Road to a town mall is a road to nowhere

Lots of plans, 35 years and a road to nowhere

Odenton: After 35 years of delays, Anne Arundel County planners hope for progress on the project.

January 10, 2003|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Odenton has a Town Center Boulevard, a colorful Town Center "welcome" sign and two longtime Town Center developers.

But after 35 years, Anne Arundel County's anointed boomtown has no town center.

Plans for the project - a mix of retail, residential and office space that will link Odenton's core to its MARC train station, hiking and bike trail and historic district - have stalled, largely because of strict environmental regulations and a cumbersome planning process.

The county hopes to move forward this year, when it finalizes plans for the 218-acre project near Routes 32 and 175.

But some question whether the development that has cropped up around Odenton has passed the railroad town by, whether the delays have added up to a lost opportunity.

"I said all along that I doubted I would live long enough to see it developed," said Sara Shoemaker, a longtime Odenton resident who served for 20 years on the Odenton Town Center Oversight Committee before quitting in frustration recently. "I have very mixed feelings about whether it should or whether it shouldn't [be built]."

In the past three years, developers have opened Anne Arundel County's first megamall, Arundel Mills, and the Village at Waugh Chapel, a mixed-use shopping center designed to look like a "Main Street" district. Both are within a few miles of Odenton's Town Center plot.

Community leaders in this town of about 38,000 say the town center is viable, and county planners and developers are optimistic the Army Corps of Engineers will approve a permit to build roads on federal wetlands - a move that would end a decade-long impasse.

"We've worked a lot of things out," said planner Michael Fox, whom the county hired in 1997 to help move the project along. "In reality, this has really been a well-thought-out plan for the environment and Smart Growth. The developers have been at the table the whole time."

A growing town

As Odenton has waited for its retail core to happen, developers have been busy building houses. Attracted by Odenton's MARC station, Washington and Baltimore commuters have flocked to the developments of Piney Orchard and Seven Oaks, which have more than 6,000 houses between them.

Many residents have a connection to the Fort Meade military base, less than a mile from the proposed town center. Some are retirees who frequent the commissary. Others work at the National Security Agency - one of Maryland's largest employers - and other federal offices.

Odenton residents and developers protested plans for Arundel Mills and Waugh Chapel, claiming they would hurt plans for a town center. Members of the Odenton Town Center Oversight Committee, which was formed in the 1980s, kept working with the county on the plans, despite a nagging feeling they weren't getting anywhere.

In addition to Shoemaker, several other committee members have left. Odenton developer Jay Winer resigned last year because he wanted to work on town center land deals and thought his presence on the committee could be a conflict of interest.

Stephen N. Fleischman, vice president of the Halle Cos., which owns Seven Oaks and much of the town center's property, left the committee five years ago after concluding that meetings were "a waste of time."

Halle, which bought Seven Oaks in 1985 and is developing the town center with Reliable Contracting Co., had hoped the town center would be built soon after the housing development was finished.

But 17 years later, Town Center Boulevard runs through Seven Oaks and ends in a field littered with trailers, portable toilets and construction equipment. A portion of the boulevard resurfaces alongside a cemetery on Route 175, but the four-lane interchange is a block long and doesn't connect anywhere.

The company encountered a speedier planning process in Northern Virginia. Two years after Halle bought the land for Seven Oaks, the company purchased property in Fairfax County to develop a sprawling project called Kingstowne. Now, Kingstowne has more than 5,100 homes, two supermarkets, a Wal-Mart, a county park and a post office. The closest thing Seven Oaks has to a town center is a small shopping plaza with a Weis grocery store.

Fleischman said the results reflect a difference in philosophy. In Fairfax, he said, planners directed retailers and residents to Kingstowne. Not so in Anne Arundel County, where Fleischman said he has lost several prospective tenants to shopping centers nearby because the town center has taken so long.

`Grand plans'

Part of the problem harks back to the 1960s, when the county decided to concentrate growth in three areas: Glen Burnie, Odenton and Parole. Parole's town center, the county's oldest, is nearly vacant; Glen Burnie's opened in 2000.

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