Oakland Mills office building project is scuttled

The Baltimore Sun

A proposed office building once hailed as a key sign of resurgence at the Oakland Mills Village Center has been scuttled, according to county officials.

The site, a 1.7-acre lot on Stevens Forest Road, was last used for a gas station. That business closed in 1999 and the buildings were demolished two years later.

County Executive Ken Ulman said the project was scrapped after ExxonMobil, which owns the lot, refused to hold the land any longer for Metroventures, the Baltimore-based developer that proposed the 59,000-square-foot, four-story building.

"It was a very big disappointment," said Oakland Mills Village board chairwoman Karen Gray. "We were counting on that building to give a jump-start to revitalization in the village center."

The news reopened a debate over the wisdom of county involvement in the project.

The plan was first revealed more than two years ago, and Ulman announced in October 2007 that the county would buy one floor of the building for $4 million to enable the developer to get construction financing. But assertions from County Council members that legislative approval was needed held up that move.

During annual budget reviews last spring, the issue became contentious, with Ulman and Calvin Ball, who represents Oakland Mills, on one side, and council members Greg Fox and Courtney Watson, who worried that the project was too speculative, on the other.

The result was a compromise crafted by council member Mary Kay Sigaty - a provision that the county could invest only if the developer leased 45 percent of the structure before any county purchase. That standard was never reached.

Last week, both sides claimed they were right.

"The last thing we want for Oakland Mills is a 75 percent empty county office building," said Sigaty, a Democrat from West Columbia.

Fox and Watson agreed.

"We would have made a $4 [million] to $5 million decision that would have been potentially worthless," said Fox, a Fulton resident and the council's only Republican.

Said Watson, a Democrat from Ellicott City, "It was a risky investment for the county from the get-go; too risky from my viewpoint."

But Ulman and Ball argue that a quick county commitment to the project would have helped attract more tenants, making the project go.

"I firmly believed then and still believe this was an opportunity to revitalize Oakland Mills and show that we will invest when the opportunity presents itself," Ulman said. "We didn't act quickly enough, frankly."

Ball concurred, though both he and Ulman said they understood the objections.

"Had the county been assertive and seized the day, I think others would have quickly followed suit and we would have a building there," Ball said.

Metroventures president Olusola O. Seriki wrote to Ulman late last month suggesting a possible scaled-down, one-story building might still be possible, but village leaders rejected that, Ball said.

"We really want something that would be a signature building," Gray said. "A smaller building wouldn't really provide enough people or activity to really be the shot in the arm we felt we needed."

Kevin M. Allexon, a spokesman for ExxonMobil, said the giant firm's sales agreement called for the purchase to be complete by March 12, 2008.

"ExxonMobil is prepared to have further discussions with the original buyer and other interested parties," Allexon said. "We remain committed to finding a buyer who will develop the property in a way that adds value to the community."

Ulman said he, too, is looking for the next opportunity.

"Seeing that vacant lot in Oakland Mills is not acceptable," the county executive said.

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