Upgrades in Odenton get push

The Baltimore Sun

Prompted by a new study suggesting the staggering economic impact of the Odenton Town Center, Anne Arundel officials are accelerating plans to upgrade water and sewer lines and build roads to jump-start the building of the county's largest retail center.

At its full size of 18 million square feet, the sprawling, pedestrian-oriented mini-city will generate $1.2 billion in local taxes over a quarter-century, according to the report released last week by ZHA Inc., an Annapolis real estate consultant.

Like the draft study obtained in March by The Sun, the report cautioned that if key infrastructure was not in place soon, the cohesive identity of the town center would not take form and thousands of workers moving with their jobs to Fort Meade over the next four years would settle and shop elsewhere.

"The opportunity cannot be missed - there are no second chances," read the $80,000 report, commissioned last year by County Executive Janet S. Owens, the state and a group of developers.

County officials said they concur with the key findings and are moving swiftly to ensure that "significant amounts" of development on the 1,600-acre tract will be under way by the end of 2010, in time to capitalize on the military expansion.

Odenton has the potential to "provide the full range of amenities ... the cultural, social and educational amenities that make people want to live closely to where they work," said the county's top business official, Robert L. Hannon.

He said the county would gain from the completed urban center of 5,000 homes and more than 2.7 million square feet of retail space - twice as much as at Arundel Mills mall - in part because it would siphon off growth from other areas, including distinctly rural South County.

To that end, County Executive John R. Leopold said, he is exploring funding options with his advisers, including a special taxing district.

The taxing mechanism could allow the county to float bonds to improve infrastructure around the town center, as it did around Arundel Mills and the National Business Park. Anne Arundel would be compensated from tax revenue generated by new business there or by developers pooling impact fees.

"I will use all creative funding mechanisms to expedite this important economic development project," said Leopold, who did not elaborate on a timetable.

The county is also reviewing the county's growth blueprint, known as the General Development Plan, which the county executive hopes will be completed within 18 months.

"Odenton is at the top of the priority list," Leopold said.

Conceived in the 1960s, the town center is designed to connect Odenton's busy MARC station to a shopping core with easy access to hiking and biking trails, and its historic district. That rail link is seen as a critical mass transit hub to bring defense workers to Fort Meade.

Developers and business leaders said that only the county's leadership can turn the vision of a community of homes, offices and entertainment with easy walking into reality.

Jay Winer, president of A.J. Properties in Odenton and a leading proponent of the town center, said he is "exceedingly happy" with the county's response to the report.

"Those who have worked for the town center for so long knew it would have a significant economic impact," Winer said. "The question was, how significant."

The January draft report put the town center at a maximum of 36 million square feet, twice the total in the final report. Hannon said that density is unrealistic and acknowledged that the figures in the final report are "highly ambitious."

Hannon, chief executive of the county's economic development agency and Leopold's point man on town center development, said the findings reflect the need to take decisive action.

To that end, the county recently approved $7.5 million to advance the planning and building of Town Center Boulevard, the project's gateway thoroughfare.

Hannon said local officials are trying to get several developers to share in the remaining costs for the road.

Hannon is also overseeing an assessment by the Department of Public Works of sewer and water needs in Odenton, and he said that several land-use revisions to Odenton Town Center plan have been decided and are awaiting being incorporated into the county's development plan.

The goal is to finish Town Center Boulevard and the water and sewer upgrades within four years, Hannon said.

The executive summary of the final report doesn't include a price tag for the infrastructure improvements. The draft study said the county needed to invest at least $30 million for such additions as Town Center Boulevard, a pedestrian bridge over Route 175 and a streetscape along the state highway.

Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Democrat who represents Odenton, said he is encouraged by the administration's response but is most worried that the county's review of the General Development Plan will drag on for a year or more without addressing the town center.

Benoit said some projects are languishing in the planning review process because of inconsistencies in the 2004 town center plan. No town center projects have won county approval.

"It's the economic opportunity of our generation," he said. "If we sit on our hands, it will fly right on over to Howard County."


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