign in developer David Schlachman's conference room.
The Towson resident said he understands community concerns that his 101 York student housing and retail project is too dense and lacking in open space.
"These people love Towson, too," he said of his critics. "We just have different visions."
Schlachman's vision is for a 13- or 14-story building with as many as 651 beds in downtown Towson. He is seeking the blessing of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations for the controversial planned unit development — and he said his company, DMS Development, LLC, is willing to pay the GTCCA as much as $750,000 for community park and recreation projects — on top of other project fees — to win the group's backing.
"We believe in this project," Schlachman said in an interview Aug. 24 at DMS' offices at 100 E. Pennsylvania Ave. "We know there are concerns the community has. We believe our project is going to be benign."
But the mixed-use project, which also includes above-ground and underground parking, remains in legal limbo, as the GTCCA and American Legion Post 22, located near 101 York, continue to oppose it. The GTCCA is lobbying for a smaller project with built-in green space, or at the least, more than $1 million in open space waiver fees, said President Michael Ertel.
Schlachman and other DMS officials say there's nowhere on the 2.74-acre site to put significant open space and still have an economically viable development.
"We really don't have room where we're at," Schlachman said. "We believe we've done the best we can."
First introduced as a $60 million, five-story building in 2013, the project grew to a proposed 13 stories and then 20 stories earlier this year. Schlachman withdrew the 20-story plan in June at the request of Baltimore County Councilman David Marks, who said he was concerned about sudden changes in scale.
Baltimore County Administrative Law Judge John Beverungen has ruled in favor of a 13-story planned unit development, but the GTCCA appealed his ruling to the county Board of Appeals, which heard the case in July and is scheduled to deliberate in public Sept. 15.
The board also will be ruling on an appeal by DMS of the judge's ruling that the company must pay $1.3 million in open space waiver fees in lieu of providing as much open space as the county requires for the project. Schlachman calls that fee exorbitant, but said he is willing to pay a fee based on legislation that County Council members David Marks and Tom Quirk are drafting to increase open space waiver fees by $2,000 to $2,500 per housing unit in such developments.
Marks, a Republican who represents Towson, said last month that he and Quirk, a Democrat who represents Catonsville, plan to introduce their bill Sept. 8, but are still discussing whether such an increase would be retroactively applied to projects such as 101 York that are already in the pipeline.
Schlachman said he is also prepared to pay a $55,000 "community benefit" fee that the county requires for the project as a planned unit development. It would be split among Burkleigh Square, Towson Manor Village and Southland Hills, with the latter getting $10,000 of the money to improve the county-owned mini-park off Towsontown Boulevard.
Money on the table
On top of that, Schlachman said, he is willing to pay the GTCCA $325,000 for a 13-story building with 611 beds, or $750,000 for a 14-story building with 651 beds. That money would be spent on park land for the Towson area, with the stipulation that the expenditures would have to be negotiated "in good faith" by DMS, the GTCCA and the Towson Recreation Council.
The 13-story building would feature an 11-story residential tower above two levels of garage parking, plus an underground level of parking, as well as five or six stories of commercial space fronting York Road. An alternative 14-story building would feature a 12-story residential tower.
Schlachman presented those offers as Option A and Option B in an Aug. 18 letter to Ertel, which Schlachman characterized as his "final settlement offer," made "in the spirit of compromise."
The letter also proposed a "Community Action Plan," which would include traffic-calming measures near the development and the creation of a committee on communications and procedures. Committee members would deal with issues such as noise and security and would represent DMS, the management of 101 York, the American Legion, Towson University, neighborhood groups and student housing apartment communities.
The letter, which gave the GTCCA a deadline of Aug. 27 to submit a written response, was a follow-up to a July 7 letter, in which Schlachman offered $250,000 for Option A and $500,000 for Option B. The GTCCA let the deadline lapse.
Ertel said Schlachman and DMS are throwing money at the problem instead of collaborating with the GTCCA and its member communities to make a better project. He also said Marks and other county officials are using the planned unit development process as a way to push the project through as planned, without proper zoning or community support.
"101 York ... epitomizes all that's wrong about how the Baltimore County PUD process is used today," he said. "Simply put, the PUD process was put into place — as we see it — so that a community and a developer could work together to urge a County Council (member) to allow a project not permitted by current zoning laws because of an amenity benefit to the community. The community collaborates with the developer and the project is brought to approval and life."
Ertel cited as an example the Towson Green townhouse development. For that planned unit development, the community and the developer worked together on design, density and traffic issues before getting the County Council involved, Ertel said..
"That is not how it happened with 101 York," he said. "We first learned about the project when (County Executive) Kevin Kamenetz simply announced that it would happen, as if it were a done deal."
Ertel quoted a 2014 Towson Times story in which Marks said the 101 York project "needs to be done as a planned unit development with strong consultation from surrounding neighborhoods, and that will be my job."
But Marks and other county officials "blazed forward, using the PUD as the vehicle to give the developer what it wanted," Ertel said. "The PUD process has been turned into a means for a developer to get what it and the county government want, which cannot be built under current zoning, over the objections of the impacted communities, so long as the developer and government agree on a menial payoff to entice communities to sit down and shut up. That is not how the PUD is supposed to work."
He also said that if the Marks-Quirk bill to change open space waiver fees grandfathers in projects already proposed, DMS might not have to pay any waiver fee.
Ertel said he is hearing from some people that "we are irresponsible for not agreeing to drop our legal challenge and take compromise money because our rec council space is in such dire need of improvements Why hasn't the county invested to improve our communities' recreation fields and facilities?"
Marks said the planned unit development was one of the most stringent in county history and required three public meetings.
"He (Ertel) complains about student rentals, then opposes a privately built dormitory next to Towson University," Marks said. "He complains about open space, but rejects $750,000 in funding to build new athletic fields.In short, Mike Ertel complains."
Marks also said that $750,000 "could go a long way" to building recreational projects like a turf field or open space improvements at Dumbarton Middle School.
Schlachman said the $325,000 or $750,000 in park and recreation payments he is proposing, depending on the size of the project, would allow community leaders "to really pick and choose where (park projects) would go."
But Ertel said, "It's not about the money. It's about the project. It's like a sore thumb."
Legion weighs in
Ertel said that even if the GTCCA were to agree to DMS' terms, he's not sure the American Legion would go along.
"They've been pretty adamant that they don't want this project," he said.
For now, the American Legion is still opposing the 101 York project, which would stand one foot from the door of Post 22, according to its attorney, J. Carroll Holzer. He also said there is concern about the 101 York project causing flooding of the Towson Run, a stream that runs through the American Legion's property.
But Holzer also said that the American Legion is considering redeveloping its property and is discussing ideas with community leaders in the area. Depending on what the American Legion decides to do, the 101 York project "may not have the same impact. But we haven't gotten there yet," he said.
Schlachman, meanwhile, said DMS is considering other options for developing the 101 York site as a possibly bigger project that could be done without a planned unit development or a zoning variance, in case the legal fight drags on and into the courts.
"If they fight us, we have to make sure we have an economically viable project for the next few years," he said. "We'd be throwing out the PUD and starting over."
But Schlachman said he doesn't want that.
"We're not used to doing controversial projects," he said. "I'm making one last shot at these guys, because I really want to get started."