State launches program to help revitalize areas

Priority Places to offer technical aid, little cash

July 15, 2004|By Timothy B. Wheeler and Childs Walker | Timothy B. Wheeler and Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Seeking to put its brand on the Smart Growth policies of its predecessor, the Ehrlich administration launched an effort yesterday to revitalize blighted communities in Maryland by inviting the developer of a proposed $400 million town center near Annapolis to apply for state help.

At a ceremony launching demolition of the old Parole Plaza to make way for a "lifestyle center" featuring stores, eateries, offices and homes, state Planning Secretary Audrey E. Scott said developers whose projects are designated "Priority Places" will get technical help and be put on a fast track - though the state is offering little money for now.

"Priority Places will be revitalized areas that will offer people opportunities to work, to play, to shop and to live," she said. "To bring people back into established urban areas - that's what Priority Places is all about."

State and local officials and community leaders cheered as a hulking mechanical claw tore into the pillars and awning of a former Woodward & Lothrop department store.

"After many false starts, the wait is finally over," said Brian J. Gibbons, president of Greenberg Commercial Corp. of Owings Mills, referring to the years of delays and failed plans for the 33-acre site on the western edge of Annapolis.

The Priority Places announcement fleshed out Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s "new vision" for the Smart Growth program launched in 1997 by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, which seeks to limit suburban sprawl by focusing state funding for roads, schools and other infrastructure around existing communities. Ehrlich unveiled his strategy in an executive order in October, but provided few details then.

"Smart Growth efforts to date have been focused on preserving large parcels of land in rural areas," Scott said, referring to the Glendening-era purchases of farms and forests threatened by development - efforts Ehrlich has curtailed, noting a lack of money. "What hasn't been done in the past," the planning secretary added, "is to focus our efforts in established areas."

Under Priority Places, state officials plan to select about a half-dozen projects by the end of the year and give them the coordinated attention of all state agencies, with expedited review of any permits they might need. They unveiled a Web site, www. priorityplaces.com, which includes an application.

Type of projects

Officials said they are looking to help "well-planned development" projects that appear likely to stimulate economic development in the surrounding community. The projects also must have the support of local officials, they stressed.

But the program has no money to help those designated projects - a potential handicap to the effort. Scott said projects tapped for the new program would be first in line for any state aid that became available.

Smart Growth advocates generally praised the new program, though some questioned how successful it would be at curbing sprawl if not tied in with land preservation and less highway-friendly transportation policies.

"Clearly a lot more work needs to be done on revitalizing existing communities," said Harriet Tregoning, former special secretary for Smart Growth under Glendening and now director of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute, a think tank in Washington. "That was business left undone by our administration."

Daniel Pontious, regional policy director for the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, said the Priority Places strategy should help focus limited state resources. But he contended that the announcement this week by state transportation officials that they planned to widen Route 32 in western Howard County would encourage more low-density development and divert funds needed for revitalizing neighborhoods.

Officials say they believe the two-lane road is so congested it is unsafe and warrants an exception to the 1997 Smart Growth law barring funding for such projects.

"If the administration starts making exceptions," Pontious said, "this Priority Places will be like a beautiful garden that someone designed and then found out they didn't have enough water."

Environmentalists also praised the program, but worried about whether speedy permits would lead to natural degradation.

"Priority Places shouldn't be viewed as environmental sacrifice areas," said George Maurer, senior planner with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Scott stressed that projects tapped for help would not harm the environment, and she noted that the developers of the Parole project have pledged $6 million to clean up groundwater contamination left by an old dry-cleaning business and to exceed state requirements for controlling storm-water runoff into nearby streams.

Concerns about traffic

But development projects also must pass local government muster, and the Parole redevelopment has sparked concern from residents worried that it will draw increased traffic to an area where congestion is the daily rule.

"The traffic is going to choke this community out," said the Rev. Johnny R. Calhoun, a neighborhood activist.

State officials have noted that they are spending $10.5 million adding several ramps to nearby U.S. 50, which should help ease backups.

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens praised the project and pledged to work with the developers, though she cautioned that despite the state promises of speedy reviews, it still could encounter some "bumps."

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