Glen Burnie Superblock dilemma Residents, developers mull use of vacant lot

July 05, 1992|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe | Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Staff Writer

In the middle of Glen Burnie's urban renewal district sits a little piece of undeveloped property that's become the most fretted over acreage in North County.

The Superblock -- 5.6 acres serving as an oversized parking lot -- has sat vacant for years, the last unfinished piece of the downtown revitalization.

Frustrated with the lack of movement on the project, a group of local businessmen formed a committee earlier this year to try to get the block developed.

Now, after numerous meetings and consultations, the group has lined up three developers who are interested in the project, said Danny Boyd, a member of the Town Center Committee.

The committee hopes to have at least one serious proposal by the end of the year, Mr. Boyd said.

Sounds promising, but there's a hitch: The developers want no part of the county's ambitious plan for the parcel. The plan, dating back to 1986, calls for 150,000 to 200,000 square feet of office space and a five-level parking garage.

A study by the county's economic development office last summer showed an 18 percent vacancy rate for all office buildings of 10,000 square feet or larger. A more recent survey conducted by CB Commercial Real Estate Group Inc. found a 23 percent office vacancy rate in North County near Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Two of the three developers considering the project said they would be interested only if they could build residential units. The third declined comment.

Betsie Russell, land acquisition director for the Halle Cos, said she doubted any developer would want to build offices there due to the glut of existing space. Halle, based in Silver Spring, has numerous residential projects under way, including a section of the 4,500-unit Seven Oaks project in Odenton.

Russell said she envisions the Superblock as an ideal place to build someaffordable housing in the county.

"It's obvious we don't need any more office space, but we do have to get the first-time home-buyer in somewhere," she said. "I think a town house development would go over very well on that site."

Frank J. Scott Jr. said his family's business, FJS Management Corp. in Glen Burnie -- developers of Cromwell Fountain Condominiums -- would also consider a residential project. "There's been some meetings and there is some interest," he said. "But obviously there are hundreds of factors to consider when picking a project."

Mr. Boyd said the county needs to be more flexible than it has been in the past. "The time has come to do it. That parcel leaves a big gap in downtown Glen Burnie, and we need to get it developed," he said.

Victor Sulin, administrator of the county's Office of Urban Renewal, said the county is willing to be flexible with developers. But, he added, a residential development without retail or office space mixed in would be "under-utilization" of the Superblock site.

"We have a 1986 plan that specifies what the county is looking for," he said. "We realize that times have changed and should proposals come forward, we'll consider them. But in the past, strictly residential [development] for that site has been ruled out."

The county-owned site, strategically placed between Ritchie and Crain highways and next to Arundel Center North, is one of the most visible sites in downtown Glen Burnie and is zoned for commercial office use.

Mr. Sulin said he believes the best use for the Superblock would be a large office complex, occupied by one corporate tenant. The project could also include some retail establishments on the street level, he said. A corporate tenant, Mr. Sulin said, is preferable to housing because it would draw more people into downtown Glen Burnie.

Four years ago, the county almost attracted its dream tenant when the Westinghouse Electric Corp. expressed interest in building an office complex on the site. But after a year of negotiations, the deal fell through and Westinghouse built elsewhere, said Mr. Sulin.

Since then, the county has received numerous inquiries and a couple of proposals for the site. But none of the proposals got past initial "concept" drawings.

A proposal by the Parkway Construction & Management Corp. in 1990 for stores, restaurants and town house-style homes received a favorable review by the Glen Burnie Urban Renewal Advisory Committee, a citizens group that reviews all proposals for the urban renewal zone. But the project was rejected by former County Executive James Lighthizer, and no serious proposals have surfaced since, Mr. Sulin said.

Ken Pippin, a four-year member of the advisory committee, said most committee members favor "a Georgetown style" area of shops or a project resembling the renovated Main Street section of Howard County's Ellicott City.

"Nothing indicates it should be office space," he said. "It should be an area of restaurants and shops, possibly with office space on top." Mr. Pippin and other members of the committee said stores could also be topped with condominiums or town houses, depending on the developers' preferences.

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