Open retail strife has broken out in White Marsh as the owners of the area's mall and other established retail centers foment opposition to a proposed upscale outlet mall along Interstate 95.
Paragon Outlet Partners proposed building a 525,000-square-foot center with about 100 outlet stores, including brands such as Calvin Klein, Coach and Kate Spade, that would draw customers from across the region and off I-95. The Baltimore-based firm specializes in such malls, developing centers closer to population centers than outlets historically have located.
"Baltimore does not have an upscale outlet mall right in its backyard," said R. Kelvin Antill, development partner for Paragon. "The site is highly desirable to us. An outlet mall tends to draw from a larger region than the regional malls."
The center, which Paragon hopes to open by 2016, is one of seven the firm is developing at a time when the outlet industry is booming. But in White Marsh, the proposal is prompting pushback from neighboring malls.
White Marsh Mall's owner, along with the owner of the "Main Street"-style The Avenue at White Marsh and four other area shopping centers, is trying to rally community support to delay a hearing Thursday that could decide the project's fate.
A previously approved development plan for the 88-acres known as Nottingham Ridge, bordered by I-95, Route 43 and Route 7, allows more than 1,250 housing units and a blend of stores and offices. A Baltimore County administrative law judge will consider Paragon's request to change the development to expand the retail and reduce the residential portion to 250 apartments.
"The proposed development will have a significant impact on our retailers," wrote Lisa Bisenius, White Marsh Mall's general manager, in an email.
Mall owner General Growth Properties and Federal Realty Investment Trust, which owns The Avenue and other nearby centers, hired Fontaine & Co., a Baltimore-based advocacy and public affairs firm, to help make their case. They've surveyed area residents and enouraged them to attend community meetings, testify at Thursday's hearing and contact Baltimore County Council members with prepared talking points.
After residents take the survey online, they receive an email directing them to an online form to use to contact the county, saying local residents and businesses are concerned about traffic congestion and environmental harm and a more than $88 million loss in sales for local retailers.
"Federal Realty's interest is in gathering market analysis information and keeping our retailers apprised," wrote Lisa Geiger, marketing manager for the northeast region for Federal Realty, in an email. "We believe our responsibility includes assisting our merchants with identifying the risks and opportunities presented by this potential development."
The existing shopping centers' campaign is not unusual, said Mark Millman, CEO of Millman Search Group, an Owings Mills-based retail consulting and recruitment firm.
"It's a sign it's going to impact their business significantly," he said.
Often, one developer will spend millions to keep another out. The current tiff echoes a fight two years ago over the former Solo Cup site in Owings Mills, where one developer is building a Wegmans supermarket and two other area developers fought the project by trying to rally community support.
"It's very common for a developer or retailer to look at the competition and try to eliminate or modify or reduce the competition within the market," he said. Plus, he added, "It … lets the tenants know they're attempting to do something."
The White Marsh retailers' survey, conducted in 20 ZIP codes, found that 64 percent of the 349 respondents opposed the outlet center, with more than half expressing concerns about traffic, a lack of community input and impact on local retailers.
Antill countered that Paragon's research, conducted by phone and in door-to-door interviews, showed support for additional shopping choices.
Bisenius, who said the mall contributes more than $10 million annually in property and sales tax revenue, said the community should be allowed to comment on the proposal and changes should "not be rushed through the process administratively."
Community members have not had enough time to study the project's potential impact on traffic, public safety and the environment, said Heather Patti, president of the White Marsh-Cowenton Community Association.
"Our main concern is, why aren't we allowed to have any kind of input?" said Patti, who disavows any influence from the other center owners. "This is going to change the face of our community forever. Suddenly, we've become the mecca of retail sales. Can we make it work for the community?"
Patti faults the County Council for allowing the proposal to go to an administrative law judge without taking a vote. County Councilman David Marks, who represents White Marsh, said current law requires an administrative judge to review any major change to planned unit development zoning.
"I hear mixed things from people," Marks said. "As much as people are concerned about the impact on White Marsh Mall and the road network, there is also a significant frustration that the approved development plans added so many apartments and condominiums. There are thousands of residential units that are already approved that are going to impact our local schools. A lot of people wanted those apartments eliminated, and the new plan slashes the number by 1,000."
Paragon's Antill said people might not realize the existing development plan allows for the higher-density housing. He said the developer has spent time speaking to both community and business groups.
"Obviously somebody is trying to drum up negative support late in the game here," Antill said. "It's obvious who's behind it."
If the changes are approved, Paragon would buy the property from current owner Corporate Office Properties Trust, which would retain the rights to two office buildings on the site and develop another 250,000 square feet of offices.
The developer hopes to secure all county approvals by year's end and start the 15-month construction of the outlet center next spring. Antill said the firm is making progress in pre-leasing the center, slated to include many tenants in other Paragon malls. Apartments and a hotel would come later.
Paragon has a reputation for building successful outlet centers and filling them with store tenants such as Barneys, Bloomingdale's, DKNY and Prada, who follow from project to project, Millman said.
"They have the best of the best retail tenants," he said. "They will be able very easily to assemble a list of high-quality, well-connected brand names in their center," he said.
The outlet center would complement the area's other retail offerings, Antill said, drawing brand-savvy bargain shoppers from within a 65-mile radius.
"We are going to pull people from areas not coming to shop the White Marsh area now," he said. "It should be a rising tide for all."
He noted that one of Paragon's newest malls will open this August in Eagan, Minn., just a few miles away from the huge Mall of America.
"The trend has been for our industry to get closer and closer to the population centers, and closer and closer to the malls," he said. "People are attracted to the brands. It's an entertainment experience as well as a shopping experience."
Still, Millman said, the proposed center will likely divert traffic and sales from shopping centers in White Marsh and Towson.
But it also will attract Baltimore-area customers who now drive farther for outlet shopping, and it will easily attract drivers off I-95, he said, "travelers who would not otherwise be stopping."