On 83 acres in White Marsh, R. Kelvin Antill has a vision for a retail mecca: more than 100 outlet stores attracting shoppers who will drive up to an hour for a chance to buy designer clothes and high-end handbags at discounted prices.
Antill's Baltimore-based company, Paragon Outlet Partners, has developed posh outlet malls in half a dozen other cities — but never in its own backyard.
But as Paragon seeks approval for the outlet center in booming White Marsh, its neighbors are aiming to block the project. Residents contend the area is already over-developed, while the corporate owners of nearby White Marsh Mall argue the outlets would put a dent in the mall's business.
The Paragon outlets would be located near the intersection of Interstate 95 and Route 43, about two miles from The Avenue at White Marsh shopping center, the White Marsh Mall and a number of big-box retailers.
Development has sprawled across former mining lands and marshes over recent decades, and some area residents believe that investments in needed community services — roads, schools, public safety — haven't kept pace.
Heather Patti, a White Marsh resident, is part of a group of neighbors appealing a key approval for the Paragon outlets. She remembers White Marsh long before the mall and The Avenue were built, before Route 43 was extended as a "road of opportunity" that spurred the Baltimore Crossroads, a mix of warehouses, homes and shops being built there.
"When did White Marsh become the retail mecca of the state?" Patti asked.
Antill, a partner at Paragon who previously worked with Prime Outlets, developer of outlet centers in Hagerstown and Queenstown, said his company wants to offer a unique shopping experience.
"We believe we have an excellent market for an upscale outlet center," he said. "The Baltimore area doesn't have a dedicated outlet center. You have to drive a good bit to get to the ones currently in place."
The neighbors and the mall will make their cases this month to the Baltimore County Board of Appeals, which will consider whether to uphold, overturn or modify a county administrative law judge's decision to approve the project. The board's decision can be appealed to Circuit Court.
Patti has teamed up with other local residents to appeal the Paragon project's approval, on the grounds that the project doesn't meet standards for stormwater pollution control and will add to traffic woes. Neighbors fear the outlets will worsen flooding of White Marsh Run, which snakes through the area, and contribute pollution to the Bird River.
"Our big sticking point as a community is if anything's going to be built on the site, it needs to be brought up to modern stormwater standards," said Patti, president of the White Marsh-Cowenton Community Association.
As development has covered the landscape, it has sent sediment washing down White Marsh Run to the Bird River, which is filling in, said Janet Terry, who lives on the river. She wants Paragon's outlets to be held to the strictest stormwater pollution standards.
"If you're going to build something, do it right and do it responsibly," said Terry, who also is part of the appeal.
Joining the fight is General Growth Properties, the Chicago-based owner of the 34-year-old White Marsh Mall. Company officials point outthat under the development rules Paragon must follow, the project can't harm existing businesses. In documents filed with Baltimore County, General Growth also has argued that the outlet mall would cause traffic congestion and environmental harm.
In a statement, General Growth's senior mall manager Lisa Bisenius urged a careful consideration of "all the issues that a development of this size will have on the area, including traffic, zoning and environmental."
Antill believes his outlets will not harm White Marsh Mall or The Avenue, a Main Street-style center that features a movie theater, restaurants and stores. The Avenue's owner, Federal Realty Investment Trust, is not a participant in the Board of Appeals case, but previously teamed with General Growth in urging local residents to oppose the Paragon outlets.
Antill said his outlets would largely draw different customers than the mall and The Avenue, including travelers on nearby Interstate 95 who would pull off for shopping during road trips. Although he acknowledged there would be some competition.
"To some extent, we're all competing for the dollars that people can spend. … I'm focused on my center and I believe that the market is there. The tenant demand is reinforcing that idea," he said.
Antill would not say which retailers want to open stores in White Marsh, but he said the project would have many of the same tenants as Paragon's other outlet malls.
Paragon's newest outlet mall in Eagan, Minn. — four miles from the massive Mall of America — is anchored by Saks Fifth Avenue OFF 5th and also includes Banana Republic, J. Crew, White House/Black Market, True Religion, Swarovski and Movado among its stores.
The White Marsh outlets would feature more than 125 stores totaling 568,000 square feet in an open-air layout. The project also would include 250,000 square feet of office space, 250 apartments and a 130-room hotel.
Corporate Office Properties Trust, a real estate investment trust, sold the property to Paragon last week.
COPT had previously won approval for a different plan on the site that included 1,250 homes, more than a million square feet of office space, as well as shops and a hotel. Paragon revised the plans to include more shops with far fewer homes and offices.
"The community up there has strongly indicated they want less residential, then the market wasn't there for office space," Antill said.
Paragon won approval in the fall from the county administrative judge, who set limits on the outlets' signage and required the developer follow more modern stormwater rules. The neighbors are seeking to hold Paragon to even stricter stormwater rules.
County Councilman David Marks, whose district includes the Paragon site, said he appreciates the concerns of the mall and the neighbors. He believes, however, that the Paragon proposal is much better than the original proposal. He noted that the latest proposal includes fewer homes, meaning fewer children would be added to nearby schools that are already crowded.
"Something is going to get built, and I'm doing everything I can to lighten school overcrowding," said Marks, a Perry Hall Republican. Marks is satisfied that the outlets won't strain local roads because Paragon will make road improvements near the site.
It's no surprise that Paragon wants to build in White Marsh, said Marc Czosnowski, president of the Chesapeake Gateway Chamber of Commerce, which represents businesses in White Marsh, Essex and Middle River. Businesses are attracted to the area because it is convenient to Interstate 95, Harford County and Baltimore, and Washington D.C. is reachable from a nearby MARC train station.
Czosnowski said the chamber wants the Paragon outlet in the area, rather than locate somewhere else in the Baltimore region.
"We'd rather see the dollars here. If people come to the outlets, all of the other businesses can benefit," said Czosnowski, who grew up in Rosedale and has seen the area "transformed," first by retail development in White Marsh and now by mixed-use development in the Crossroads area along Route 43.
If Paragon wins approval for the outlets, the company would like to break ground this summer, with the outlets opening in late 2016.