Five years ago, when yuppies were riding high and Donald Trump still was everybody's all-American, local officials envisioned transforming downtown Glen Burnie into a mini-Georgetown.
But after the first upscale restaurant closed and a deal with a Fortune 500 company fell through, plans for creating a "superblock" in the heart of Glen Burnie appeared abandoned. The 5.6-acre tract behind Arundel Center North became a parking lot instead of the cornerstone to downtown revitalization.
Victor A. Sulin hasn't given up the quest for breathing more commercial life into Glen Burnie, though. The director of Anne Arundel's urban renewal program is a man with a mission.
Sulin hopes today's softening real-estate market will provide a jump start to kick the long-stalled "superblock" into gear.
"Because of the economic downturn, we may actually be in the catbird seat," he said. "Three years ago, everybody was fat and happy. Now, developers are hungry and looking for things to do."
Sulin, who has directed the urban renewal effort in Glen Burnie for the past five years, intends to lobby the next county administration to chip in $2 million to $4 million to "prime the pump."
Since he's pragmatic about the chance of building boutiques, restaurants and offices in an era of belt-tightening, however, Sulin also is working out contingency plans with an advisory board.
The 10-member Glen Burnie Urban Renewal Advisory Committee is considering several short-term projects to use the "superblock" until a commercial center can be built. Among the proposals are converting the site into a public park, opening a cultural center, and developing a golf course, said Ken Pippin, owner of the Baltimore-Annapolis Railroad and a Ferndale resident who serves on the advisory committee.
"Everything we think about down there is something to get people involved," he said.
Pippin said he favors at least planting trees, grass and flowers to use the property for Glen Burnie's summer concert series and annual Halloween party.
Although Sulin also supported an interim project to expand the tax base, he said a 1986 plan calling for three low-rise buildings and a parking garage "still is the most desirable use of the land."
"What has changed is the economics," he said. "We now have a glut of office space and too much retail in the area, so the next county executive may not want to encourage more building."
The "superblock" project has suffered repeated setbacks since a series of fires in the '70s and urban renewal in the '80s changed the face of Glen Burnie.
Residents in Glen Burnie's old, established neighborhoods objected to the first proposal to cap off urban renewal with a 10-story, high-rise building. After the county bought the last piece of the 5.6-acre site in the early '80s, officials met with the residents to draft a more popular blueprint.
Developed over nearly two years, the 1986 plan recommended finishing the $20 million urban renewal effort with three buildings totaling 200,000 square feet. Three-quarters of the space was to be devoted to retail, with the rest earmarked for offices. The plan also called for developing a parking garage.
But officials rejected the only bid they received for the site in June 1988. The proposal from Parkway Construction Inc. of Hanover, dubbed "North Arundel Square," was turned down because it closely resembled the strip shopping centers that already dominate Ritchie Highway.
In the following months, the Crate Cafe of Annapolis closed its sister branch in the heart of the urban renewal district after struggling more than a year to introduce upscale dining in an area better known for golden arches and convenience-store specials.
Officials continued to paint a rosy picture of revitalization efforts in 1989, while negotiating with Westinghouse Corp. to develop and lease an office complex in the "superblock." The talks ended when the company instead opted to develop a new office complex on its own land near the Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
The advisory committee then decided to postpone further plans until the next county executive takes office in December.
"Until we get a new administration, basically everything's on a hold pattern," Sulin said.
But he and advisory board members insist the project has not been permanently pushed to the back burner. They have promised to outline the alternatives as soon as the new executive and County Council are sworn in and to "really pursue using that land for more than a parking lot," Pippin said.