Owings Mills development fight takes on feel of campaign

With residents being bombarded by fliers, robocalls, even a telephone opinion survey, the fight over the future of the former Solo Cup site in Baltimore County is taking on the trappings of a political campaign.

As the debate continues about whether the county should allow a Wegmans supermarket and other development at the former manufacturing plant on Reisterstown Road, two other developers in the area are fighting the project — and each side is trying to rally community support.

A group called the Say No to Solo Coalition has mailed literature to thousands of homes and launched a robocall urging people to call County Council Chairwoman Vicki Almond and declare their opposition, but organizers won't say how they're paying for their advocacy. In response, the developer of the Wegmans has started his own mailing drive.

"I almost feel as if I'm in the campaign again," said Almond, a Democrat who represents the area surrounding Solo Cup. She's been inundated with phone calls and emails from constituents who have received fliers and phone calls opposing Foundry Row, a $140 million development of stores, restaurants and offices at the former plant.

Revitalization plans in Owings Mills include three big projects — the revamping of the Owings Mills Mall, a long-awaited, mixed-use Metro Centre, and the Foundry Row development. While the mall and Metro Centre are already eligible for retail use, the Solo Cup site must still gain county approval. The planning board has recommended retail zoning at Solo Cup, but a County Council vote is not scheduled until September.

Developers of the mall and Metro Centre projects argue that the market can't handle new retail development along Reisterstown Road, and say a Wegmans at Solo Cup would clog the already congested road. Foundry Row developer Greenberg Gibbons says all of the projects can succeed.

The Say No to Solo Coalition describes itself on its website as a "coalition of Baltimore County residents who think 400,000 [square feet] of new retail at the Solo Cup site on Reisterstown Road is bad for traffic, bad for business and bad for our communities."

A recent mailing from the coalition claimed the project would increase traffic, hurt the economy, and could stall the mall by creating uncertainty in the market. It also says the community "can still have a Wegmans," suggesting the mall as a viable location.

Wegmans has written to county officials saying that it would not locate at the mall.

Cheryl Aaron, of the Greater Greenspring Association, said she questions how a grass-roots group could afford robocalls and mailings. "The community associations that I know, they don't have this kind of money," she said.

Aaron supports the Foundry Row project.

In a letter to community leaders last week, Foundry Row developer Brian Gibbons suggested that mall developer Kimco is behind the campaign against his project. The coalition says it has not received funding from Kimco.

"The 'coalition' withholds its funding source but its campaign is consistent with the negative, misleading message Kimco has portrayed for this project and the Owings Mills area in general," Gibbons wrote.

Gibbons said his firm has started its own mail campaign to counter what he describes as misinformation. In literature recently mailed out to households, the developer touts Wegmans and urges residents to contact Almond in support of the project.

The firm also has a Support Foundry Row page on Facebook, and is running ads on the social networking site.

"We're very proud of this project," Gibbons said, adding that all his mailings would have a positive tone. "All of our communication has our company name on it."

Gibbons said he has not encountered "a negative, political-style campaign with a project" before. "It's unprecedented," he said.

Kimco vice president for acquisitions and development Geoffrey Glazer did not return calls seeking comment about the coalition's activities, but has previously warned that retail at the Solo Cup site would worsen traffic congestion and add vacant space in the area.

Through a spokesman, Metro Centre developer Howard Brown declined to comment.

Shirley Supik, a longtime community activist who lives in the district that is home to the mall, said she decided to form the coalition a few weeks ago after hearing from many of her neighbors who oppose Foundry Row."I have all kinds of people coming to me saying this is not right," Supik said. "I believe the people in the area need a voice, and that's how it came to be."

Asked if Kimco is giving any help to the coalition, Supik answered, "No. I wish they would, to be honest with you."

Supik said the group spent $5,000 on one mailing. She said the money is coming from a donor or donors whom she declined to name, and she declined to say what the robocalls have cost so far. She said the group is not conducting the telephone survey, which asks questions about rezoning the Solo Cup site, traffic on Reisterstown Road and possible alternative uses for that land.

The coalition has a post office box in Pikesville, and has filed incorporation papers with the state. The group is planning a fundraiser in June at the Greene Turtle in Owings Mills.

Supik said she hopes to continue the fliers and calls "right up until we feel we don't need them anymore. We have momentum, and I'd like to keep them going."

While the entire County Council will vote on the zoning change by mid-September, council protocol essentially gives Almond final say on the decision. She said she has not yet taken a position on the zoning request, but is getting lots of response supporting it.

"I've gotten an overwhelming number of people who are saying they're in favor of Wegmans at Solo," the Reisterstown Democrat said.

Councilman Kenneth Oliver, a Randallstown Democrat who represents the district that includes the mall and Metro Centre, said he opposes the rezoning of Solo Cup, believing it should be preserved for manufacturing use.

"The mall should be redeveloped first," Oliver said.

Aaron said community groups in Almond's district are supportive of the Wegmans project. Over the past few months, Kimco officials held a series of gatherings billed as community meetings at the mall, Aaron said.

"Every one of those meetings has deteriorated into an opportunity for them to stir up antagonism and opposition to Solo Cup," she said. "It's just really unfortunate because it could be three great projects."

Neil Schwartz, whose son, Jonathan, works for Almond, said he got the survey call this month. He said he was asked about 30 or 35 questions that he felt were geared to "create a bias against any development on Reisterstown Road."

He said caller identification on his phone showed the call came from Elemental Data Collection in Ottawa, Canada, but when Schwartz asked who was paying for the survey, the caller declined to say.



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