Westminster takes aim at retail development

Courting of megastores prompts concerns about traffic, existing businesses

July 18, 1999|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

Today, open space; tomorrow, shopping mecca.

That's what Westminster officials are hoping to see materialize on 61 acres of rolling green they recently annexed near Weis Market off Route 140.

Development proposals for the site, rezoned commercial by county officials, are expected to soon flood the city's planning office and could include three big-box retailers and chain restaurants, said Thomas B. Beyard, the city's director of planning and public works.

"Commercial follows residential," Beyard said of the city's growth, most of it in the past two decades. "It's a ripple effect."

But some observers say a retail mini-boom will add to traffic nightmares along busy Route 140. State Highway Administration engineers say 131,000 vehicles travel through Westminster daily -- a figure expected to increase to 201,000 by 2020.

And the addition of large-scale retailers further threatens the viability of Cranberry Mall, the county's largest complex, which is one-quarter vacant and up for sale. Smaller, independent stores would also be jeopardized by the arrival of the megastores, business owners say.

The growth is being hailed as a second wind for commercial development along the Route 140 corridor that started in the early 1990s with Wal-Mart.

Some, though, caution officials to build wisely -- because the city is running out of space.

"I think the town has to look to its future -- to see where is the best place for retail growth," said R. Douglas Mathias, director of the Greater Westminster Development Corp. "They have to ask what can they do on 61 acres to make sure everything needed for the future can be put there."

Lori Kleppin, of the Millman Search Group Inc., a national retail consulting firm based in Lutherville, said some residents who moved to rural Carroll to escape typical suburban woes that include traffic and overcrowded schools may be disappointed with the growth.

"Are we just adding benefits and not making a difference on the other things?" Kleppin asked.

Kleppin said commercial growth may help Cranberry Mall attract new vendors if large-scale retailers make Westminster a destination for shoppers.

"Time will tell," she said. "If the right companies come along and put money into the retail venues, the entire city would profit."

Sandy Scott, president of the Westminster Business Association, a trade group of 40 downtown merchants, said emphasis should be placed on existing shopping centers.

"I think we should spruce up the existing before we build new," Scott said. "For years we were being ignored -- we do have a number of shopping centers going downhill."

Scott and Mathias both expressed concerns about a projected increase in traffic on Route 140 as a result of the new commercial district.

Beyard said that problem will be eased by construction of a bypass loop to give shoppers an avenue to avoid traffic on Route 140. The loop would connect Center Street to Malcom Drive, a project to be paid for by the retail developers, Beyard said.

The new road is already under construction as part of the 130,000-square-foot Lowe's home improvement store being readied for a grand opening this fall.

"I think it's a continuation of something phenomenal that started occurring three to four years ago," Beyard said. "Many people shopped elsewhere they went to Owings Mills or to Frederick. Now many of those stores are here."

But questions remain about the future of Route 140.

A 12-member task force was recently formed by SHA officials to study an expected surge in traffic along the busy highway, recently expanded to three lanes in some places. The panel is expected to render a list of recommendations to state, county and local officials about how to handle the increased traffic within the next year.

Among possible ways to ease traffic congestion are the addition of turning lanes at all intersections and addition of an interchange that includes underpasses or overpasses with ramps, said Neil Pedersen, SHA's planning director and a task force member.

Pub Date: 7/18/99

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