Preliminary plans for the $400 million redevelopment of Parole Plaza are rolling toward county approval, but some activists say the proposed mix of stores, offices and condominiums just outside Annapolis will be too large and they complain that Anne Arundel planning officials are ignoring their concerns.
Demolition crews have cleared the 33-acre site of the ramshackle buildings that had once made Parole Plaza a cutting-edge shopping center. The project developer, Greenberg Commercial Corp. of Owings Mills, has submitted plans to the county that include big-box stores and 16-story residential towers built around a main boulevard. Greenberg has also answered a first round of questions from county planners.
Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens said she's thrilled to see the project moving forward after watching previous plans fizzle. A rendering of the proposal adorns a wall in her conference room.
"I really am optimistic ... that they can make this happen, and I don't want to see it blocked or stopped for any reason," she said.
County officials and the developer say they're down to negotiating fine points.
"It's mostly just clarification, adding ... detail, that kind of thing," said Kim Potember, senior vice president of Greenberg Commercial. "We're hoping to have approval of our preliminary plan by the end of the year."
But some community leaders, led by Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, say the county is not raising enough questions about Greenberg's proposals.
Samorajczyk, a Democrat who represents Parole, praised the sketches Greenberg unveiled at a groundbreaking ceremony in July. "But the plan that exists today is not the plan that was shown in those drawings," she said.
She said Greenberg's plan does little to embrace the surrounding community, will generate enough traffic to overwhelm area roads, and does not meet design guidelines drafted by a county-appointed committee that studied the area.
Dinsmore "Dinny" White, who was part of that committee, said he's comfortable with the broad concept of the project but worries the area cannot accommodate traffic and other stresses.
"There's nothing there now, and there are traffic woes at probably six major traffic lights around the site," he said. "It would be an absolute joke if they let that thing go in there right now."
White, Samorajczyk and others are frustrated that the county's review process includes little opportunity for outside input.
"The administration has sole say over how this is implemented," Samorajczyk said. "All I can do is try to bring focus to it."
White said Owens' enthusiasm is indicative of a lax approach to growth management.
"She's willing to mortgage the future of the county for this and other projects," he said.
Greenberg and planning officials say the public has had plenty of opportunity to comment.
"The funny thing is, we've had little turnout at the meetings," Potember said.
Critics say, however, that those meetings were not sufficiently publicized.
County Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter, who will have final say on approving the project, said anyone can submit a comment but that public hearings are never part of county reviews for development proposals.
That's as it should be, Owens said, adding, "Now is the time to get down to business and make it happen."
Residents watched Parole Plaza deteriorate from a trend-setting shopping mecca in the 1960s to an abandoned, dirty husk in the 1990s. Hopes for its revitalization rose and fell as several proposed redevelopment scenarios fell apart at the last minute. Now all that remains are piles of rubble and the mall's original 1960s sign.
Given that history, Owens and many fellow leaders have greeted Greenberg's proposals with enthusiasm.
The developers' early plans show a complex - rechristened Annapolis Town Centre at Parole - that would tower over its surroundings. It would feature as many as 10 buildings of nine stories or higher in an area where lower-rise structures are the norm. The site is bounded by Solomons Island Road, Riva Road, Forest Drive and Somerville Road.
The mix of stores and condominiums would face a central promenade, a stretch Samorajczyk derides as a "boulevard to nowhere."
The councilwoman says that by facing inward, the center will figuratively turn its back on the surrounding area, including several older neighborhoods of modest homes.
Those neighborhoods will look out at parking decks and the sides of large stores, Samorajczyk complained in comments to the developers.
But the developers say their central avenue will become a destination for people from the area who are looking to eat, shop and mingle. They say shops also might appear along the perimeter of the development and that hiking and bicycle trails around the complex will provide an attraction. The sides of buildings will be dressed up with windows and plantings, they said.
"You'll be able to see the whole thing when you're driving along Route 2 and along Riva Road," Potember said. "It will be beautiful."
Samorajczyk also complained that Greenberg is asking for unusual latitude to bend land-use rules. Greenberg officials say that's true to a point. They want to use the county's incentive program, which allows projects to exceed some county standards if the proposals serve a "greater public good" as determined by the planning director.
"A project of this scale and importance for the surrounding community and region requires the flexibility and creativity to achieve the goals of the plan," wrote Fred Delavan, an Annapolis attorney representing Greenberg, in a response to Samorajczyk's comments. "The plan asks for an appreciation of this flexibility, not license to develop without standards."
Delavan argued that the project serves a greater good.
"The old Parole Plaza had unfortunately come to define the heart of the Parole Town Center as a decaying visual blight," Delavan wrote. "It is clearly a benefit to the community to remove such an eyesore."
Delavan said the project will exceed county standards for green space and will meet requirements for storm water and sewer management.
As for traffic, the developers say a planned artery from U.S. 50 to Solomons Island Road will alleviate much of the current congestion.
White said the additional road would hardly be a cure-all. "It will just give cars another place to back up on Route 50," he said.
Greenberg is working on a required study of area traffic conditions. Potember said her company hopes to submit that plan next spring with an eye on beginning construction in mid- to late 2006. Work is expected to take two to three years.