Solo Cup goes retail

Many in Baltimore County and elsewhere are no doubt bewildered by all the fuss that was raised in recent months over the redevelopment of the former Solo Cup plant in Owings Mills into an upscale development featuring a Wegmans supermarket. If you're going to build a shopping center (and built-up Reisterstown Road is no stranger to them) isn't this what you'd want?

But alas, the proposal proved as contentious and fraught with political intrigue as any county land use decision in recent memory. Tuesday's approval of the $140 million Foundry Row development seemed almost anticlimactic: A 6-1 vote with opposition coming solely from Councilman Kenneth Oliver, the Randallstown Democrat who had battled the project from the start.

Love it or hate it, two things have seemingly defined the fight over developer Greenberg Gibbons' plan for the Solo Cup site. First, that Owings Mills is represented by two councilmanic districts, Mr. Oliver's and that of Council Chairwoman Vicki Almond (whose district includes the Solo property but not two potential competitors) so the councilmanic courtesies customarily followed in county rezoning decisions seemingly did not apply. Second, that developers of those two nearby projects, the redevelopment of the Owings Mills Mall and the mixed-use development adjacent to the nearby Metro subway station, were steadfastly opposed to what they perceived as competition.

The result was that the normal areas of concern that might be raised over any large-scale development, from traffic congestion to the potential impact on the local retail market, were magnified, and the behind-the-scenes maneuverings became a bit more extreme as well. Last month, it took a veto from County Executive Kevin Kamenetz to quash a massive giveaway to the Metro Centre and Greenberg Gibbons developers, legislation that should never have been contemplated in the first place.

While it's fair to have misgivings about Foundry Row, it's difficult to believe that most of the residents of Owings Mills would not like to have a local Wegmans, a much-admired grocer and employer, not to mention see an empty manufacturing site put to more productive use. Even concerns over traffic on the admittedly congested Reisterstown Road seemed overblown given the circumstances. Under existing zoning, the site might have been developed into office space that would have attracted far more vehicles per day, particularly in rush hours.

Might Foundry Row interfere with the much-delayed Metro Centre or the redevelopment of Owings Mills Mall, which is slated to eventually become an open-air shopping center along the same lines as Foundry Row? On that subject, opinions have been mixed. Retail development is not necessarily a zero-sum game; the success of one project can spur another, not cannibalize it. And since the mall redevelopment in particular appears years away from fruition, that possibility of how one project would or would not dovetail with another is too slight a basis for serious opposition (aside from that of self-interested developers).

Ultimately, the council appears to have made the correct choice but took a peculiar route to get there. Charges of favoritism and one council member or another being in the pocket of one developer or another proved par for the course. How much genuine community opposition to the project exists and how much was ginned up by the other developers is still unclear. Greenberg Gibbons won over many in the local business community, including the owners of the St. Thomas Shopping Center, Solo Cup's next-door neighbor, and has the endorsement letters to prove it.

Foundry Row's opponents say the fight isn't over yet, and they may seek to bring the Solo decision (or maybe the entire district zoning map) to voter referendum in 2014. That would be unprecedented — the zoning change was one of hundreds made under the council's countywide periodic review — but perhaps not surprising given the contentious nature of the Solo Cup debacle.

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