The Baltimore City Planning Commission voted unanimously Thursday to approve the planned, Walmart-anchored 25th Street Station shopping center, rejecting pleas by critics to send the project back to the City Council for reconsideration. One commissioner recused himself because of a potential conflict of interest.
The nine commissioners who voted decided changes made to the planned unit development since the City Council approved the PUD in 2010 constituted only minor amendments. Critics of the project and its design, including City Councilman Carl Stokes, urged the commission in a four-hour public hearing to consider the changes as "major amendments," which would require the City Council to revisit the project.
Commissioners said they were convinced by representatives of the Planning Department and the city's Office of Law that it was up to the commission to determine whether the changes were major or minor, and that changes should be considered minor amendments under city law.
They were also clearly convinced that the project as amended was much improved, and they ignored concerns about Walmart as an employer and a competitor for small businesses in the area.
"It's not an issue of Walmart," said Planning Commission Chairman Wilbur "Bill" Cunningham. "I've never been in a Walmart."
"This is a way better project for the community," said Commissioner Cheo Hurley.
With the vote, Walmart and the shopping center developer, WV Urban Developments Inc., now appear to have cleared their last major governmental hurdle to building the center on 11 acres at 25th and Howard streets.
Stokes and City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke told the Planning Commission that the project has undergone so many design changes — from the loss of Lowe's as a co-anchor to the proposed razing of a stone church to make way for a Walmart loading dock — that the council should revisit it.
"We are responsible," Clarke said.
Stokes has said in recent weeks that his constituents in Remington, Charles Village and Old Goucher are split 50-50 on the project, despite approval of the Walmart redesign by the city's Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel on Oct. 31.
Those favoring council reconsideration are the Remington Neighborhood Alliance and the Old Goucher Community Association.
Those in favor of the Planning Commission approving the center as it stands now are the Charles Village Civic Association and the Greater Remington Improvement Association.
The fifth group, the Historic Fawcett Community Association, is inactive, founder Megan Hamilton said.
City planners, including Tom Stosur, director of planning, said the proposed changes now wouldn't alter the PUD as approved in 2010.
Stokes said he does not want to kill the project, because he believes the majority of his constituents support it in concept
In the final days and hours before the Planning Commission hearing, both sides launched efforts to sway the commission and council members. Critics wrote numerous letters to the Planning Commission. Walmart provided letters it has received, many of them handwritten, in support of the project.
In addition, supporters of the Walmart store took to the streets Thursday morning, holding signs at the corner of 25th and Howard streets that said, "We want Walmart" and "Honk 4 New Jobs," a reference to their belief that Walmart and the shopping center will create hundreds of new construction and retail jobs.
Michael Pompanio, 23, a lifelong Remington resident and construction worker, said he's not finding enough work locally because too much development is centered in Charles Village.
"What about us?" he asked.
"The majority of the people you talk to want it," said Remington resident Bonnie Steffey, 75, a retired worker for a printing company. "It's just a few people who don't, but they're the loudest."
Steffey said she is tired of spending a half day riding several buses to Walmart store in Towson and Cockeysville and back home.
Nearly 100 people came to Planning Commission hearing and many of them urged commissioner to move the project forward.
"We need people to stop putting it off for every little reason," said Dolores Johnson, 49. "It has to end."
"You're never going to please everybody," said William Hopkins, another Remington resident.
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"This project has been delayed way too long," said Jon Laria, an attorney for WV Urban Developments.
"This project has been discussed extensively," said Judith Kunst, president of the Greater Remington Improvement Association.
But attorney J. Carroll Holzer, representing the Remington Neighborhood Alliance, said that as he read city law, the commission lacks jurisdiction to decide the case because it is the purview of the City Council.
Joan Floyd, president of the Remington Neighborhood Alliance, said the group has no plans to challenge the commission's ruling in court.
Jane Shipley was among critics who argued that the design of the Walmart didn't fit the character of the neighborhood.
"We still have a suburban model in an urban landscape," she said.
Clarke said after the hearing, "We all support the development. We all support 'hurry up and get it done.' I'm disappointed we're not going to have an opportunity to make sure it's the best development we can get. We hope for the best."