Baltimore's Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel recommended initial approval Thursday of the Rotunda mall redevelopment project.
The panel will hold at least one more hearing before it decides whether to recommend city approval of the overall redevelopment plan. That hearing has not yet been scheduled.
The panel rejected concerns that the proposed setback between the redevelopment site and homes on nearby 38th Street in Hampden is inadequate.
City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke asked UDARP as a "priority request" to recommend a minimum 30-foot setback from the Rotunda property line along the 800 block of West 38th Street. That's where Hekemian & Co. plans to redevelop the site with several apartment buildings, garages and retail stores facing a plaza.
Clarke said she'd received complaints from residents that the proposed setbacks along the block — ranging from 22 to 35 feet — aren't good enough.
But it was clear from panelists' comments about the project that they didn't buy Clarke's argument. In fact, the panel members seemed more interested in the architecture of the planned buildings, which they said seemed too safe and uniform.
One panelist urged the Hekemian representatives to "have some fun with it."
The panel was pleased that Hekemian now proposes to expand the plaza by 20 percent based on panelists' suggestions at an initial UDARP hearing in July.
There was no discussion of another controversy, a plan by Hekemian to close the interior of the mall after turning its stores outward to face the plaza, or "square."
"I was disappointed about the setback," said Julie Lee, a resident of the 900 block of 38th Street, who attended the UDARP meeting, but did not testify.
Under the proposed setback, "It looks like we're anthills compared to the monstrosity of a 5-story (apartment) building," Lee said.
Lee said she is also angry that the number of apartment units appears to have risen to 375 from 300, as she claimed Hekemian proposed during a residents' meeting in July.
But Genny Dill, whose row house on Elm Avenue, around the corner from 38th Street, overlooks the lot where the plaza and buildings would be, said she is not that upset about a current setback of about 18.3 feet at that location.
"I'm OK with the setback," Dill testified.
Dill told the panel she is more worried that a loading dock would be located across the street — and that its upper windows would have an unobstructed view of her teenage daughter's bedroom.
But panelists appeared mostly satisfied with the plan as presented by Hekemian and its architects and gave it preliminary "schematic approval."
Panelist Gary Bowden said he thinks the project "is headed in the right direction."
The UDARP panel also heard an informal presentation from Landex Companies, which wants to build a "town center" of 250 apartments and 30,000 square feet of retail on 5 acres near the light rail station on West Cold Spring Lane, near the Coldspring Newtown neighborhood.
The presentation was introductory and nonbinding, giving Landex a chance to sound out the panel about the project before plans "harden," Bowden said.
Landex officials presented the plan earlier this year to the Roland Park Civic League, which was intrigued by the idea of a transit-oriented development near the light rail, the Messenger reported in June. Residents said then that the station is inaccessible and dangerous for pedestrians and that they liked that Landex would build a pedestrian walkway connecting the project to the light rail stop.
But Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. said at the time that it wants to build a substation with a high-voltage transformer nearby, and Landex officials worried that potential residents of its development might be turned off by BGE's project.
BGE and Landex are still in discussions to see if they can co-exist, Judy Siegel, chairman of Linthicum-based Landex, said before Thursday's UDARP hearing.