Parole Plaza's renewal still elusive goal for county

Owners' bankruptcy filing focus of U.S. hearing today

January 28, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

It was supposed to be the resplendent "town center" of an area known more recently for faceless strip shops and sluggish traffic.

But it has been 2 1/2 years, three near-sales and a bankruptcy filing since Anne Arundel County officials and community activists expressed such high hopes for Parole Plaza.

These days, no one seems sure who will redevelop the vacant shopping center, a forerunner to the boom of East Coast malls. Not a shovel of dirt has been turned at the 34-acre site, located on prime real estate off U.S. 50. The paint from the mall's multihued roadside sign is slowly chipping off, trash is strewn in the bushes around the parking lot, and a faded sign for an old bicycle shop completes the ghost-town ambience.

Community activists say they're worried that even if development plans get back on track, Parole Plaza will become a complex of big-box stores centered on a Wal-Mart, with parking as far as the eye can see and nary a tree in view.

The latest chapter in the saga is expected to continue today in New Jersey, when a federal judge is scheduled to hear arguments from the owners of the property, who hope to emerge from bankruptcy in control of Parole Plaza's development.

The Freedmans, the New Jersey family that has owned the land since the 1950s, seemed close to selling Parole Plaza to two different developers last year. But after declaring bankruptcy to avoid a foreclosure sale in September, the Freedmans seem intent on redeveloping the site themselves, county officials said.

Carl Freedman, who has represented the family in meetings with Anne Arundel officials, has taken on two new partners, Fairway Development of Conshoshocken, Pa., and Ripco Real Estate Corp. of Jericho, N.Y. The partnership must gain approval from the federal judge and from the holders of its $22 million debt, which include Bernstein Cos. of Washington; Sears, Roebuck & Co.; and Anne Arundel County, before proceeding with any development.

Freedman did not return calls seeking comment, and county officials said he and his new partners have not said what they intend to build.

"Bankruptcy proceedings are hard to predict, so the county is taking a wait-and-see approach," said William Badger, president of Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp. Freedman's "working with a new development team so we don't know what their thinking is."

Officials, community leaders and the Freedman family have discussed revamping Parole Plaza for almost 30 years. When the center was built in the late 1950s, it was among the first of its kind on the East Coast. But as malls with ritzier stores began appearing in the 1970s and '80s, the plaza began to show its age. By the 1990s, politicians, developers and activists agreed that redevelopment should move forward as quickly as possible.

"It's one of our last great redevelopment opportunities of that size," Badger said. "There's just not 29 or 30 acres in a strategic location like that anywhere else."

Residents had similarly high expectations.

"We saw it as a regional center of activity that would exemplify the concept of mixed uses," said John Fischer, who has led a committee that worked on a growth plan for the area. "We wanted it to be more than just a bunch of big boxes sitting on an intersection corner."

In 2001, Freedman secured county permission to build a $250 million mixed-use development at the site that would have included an office tower, a public transportation center, a residential section and a retail area built around a Wal-Mart.

The plan seemed to satisfy almost everyone interested in the redevelopment. Carl Freedman said he expected construction to begin in 2002. But since then, the company the Freedmans set up to redevelop Parole Plaza has come close to selling the property twice, almost went through a foreclosure sale and declared bankruptcy.

Badger said county leaders still expect the site to be developed as a high-end shopping and residential area. "I think this site deserves more than to be just another suburban shopping center," he said.

But that's exactly what some county leaders and community activists fear Parole Plaza will become.

Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, who represents Parole, said she is skeptical that Wal-Mart would abandon its typical, long, flat design.

"And I just don't believe a single-story big box reflects the values of the community," she said. "That area already has too much traffic, and we're already losing stores off of [Annapolis'] Main Street to the malls and the big boxes."

Samorajczyk pushed a bill in 2001 that would have imposed design standards on the site and made big-box development difficult. But County Executive Janet S. Owens, who has been eager to see the mall redeveloped, vetoed the measure. Samorajczyk said she would probably submit a similar bill if a plan centered on Wal-Mart comes up for county review again.

Wal-Mart officials did not return phone calls seeking comment.

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