Samorajczyk joins far-flung debate on store-design limits

Official not first to oppose Wal-Mart, others on `big boxes'

June 11, 2000|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

As she pushes to limit the size of "big box" stores in Parole and Odenton town centers, County Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk is pointing to local governments around the country that have passed similar restrictions.

With mega-stores such as Wal-Mart moving farther into urban areas, some municipalities are responding by imposing size limits and design rules. In Rockville, officials are weighing a plan that combines both approaches.

"It's the job of developers to pave the world," said Samorajczyk, an Annapolis Democrat. "It's the community's job to set rules."

But Samorajczyk's call to limit such stores to 80,000 square feet per floor - now before the County Council - has detractors who say she is targeting a 135,000-square-foot Wal-Mart proposed for dilapidated Parole Plaza.

This week, officials from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. will travel to Annapolis for private meetings with council members, county officials and County Executive Janet S. Owens, who opposes Samorajczyk's bill.

"Quite frankly, at first blush it seems pretty selective and pretty well targeted at this project," said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Daphne Davis.

The county's planning director, DenisCanavan, has given preliminary approval to the project but attached several conditions, including good-faith discussions on a suggestion to build a two-story Wal-Mart.

Samorajczyk denies any animus toward Wal-Mart and lists places where building "footprints" are restricted: Skaneateles, N.Y. (45,000 square feet), Walpole, N.H. (40,000), and Maryland's Chestertown (60,000).

Other municipalities have imposed design standards. In Lompoc, Calif., the Wal-Mart had to have a Mediterranean-style facade. (A committee of residents is drafting design guidelines for Parole.)

Samorajczyk's proposal would force Wal-Mart to shrink the proposed store or build it with two stories at Parole Plaza - something she said she would not mind, if it made it more pedestrian-friendly.

Some multistory mega-stores have special escalators for shopping carts; Ikea reports no problems with the devices at its Chicago and Los Angeles furniture stores. Target's eight multilevel stores (out of 921) use the lifts.

But lawyers for New Jersey developer Carl Freedman, owner of Parole Plaza, say a second level would require a parking garage and second-story entryway, raising construction costs $8 million. Samorajczyk calls that a "specious argument" and noted that a two-story Wal-Mart exists outside Los Angeles without a garage.

Davis said that store, in a building that Wal-Mart renovated, is the only one of its 3,000 stores not on one level. She described it as an experiment that is going well, but could not say whether Wal-Mart would try it elsewhere.

"Our customers have responded to the format we're working with right now," Davis said. Wal-Mart stores range from 50,000 square feet to 200,000 square feet and have a standard layout.

The Parole Wal-Mart would be innovative, Davis said: Plans call for shops, offices or possibly a hotel to be built over it. Also, Freedman plans to put a row of shops alongside the Wal-Mart.

Freedman, who says his current proposal is the sixth he has submitted to the county since 1994, is threatening to sue if Samo- rajczyk prevails.

Freedman also said he might ask Annapolis to annex his property.

The outcome of the debate will be an indication of the county's approach to development, said Marya Morris, a senior research associate at the American Planning Association.

"This is a key test to see if they're going to stick by their plans for that area and do what they determined through the planning process to be right for the area," she said.

In 1994, that process produced the Parole Urban Design Concept Plan, which the County Council adopted. It called for a mixed-use, multistory project at Parole Plaza, with shops, offices and residences, as well as street-level shops and parking decks.

"Every effort should be made to achieve a more urban character, especially in the core area," the report stated.

Freedman said that is what he offered in 1996, when Samorajczyk, then a community activist, helped defeat it.

"I can't keep going back," he said, "and I can't keep guessing what the county wants."

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