Planning Commission approves Rotunda redevelopment design

The Baltimore City Planning Commission on Thursday voted wholeheartedly to approve the design of the Rotunda redevelopment project, giving developer Hekemian & Co. the go-ahead to break ground in late May or early June.

"Go forth and build," commission Chairman Wilbur Cunningham told Chris Bell, a Hekemian senior vice president, after the 8-0 vote, with one member absent.

"It feels great to have this behind us," Bell said.

"This is really the first and last body of Baltimore City required to pass this," said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who testified at the hearing. Clarke said City Council approval is not required. The city's Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel has already given final approval with amendments, but the UDARP vote was a recommendation to the Planning Department.

Hekemian officials now must sign a traffic mitigation agreement with the city Department of Transportation before they can pull building permits, for which they have already applied. Traffic plans include a new light in front of the Rotunda entrance at 711 W. 40th St., and improvements to nearby intersections, including Falls Road and 41st Street.

The target date for completion of the redevelopment project is summer 2015, Bell said.

The roughly $100 million mixed-use project calls for 382 apartments, 182,000 square feet of additional retail and 153,000 square feet of office space, according to a Planning Commission project statement released Thursday. The interior of the mall — which has been struggling for years to survive — would be closed and storefronts would be turned outward, facing a central plaza.

Bell told the Planning Commission, Hekemian is close to a deal with a boutique grocer to replace the longtime Giant supermarket that departed last year. He did not name a grocer, but the leading candidate is believed to Graul's, a local upscale grocery chain.

"Graul's Market and Hekemian are still negotiating and negotiations are progressing," Dennis Graul, president of Graul's Markets Inc., said in an email Saturday.

Bell told the Planning Commission that no lease agreements have been signed as yet. Hekemian is also negotiating with four restaurant firms, ranging from sit-down restaurants to eateries, as well as other businesses, Bell said. He specifically mentioned an Asian restaurant and a national health club chain as being considered for the mix of possible tenants.

The project is significantly scaled back from an original $180 million proposal that called for a 22-story apartment building and a hotel. The project has been talked about since at least the mid-2000s. Hekemian formed a citizens' advisory task force of residents in the communities surrounding the mall, but the project went on the back burner in 2008, due to lack of financing in a bad economy. The task force was revived last year and the scaled-back plan was presented.

Planning Commission approval came Thursday despite testimony from a Hampden resident, who complained that she and other residents who live near the mall were not notified of community meetings about the project.

"I speak for a lot of people," testified Dawn Kacey, of the 900 block of West 38th Street. She said many residents oppose the project because, "People on 38th will be looking up at this mass. We're losing our sky. We're losing our sun. We're losing our open space."

Bell, Clarke and Katie-Rose Imbriano, a city planner, told the commission that Hekemian has reached out to residents throughout the area since 2005, including the task force and the Hampden Community Council.

Cunningham noted that Kacey was the only person to testify at the hearing, either for or against the project.

"You're the only person I see here that has an issue," Cunningham said.

The Medfield Community Association sent a letter of support to the commission.

However, Clarke told commissioners there have been complaints about the scale of the project and its impact on residents like Kacey, who live in row houses across the street from the back parking lot of the Rotunda at the southern perimeter of the 11-acre property.

"I believe there are some residents who are still unhappy about this," Clarke testified. "I'm not going to say there's a consensus that everything is OK."

But at a community meeting in the Rotunda on Wednesday, the focus for a crowd of 75 residents was to create a new city Residential Parking Permit area to mitigate potential parking problems on Elm Ave and 38th Street, once the mall is redeveloped.

Resident Genny Dill, a leader of that effort, warned at the Wednesday meeting that although she thinks the Rotunda project will bring night life and excitement to the area, "It's also going to add cars."

Dill said her sense is that most residents support the project overall, or at least are resigned to it.

"We just want to get it done," she said.

The Planning Commission removed the last hurdle, agreeing with the Planning Department's recommendation to approve the project.

"This is an absolutely fabulous project," said Planning Director Thomas Stosur. He complimented Hekemian on "one of the most extensive outreach processes" he has seen.

"I personally think this is a great project," Cunningham said.

Commissioner Benjamin Glenn, a builder, said Hekemian officials "want to help improve our city and make our city a better place."

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