A Good Developer on the Wrong Side

COMMENT

September 17, 1995|By BRAIN SULLAM

One afternoon in late July, as I was pulling out of a parking space, Stanley "Jack" Tevis strode up to the car with a roll of plans tucked under his arm.

He wanted to show me the drawings he had just received from his designer for his proposed convenience store, gas station and retail complex at the Farmers' Supply Store site on the corner of Liberty and Green Streets in downtown Westminster.

We had spoken about his proposed development earlier in the month, toured the site and reviewed the site plan. At the time, Mr. Tevis had said that he wanted to make some changes to the design and promised he would show them to me as soon as they arrived.

He kept his promise.

Jack Tevis is everything that most developers are not.

He is accommodating and thoughtful. He seeks out criticism, listens to it and then incorporates the ideas he likes.

Unlike many developers who present site plans and refuse to revise them, Mr. Tevis is not afraid to return to the drawing board and rework the location of buildings, the type of signs or amount of landscaping.

Mr. Tevis is also a hard-nosed businessman who is intent on including a gas station in his retail complex. Without the gasoline pumps, he said the project would not be profitable. Half the anticipated revenue would come from 24-hour-a-day gasoline sales, he said.

If Mr. Tevis had proposed to build his gas station and retail complex five years ago, the project would have sailed through the approval process.

The thinking then would have been that any development would be better than allowing this site to sit unused. Businesses were departing from Westminster's central commercial district, creating an abandoned look. The Farmers Supply Store parcel, with two prominent buildings sitting vacant -- the century-old stone building and the Raymond Loewy-designed farm equipment showroom -- only accentuated downtown's depressed appearance. Any new business would have been more than welcome.

But in 1995, perceptions have changed considerably. Vibrancy has not returned to downtown Westminster, but there is a heightened sense that the retail district's fortunes are promising.

Groups of businessmen, residents and city officials have focused attention on reviving downtown. The City Council created and financed the Greater Westminster Development Corp., a joint private-public enterprise designed to stimulate investment and development in Westminster's business district.

The city council is reviving the Town Center Corp. to attract grant money and develop conceptual plans for some of the downtown properties. Even some of the most pessimistic observers admit that potential exists for turning around the retail district's fortunes.

If Westminster's revitalization effort is to succeed, all the participants need a vision of which kinds of businesses and activities they would like downtown. They also have to discriminate between those businesses that will enhance the rejuvenation and those that will detract from it.

HyettPalma, a consulting firm, analyzed downtown's retailing atmosphere and determined there is a lot of potential as long as new businesses are pedestrian-friendly.

With that in mind, the City Council is now considering an amendment to the zoning code that would prohibit certain land uses in the downtown business district. Gas stations, dog kennels, funeral homes and car washes are among the uses that would no longer be allowed.

Obviously, the adoption of this zoning amendment would doom Mr. Tevis' project. To build public support against the zoning change, Mr. Tevis has gathered signatures of people interested in having a downtown convenience store. He also held a "public hearing" on the site early last week, discussed his proposal, displayed a model and listened to critiques of his project.

Even though the HyettPalma study identified the Farmers Supply site as a "strategic" property that should be reserved for a substantial commercial, office or residential development, Mr. Tevis argues there is no better location in Westminster for his gasoline station and convenience store. Because the neighboring businesses are auto repair and tire shops, parking lots and a hardware store, Mr. Tevis maintains, a service station would not be out of place.

He is right if we consider only the buildings that exist today. However, American cities are dynamic. Unlike Europe, where the lives of buildings are measured in centuries, American cities are forever being torn down and rebuilt.

It is quite possible that given the right conditions, the current auto repair shops, used car lots and parking lots might be converted into higher and better uses. However, constructing a gasoline station on the Farmers Supply property would, in effect, freeze these uses in place for another generation or two.

No developer would be likely to risk any capital by building an office or retail complex close to a new gas station.

While Mr. Tevis has made a Herculean effort to make the Taj Mahal of gasoline stations, the reality is that his plan still constitues an inappropriate use for a very key piece of land. Allowing the project to go forward would be a great step backward for Westminster's revitalization dreams.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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