A Baltimore-based developer is revising plans for the controversial redevelopment of a Dundalk government building years after a state board blocked Baltimore County’s efforts to sell the property.
Letters obtained by The Baltimore Sun show Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. encouraging the Vanguard Retail Property Development and the Dundalk community to reset discussions on a conceptual plan for the redevelopment of North Point Government Center Park.
One budding plan is being branded as “Johns Hopkins at Bethlehem Station,” according to Olszewski’s Sept. 3 letter to Vanguard’s Len Weinberg.
How to reuse the property has been a source of conflict for years. Former County Executive Kevin Kamenetz wanted to sell the property to developers, but some Dundalk residents worried they would lose access to recreation facilities and ball fields behind the building, and challenged the project.
The Dundalk building is currently being used for soccer and wrestling programs, as well as The Sky is the Limit Community Theatre. But the building is “severely dilapidated and in a perpetual state of disrepair,” Olszewski said in his letter.
“As it stands, it would be irresponsible to sink significant public dollars into this property,” Olszewski wrote in the letter to a Dundalk civic group. “It would take tens of millions of dollars to renovate or replace the building, money that is neither currently budgeted nor available.”
Any attempt to find funds would come at the expense of building new schools, Olszewski wrote. Olszewski also said the county would open itself to a “significant risk of litigation” by backing out of the contract. Allowing the site to continue to deteriorate could jeopardize the programs that currently use the site, so he suggested the community work with Vanguard to provide new facilities for those programs.
Details about the new plan remain sparse. Weinberg wouldn’t share what Vanguard is proposing and said the Hopkins name is only being “floated” around as they’re working on a new plan. He said Vanguard loves the area and the property and is reaching out to the community.
“We are doing everything we can to put something great together for the community of Dundalk,” Weinberg said.
Hopkins spokeswoman Kim Hoppe said in an emailed statement that there were “preliminary discussions” about locating some of their outpatient services at the Dundalk building several years ago. However, there are currently no plans for this, she said.
Olszewski told Weinberg in a separate letter that the community wants to maintain green space, have a dedicated theater space, adequate indoor space for athletics, “community-focused amenities,” and no loss of programming or function to the recreation programs during construction of the site.
Vanguard’s new plan would build a new, separate theater building, Olszewski wrote to community groups. The plan also includes more green space, and Olszewski’s letter to Weinberg asked Vanguard to incorporate a “walkable ‘boulevard’ feel” in the plan’s design.
Olszewski said they’ve tasked the developer to work with the community to address residents’ concerns and to come back with a product that would be acceptable to them.
The Dundalk building was originally home to North Point Junior High School before it closed in 1981 and later became a government hub. It was once the site of county offices for the police, recreation and parks, and health departments. Other portions of the site feature athletic fields, including baseball diamonds and multi-use fields.
The county decided it no longer wanted to use the building as a government hub in 2012. Under former executive Kevin Kamenetz, the county entered into a contract with Vanguard for the sale of 15 acres of the nearly 28 acre property in 2013.
Vanguard initially wanted to redevelop the site into a complex called Merritt Pavilion to include offices, retail shops, restaurants, a gas station and a pharmacy. Vanguard agreed to build a new recreation center and upgrade athletic fields at the remaining portions of the site that would’ve stayed under the county’s ownership.
The county amended the contract in 2014 to increase the sales price from $2.1 million to $7.6 million. The revised contract made the county responsible for building a recreation center and upgrading the athletic fields. The sale would have been funded through a mix of up-front cash, a payment plan and money given up by forgoing future tax breaks.
The county’s plan came under fire in a 2015 lawsuit filed by Dundalk residents, who said state law requires the county to obtain state approval for the sale because the land was once school property.
The Maryland Board of Public Works halted the project later that year by choosing not to vote on the sale. The three-member panel, composed of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot and Democratic Treasurer Nancy Kopp, told county officials to develop a better plan that addresses community concerns.
Vanguard filed a lawsuit in 2016 in an effort to force the county to proceed with the contract, but the state Court of Special Appeals eventually ruled that the deal needs state approval to be executed.
Karen Cruz, one of the residents who filed the 2015 lawsuit, questioned why the county wants to take away park land from children to bring in new stores when there are dozens of vacant storefronts in the community. Some residents want a “true government center” like the one in the past before the county neglected the building, she said, so a community meeting should be held to decide what happens to the site.
“The county executive has talked about transparency, but what he’s doing is he’s meeting behind the scenes and meeting with the developers and then telling the community what they’re going to do,” Cruz said.
County spokesman Sean Naron said Olszewski expects Vanguard to have a “robust and open conversation” with the community.
County Council Todd Crandell, a Dundalk Republican, said he’s seen the letters but hasn’t seen the plan’s details.
“Unless this turns out to be a better deal and a real deal for the community, it’s not something I can get behind,” Crandell said.
Susan O’Brien, state Comptroller Peter Franchot’s spokeswoman, said Franchot “firmly believes” any proposal to develop that site must proceed only with “meaningful consultation and input” from the community. Any outcome resulting in any loss of programs and services “would be unacceptable,” O’Brien said in an emailed statement.
Mike Ricci, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s spokesman, said the state Board of Public Works has been briefed on the proposal.
"We are aware of the proposal, but for it to have any chance of moving forward, there has to be real input from local residents and the community,” Ricci said in an emailed statement.
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Vanguard’s new plan will require state approval and amendments to the county’s current contract, Olszewski’s letter to Weinberg stated. Olszewski also offered to have the county help with community outreach and dialogue.