Parole Plaza renewal planned

Abandoned strip mall being sold for $25 million

$300 million `Main Street'

Buyer Greenberg to mix stores, offices, residential

April 01, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

An Owings Mills developer is buying the abandoned Parole Plaza strip mall outside Annapolis for $25 million and plans to transform the long-struggling commercial site into a $300 million mix of retail stores, office towers and residential units.

Yesterday's announcement of the purchase by Greenberg Commercial Corp. would end years of uncertainty surrounding the 34-acre property, considered one of the most valuable commercial parcels available in Anne Arundel County.

"I think this is the type of project that everybody wants to see," said Brian Gibbons, president and chief executive officer of Greenberg. The developer hopes to break ground in 12 to 18 months and open the first wave of stores, offices and residential units in two to three years.

The Owings Mills company also is developing Hunt Valley Town Centre, formerly the Hunt Valley Mall, in northern Baltimore County. Greenberg is known in western Anne Arundel as the developer of Waugh Chapel, a popular mix of retail stores, residential units and offices in Gambrills. As it did on those projects, Greenberg is partnering on the Parole redevelopment with PREI, the real estate investment arm of Prudential Financial Inc.

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens described Greenberg's tentative plans, which she viewed recently, as "absolutely, drop-dead gorgeous."

Owens said she had worried about whether the property ever would be redeveloped. "It's been such a confusing process where we've taken three steps forward and five steps back, but I hope this is a genuine new beginning," Owens said.

Others also expressed relief.

"I think there's been a lot of anticipation in the community to see something spectacular there, and the people who have been patient finally have something to look forward to," said William Badger, president of Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp.

The future of Parole Plaza has been in flux since September, when the Freedman family of New Jersey, the longtime owners, filed for bankruptcy to avoid a foreclosure sale.

Greenberg is buying the property as part of the bankruptcy proceedings and plans to close April 21, Gibbons said. The CEO said there were no other bidders.

Carl Freedman, who has represented the family in Anne Arundel, did not return calls yesterday seeking comment. But Gibbons said the Freedmans approached Greenberg about buying the property late last year.

Parole activists had worried that the property would be remade as a strip mall with vast parking lots and a Wal-Mart as its centerpiece. Greenberg's plans sounded like a welcome turn of events, they said.

"We have nothing but a positive reaction to that," said Dinny White, who served on a county-appointed committee that worked on a growth plan for Parole. "It could become a real living and working community and a real town center for Parole, which is what we wanted to see all along."

Gibbons said Greenberg is not quite ready to unveil its plans - he predicted he'd submit a concept draft to the county within 60 days - but the mixed-use concepts he described are similar to those supported by county leaders and community activists.

Gibbons said 500,000 square feet in retail space would line an open-air pedestrian avenue. He said another 100,000 to 200,000 square feet of offices and 500 to 700 residential units would occupy high-rise buildings of about eight stories.

"This is going to be a real town center with a whole Main Street, avenue feel," he said. "It will be a welcome change, because it's so seedy looking over there right now."

Gibbons said the project also would include a multimillion-dollar environmental cleanup of solvents that have seeped into the ground over the years.

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 more exclusive stores began appearing in the 1970s and 1980s, the plaza began to show its age. By the 1990s, politicians, developers and activists agreed that redevelopment should move forward as quickly as possible.

In 2001, the Freedmans 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 Freedmans seemed close to selling the property to two different developers last year but both deals fell through. Gibbons said Greenberg had been eyeing the property all along but didn't seriously study buying it until the last few months.

White, the local activist, said he would reserve judgment until he sees a concept plan and until the sale goes through.

"We're just crossing our fingers and hoping they succeed," he said, noting that several other attempts to purchase the property have collapsed at the last minute.

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