The big box that ate Parole

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April 16, 2000|By NORRIS WEST

WHEN you look at the ghost town that Parole Plaza has become, you want something -- anything -- done to it.

The shopping center, once a glittering diamond, is simply in the rough now. Even before tenants were sent packing in December, the place was becoming shabby and the source of complaints. When you walk through the place now, you will see cracked and caved-in sidewalks. The canopies are worn and unattractive.

The plaza's condition doesn't really matter anymore. Everything is gone. Woodward & Lothrop left long ago, when the chain went under. Also gone are the K-mart, Hallmark Cards, Jackson Hewitt Tax Service, Annapolis Art and Rite Aid. Even the flea market has fled.

The vacant storefronts make Parole Plaza look desolate. The only survivors are the Sears and the BB&T financial institution.

The only real sign of life is the lawn. On this day, someone has just mowed the median strip. You wonder, why bother?

"This was my pride and joy. I've been here for 27 years," said George Brown, the shopping center's site manager. Okay, his heart is in it. He's been here since 1972, taking care of the place and running the flea market until it closed along with the other stores.

He still takes care of the center, although the site hardly seems worth managing now.

But Mr. Brown knows there's only so much a lawn mower can do to dress up this place. So he is looking forward to Parole Plaza's next life, as a big-box center when Wal-Mart comes to town.

Wal-Mart is coming. Some react like an invading army is on the horizon. You can't blame them. The big store drives fear and anger through the hearts of many, even those who want something -- almost anything -- done to the center.

To some, Wal-Mart is sprawl in its worst sense. The new store planned by Parole Plaza owner Carl Freedman would be 130,000 square feet. When county Planning Director Denis D. Canavan approved the concept plan he admitted that the monster store, "at first blush," does not fit the six-year-old Parole redevelopment plan.

Mr. Canavan raises the possibility of a two-story Wal-Mart. At first blush, a double-decker Wal-Mart is even more frightening. A big box in the sky? Maybe the developer can bury the first level underground.

The multi-story concept, however, deserves consideration. A taller, slimmer store would appear less threatening. It might not look like an uncontrollable blob is consuming the good town of Parole.

Parole Plaza will never return to the pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use town center it was -- if, in fact, it ever was. In 1994, the community's planners dreamed of reviving the dying center into a lively nexus of stores, restaurants and a theater. They envisioned lots of foot traffic.

With Parole designated as one of the county's three town centers, along with Glen Burnie and Odenton, it made sense to plan mixed-use developments there.

Times have changed, however. In Columbia, the mother of mixed-use, the Rouse Co. planned and built "village centers" to serve pedestrians rather than cars. Stores and shops in the outdoor centers were hidden in the interior. Shoppers would trek through the labyrinths for groceries, dry cleaners and restaurants. Neighbors would walk, meet and talk, the Rouse Co. thought.

The Columbia plan worked for a while, but newer village centers were built more in the open. Shoppers ran from car to store; they didn't walk. And they stopped meeting and talking. Older centers were redone to become more car-friendly and less pedestrian-friendly. And elsewhere in Columbia, big-box stores have emerged, a huge departure from form.

A similar thing has happened in Anne Arundel County. The Harundale Mall was one of the first enclosed malls in the country. But time and bigger malls passed it by. The mall's current transformation into a big-box model shows that yesterday's good ideas don't necessarily work anymore. Developers aren't too hot on them.

County Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, who represents the area, told The Sun that she plans to introduce legislation limiting stores in Anne Arundel's town centers to 60,000 square feet.

It makes a lot of sense to prevent huge warehouse-type stores from casting their large shadows over commercial districts designated as the county's next crown jewels. Most likely, Ms. Samorajczyk's legislation will be too late to stop Wal-Mart from coming to Parole Plaza. (The councilwoman had a similar problem earlier this year when she wanted to halt a residential development that already had won a county waiver.)

But her legislation, if crafted well, could provide some guidance as development takes shape elsewhere in Parole and in the other town centers.

Still, developers like a sure bet. They know consumers love Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot and other big-box stores. It doesn't matter to them that these places are bland, utilitarian outlets that do nothing to improve the look of the communities they inhabit.

Planners and residents must get together ahead of time and come up with good, workable solutions. They must do something -- anything, almost -- about commercial blight. But don't keep feeding it to the big-box blob.

Norris West writes editorials for The Sun from Anne Arundel County.

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