Owings Mills project stalled

Developer, county unable to agree on contract terms

Centerpiece of revitalization

May 24, 2002|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Negotiations over Baltimore County's planned $220 million Owings Mills town center, a centerpiece of the Ruppersberger administration's revitalization efforts, have stalled because of disagreements over the kinds of buildings to be constructed.

The county and developer LCOR Inc. have missed four deadlines for signing a development contract, which puts them a year behind schedule. The most recent deadline was April 30; the county has granted another extension until June 30.

County officials say they are not worried about the contract delays. But others wonder if the delays reflect deeper problems.

"If it was financially doable for LCOR, they would do it," said Del. Robert A. Zirkin, whose district includes the project area.

Envisioned as a commercial and residential anchor for Owings Mills, the project would be built on a 46-acre Metro station parking lot at Interstate 795 and Painters Mill Road.

Plans call for offices, a 100-room hotel, stores, restaurants and 450 apartments and townhouses, all arranged around a traditional town square.

A building for community college classes, a technology center and a public library also would be included.

But county officials say the two sides are stuck over how many public and commercial, or revenue-producing, buildings should be constructed.

"There are immense complexities with how you mix that blend," said Robert L. Hannon, executive director for the county Department of Economic Development.

R. William Hard, LCOR's executive vice president, would not comment on the Owings Mills project. But Hard said delays in projects involving private and public partnerships are not unusual.

"It is usual for the negotiations to take longer than usual," Hard said.

County and state officials played down the lack of a contract with LCOR, which is based in Berwyn, Pa.

"We continue to negotiate with the LCOR team and we had a meeting last week," said Fronda J. Cohen, a spokeswoman for the county Department of Economic Affairs.

"The county and the state are still committed to this project," she said.

"We're going to have a resolution very soon," said James Peiffer, manager of commercial development with the Maryland Transit Administration. "We want to do the project and the [public] money is there to do the project."

The project would be built during the next 10 years on MTA-owned land that includes the Metro stop for Owings Mills.

The county and state have committed $28 million for construction of a parking garage, library and streets.

But others familiar with the town center project contend the lack of an agreement indicates that the project is in jeopardy.

"The state is saying it's on track and it isn't," said Zirkin.

Two years ago, with much fanfare, the county and state selected LCOR, giving it exclusive negotiating rights in Owings Mills, which along with White Marsh has been designated a high-growth area in the county.

LCOR has developed $4.2 billion in projects, including one at the White Flint Metro station in Rockville that is similar to the Owings Mills proposal.

Michael Beyard, a development expert at The Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C., notes that over the two years since the LCOR development rights were granted, the economy has taken a backslide.

But Beyard contends the complexity of the project is likely causing the delays.

"This is a very complex form of development," Beyard said. "It's not like a shopping center plopped down at an intersection. It takes a long time.

"Two years is nothing, five years is nothing," Beyard added. "There are regular shopping centers that take that long."

Ruppersberger aides say he hasn't given up on the development.

"The county remains committed to this Owings Mills project," said Elise Armacost, a county spokeswoman. "It's been one of the most ambitious projects of [Ruppersberger's] administration."

Some state and county officials aren't concerned about the lack of a contract. They say the project was ill-conceived.

Zirkin has been pushing for more library, community college and recreation space for the town center.

"That this project is put on hold and may have to be revamped may be a good thing," Zirkin said. "

County Council member T. Bryan McIntire wasn't a fan of the project.

McIntire, a north county Republican whose district covers the region, fears the center will pull business away from the nearby Owings Mills Mall and Reisterstown Road.

The delays are "a blessing because it was an ill-fated project to begin with," McIntire said. "I never wanted to see the project fly as it was conceived."

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