Developer announces plan to buy Parole Plaza

County officials greet proposal with caution

March 26, 2003|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

An Annapolis developer is the latest to announce that he will purchase the moribund Parole Plaza near Annapolis, in a proposal that has received a cautious reaction from local officials.

Walt Petrie, chairman of Petrie Ventures, who fought unsuccessfully to build a Wal-Mart on Kent Island, said yesterday that he has signed a nonbinding purchase agreement with longtime plaza owner Carl Freedman of Cherry Hill, N.J.

Petrie, who recently bought Glen Burnie Mall and is in the process of buying another shopping center in Prince George's County, declined yesterday to state the purchase price.

Freedman could not be reached for comment.

"I guess the good news is we are local and we can keep a close eye on it," Petrie said. "We can work with the community; we can work with everybody."

Jacoby Development Inc. of Atlanta announced last fall that it was interested in buying the mall, which has been spotlighted by county planners for redevelopment for more than a decade. At the time, county officials greeted Jacoby's news with guarded optimism, since the firm has a solid reputation for revitalizing defunct commercial properties.

The announcement by Petrie, whose plan to build a 154,000-square-foot Wal-Mart on Kent Island was defeated in court in September, has been received with skepticism by county officials, including County Executive Janet S. Owens, who met with the developer this week.

Owens has worked to revitalize the mall property, which sits on the edge of Annapolis, since her 1998 election. She signed a long-term redevelopment agreement with Freedman in September 2001 in hopes of sparking demolition and construction at the site.

Petrie described Owens' attitude during the meeting as "guarded" and said the county executive told him she needed time to think about the issue.

Owens' spokeswoman Jody Couser said yesterday that the county executive is "patiently waiting."

Other county officials said that as recently as last month they were told by a local attorney representing Jacoby that the Atlanta firm still was negotiating with Freedman to buy the 34-acre site. They said they were startled by Petrie's announcement.

"Since most of this is private conversations between the firms, we don't always get direct information," said Robert L. Walker, county land-use director. "I don't know what has been going on."

County Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, a Democrat who represents the Parole area, said she wonders whether Petrie would follow through with a purchase, considering the complexities of the Parole project, a plan that has been in the works for more than 10 years and is subject to public and government oversight.

"Are we toying with the public here?" Samorajczyk asked, alluding to the uncertainty of Petrie's announcement. "How can he make these comments when he has no plan? What is this?"

Petrie said he would make public his plan for the old shopping center in two to three months.

Deal not final

Petrie made it clear that the purchase deal is far from final, adding that "if things get too complicated I will drop it." He said that he has reviewed a 400-page development plan for the Parole area and could request changes. He declined to be specific.

Final sale could take another six to eight months to negotiate, he said.

In the meantime, Petrie said, he intends to explore financing options -- "I'll probably borrow as much money as I can from the bank," he said -- and find residential and office developers who might be willing to work with him.

Petrie's forte is retail development: He helped develop Westfield Shoppingtown in Annapolis.

He said he will look for partners to build residential and office components at Parole.

"I am smart enough to bring in people who know what they are doing," he said.

Petrie envisions building a Wal-Mart as well as a Target and a Kohl's at the Parole site. The prospect of a Wal-Mart, long part of the Parole plan, has rankled opponents who argue that its big-box look would clash with the Colonial feel of Annapolis.

Resident concerns

"That doesn't sound like it is really in keeping with the Parole plan," said John Fischer, co-chairman of the Parole Growth Management Advisory Committee, which has worked for years to craft design standards and zoning code for the plaza and surrounding commercial sites.

Much of the old shopping mall site has been slated for a mix of uses, including apartments and offices.

Fischer said Petrie's plans for more big-box stores might clash with those plans.

Fischer also said that Petrie might not have sufficient experience with mixed-use developments to carry out the project.

"I am leery based on what little I know, but we'll see," said Fischer. "I hope he comes to talk to the Parole group."

Fischer said his committee recently received comments from county officials regarding the proposed Parole plan. The plan must be reviewed and adopted by the county council in order to have the force of law.

Introduction of the Parole legislation has yet to be set, in part because Council Chairwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, a Republican from Severna Park, wants to give the council time to review the document in a workshop setting first. She said the plan could be added to the council's legislative agenda as early as May.

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