A long-awaited redevelopment of the Northwood Plaza shopping center in Northeast Baltimore is back on track after a state senator dropped her opposition to housing for Morgan State University students on the site.
The developer agreed to several changes to the project, including lowering the height of the housing, to satisfy state Sen. Joan Carter Conway, who filed a bill in February to block student housing at the site unless the Hillen Road Improvement Association approved of it.
The association, one of three for neighborhoods bordering the shopping center, objected to the plans amid concerns about traffic, parking and density. The two others — the Original Northwood Association and the New Northwood Community Association — supported the student housing.
Developer Mark Renbaum, a principal at MLR Partners, had said that without the housing and the income it generated, the shopping center's overhaul would be scaled back.
Despite the developer's concessions, the Hillen Road association remains opposed to the student housing, but Conway, the chair of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee and a longtime champion of nearby Morgan State, approved of the changes.
"Is everybody happy? No," she said. "But at least it mitigates all of the negative impacts on my community."
The $50 million redevelopment of the dilapidated shopping center is expected to serve as a bridge between Morgan State, which is constructing new academic buildings next to the site, and the community, which has complained for years about the plaza.
In 2008, former City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. was shot and killed at Northwood Plaza during a robbery.
Current tenants include a Rainbow clothing store, a nail salon, a MetroPCS retailer and a Save-A-Lot grocery store. Several storefronts are empty. MLR Partners' redevelopment plans call for 100,000 square feet of updated retail space, including a grocery store and a bookstore, plus housing with 350 beds for upper-class and graduate students at Morgan State.
Stacy Ridgeway, president of the Hillen Road Improvement Association, said that she thought it was unfair that the community was offered quality development only if it came with student housing. Her association voted again last month to reject the housing.
"By no means should we have to concede on the quality and receive something that the community is opposed to for this development to move forward, that's just unfair," Ridgeway said. "We're not anti-student, we're not anti-Morgan. We want quality shopping that's good for all. It's a predominantly African-American community and we deserve quality shopping."
The bill Conway filed passed in the Senate last month and in the House on Saturday but was amended to no longer require the Hillen Road Improvement Association's approval. Language in the bill now limits the height of the buildings and mandates 24-7 police patrols.
Though previous plans had called for four stories, the developer agreed to scale that back to two stories above retail along Argonne Drive, and three stories above retail along Sheffield Road — changes now mandated under the bill passed by the General Assembly. The developer also must work out a memorandum of understanding with the Hillen Road Improvement Association and the New Northwood Community Association, according to Conway.
Renbaum said he was glad to be able "to tell a consistent story that there will be student housing at the project" to attract retail tenants. The project needs zoning approval from the city of Baltimore, he said.
"If the issue with the student housing is any type of guideline, it shows that it's going to take a combined effort and collaboration with the community" to get it done, Renbaum said. "This project is a great story. It should not be underestimated how transformative this project will be."
Morgan State President David Wilson said he was pleased with the changes the developer made.
"Morgan, through these opportunities, is becoming an anchor institution, and we want individuals throughout our city to come to Northeast Baltimore," Wilson said. "This is really what it means to be an urban research university, and all this is coming together quite nicely and I could not be more thrilled."
Richard Skolasky, president of the Original Northwood Association, which favored the student housing, said he liked the changes the developer agreed to.
"I'm beyond pleased," he said. "I think that the redesign will provide a much more balanced shopping center. I think the impact of students on the shopping center will be minimized.
"It was a large, hard fight, but I'm glad that it had a happy ending and that the community is going to get the shopping center that it has deserved for a very long time," Skolasky said.