Builders vie for project design

Critics say MTA review of Owings Mills plans should be public

May 12, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The future of Owings Mills lies somewhere in a stack of five thick binders that the public isn't allowed to see.

This week, the state Mass Transit Administration began to review proposals from developers interested in creating a traditional downtown around the Metro station in one of Baltimore County's fastest-growing communities.

The applicants vying to be named master developer of the Owings Mills Town Center project include a partnership led by Cordish Co. of Baltimore; LCOR Inc. of Berwyn, Pa.; and Otis Warren/John Akridge Cos. of Baltimore.

Their submissions will be judged by a panel of experts looking at financing and business plans, experience and vision.

But they won't be judged by the public. At least not yet.

Though the goal of the MTA and Baltimore County economic development officials is to create a vibrant center anchored by the subway station, a library, a college classroom building and a 1-acre town square, the people who would work, live and play in the new downtown have had no say in the critical first stage of the project.

"The bottom line is this: The review is a confidential process," said Jack Cahalan, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation. "This would be the same if you are developing a plot of land, buying buses or buying aspirin for the health department. Any RFP [request for proposals] contains a great deal of confidential information. Some of it is financial. Some of it, in this case, is creative."

The confidentiality troubles some elected officials and community leaders in western Baltimore County.

Calvin Reter, a crab house owner who heads an umbrella group of 79 community associations in Reisterstown, Owings Mills and Glyndon, said he knows little about the proposal, which could change everything from the business climate on Reisterstown Road to traffic on his street.

"There should have been input a year and half ago, when they were starting to do this," said Reter. "The bureaucrats pushed forward, and the bureaucrats are going to come out and say, `Here it is. This is what we are going to do.' "

Public input is invited, state transportation officials say, but only after a lead developer is chosen. Officials say that the plans under review from five applicants contain only a rough outline that is certain to change.

"I think the more important role for the community is in designing exactly what the downtown is going to be," said Marsha Kaiser, the Transportation department's director of planning. "What we are doing now is using our technical experts to determine if the winning vendor is up to the challenge."

"There's no done deal here," said Kaiser. "There's just ideas on a paper. Things will fall out, and new things will come in, and that's where the public's input will be of value."

Critics say that by not involving the public at the outset, state and county officials run the risk of reaching a financial agreement that would maximize profits for developers at the expense of community concerns such as open space, recreation and traffic.

"I know some of the players involved, and I know that's how they play ball," said County Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a Republican who represents the area and who favors early public input.

Other observers say the lack of public input reinforces a disturbing trend in Baltimore County. On the east side, some community leaders are angry over a plan to create a waterfront village in Essex/Middle River drafted without full notification of residents.

"To me, it looks like there is a pattern," said Del. Diane DeCarlo, a White Marsh Democrat who is a leading a recall petition for a law that would allow the county to condemn land for the waterfront project. "If people are ignorant, they can just shove it through."

State and county officials counter that the Metro station plan has been discussed for years and that a consortium of Owings Mills businesses has been heavily involved in the planning. Briefings for community groups have been scheduled this month, they say.

The Owings Mills project is a prime example of what the MTA calls transit-oriented development. Plans call for the MTA to sell or lease to a developer 47 acres along Interstate 795 now used for surface parking. The county and state would agree to build a $26 million, 2,000-space garage for commuters, and the rest of the land would be used for homes, businesses and stores.

MTA officials would confirm only that five development groups met a late-April deadline for proposals. Through interviews with developers and architects who attended a March pre-proposal conference, The Sun has been able to identify several of the applicants:

A partnership of Cordish Co., A&R Development and David S. Brown of Owings Mills. Cordish developed the Power Plant in the city's Inner Harbor and is undertaking large urban entertainment and mixed-use projects in Atlantic City, N.J.; Reno, Nev.; Houston; and Prince George's County.

"These are all destinations that would be similar to what we propose doing in Owings Mills," said company spokeswoman Allison Parker. She declined to release the partnership's proposal.

Otis Warren/John Akridge Cos. of Baltimore. "We're very much in this," said Otis Warren, a politically active city developer. "They are going to have a hard time not picking us." He, too, would not release his proposal.

LCOR Inc. of Berwyn, Pa. A representative confirmed that his company had been interviewed by the selection committee yesterday.

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