Parole Plaza plans stay on fast track

Accelerated timeline, scope of project raise concerns for some

July 20, 2005|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,SUN STAFF

A $400 million redevelopment of the former Parole Plaza site has cleared several regulatory hurdles, and the developer anticipates it can put the first shovel into the ground this fall.

The vision for the proposed Annapolis Towne Center at Parole has remained consistent, as has support from Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens, who fully backs turning the 35-acre tract off U.S. 50 into an upscale, pedestrian-friendly enclave.

"This is our pride and joy," said Brian Gibbons, president and chief executive of Greenberg Commercial Corp., the Owings Mills company that's overseeing the Parole development.

But as county planners keep the proposal on the fast track for construction, some worry about too much development being crammed onto the site.

"They are trying to stuff 10 pounds of potatoes into a 5-pound bag - and nobody has explained how they are going to accommodate the 10 pounds," said County Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, a Democrat who represents Parole.

Still, county staffers see no reason to slow down the approval process. Last month, Greenberg's preliminary plan received county staff approval. The developer immediately submitted its final development plan for the project, which would have more than 2 million square feet of residential, retail and commercial space. The county will start making formal comments next month.

Greenberg plans to spend $6 million to clean up land that was contaminated by a dry-cleaning business that had operated on the site, Gibbons said.

Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county's planning director, said the project is mostly at the "refinement" stage. He concurred with the assessment of Greenberg officials that grading and removal of old utility lines could take place this year. Full construction is set to begin next year.

"There's nothing that's a showstopper," he said.

Samorajczyk disagrees. She has raised questions for months about the impact of the Parole project with Rutter and other county planners. Last week, Rutter sought a legal opinion to determine whether the councilwoman's inquiries amounted to ordering county employees, who fall under the purview of Owens, who is responsible for the day-to-day management of county government.

Rutter said he was "not trying to prevent her or any citizen from getting information." He added that the county's Office of Law may not rule on his request, and that he would decide by the end of the week whether to respond to Samorajczyk.

Samorajczyk said she would not be deterred from trying to get answers to her questions.

Greenberg officials said that the Parole community has endorsed the size and look of the project - which now includes a retaining wall that extends several hundred feet along Route 2 - and that Samorajczyk is playing politics.

"You are talking about a lone wolf on the County Council ... someone who wants to run for county executive," Gibbons said of the Democrat, who hopes to succeed Owens after the executive's second term ends next year.

Gibbons said the company is working to finalize its engineering plans, and is in negotiations with hundreds of national retailers that want to set up shop in Parole, Gibbons said. Earlier this year, the developer signed up Target and organic supermarket Whole Foods as the two anchor tenants, and P.F. Chang's China Bistro as one of its restaurants.

Whole Foods will move less than a mile up Route 2 from its location at Annapolis Harbour Center, and is expected to open in 2007. At about 75,000 square feet, the new store will be three times the size of the existing market and the second-largest Whole Foods in the nation.

Greenberg officials said they listened to community demand in seeking out Target, which does not have a presence in the Annapolis area. The size of the store is expected to approach 150,000 square feet, plans show.

Since Greenberg purchased the land and proposed a development about 16 months ago, the size of the project has increased by 166,000 square feet to more than 2.1 million, despite the elimination of at least two proposed buildings.

Another change is that Greenberg has moved more than 90,000 square feet of planned office space to the north side of the property, and added 215 condominium units - bringing the total number of planned units to 900. The office building won't go up until later in the construction schedule.

With a project this size, Rutter said the scale of the add-ons is marginal.

But skeptics of the Parole project say that when all is said and done, the enclave will lack the access and open space needed to make the area inviting and will lead to traffic gridlock in and around the site.

One study of area roads updated this year by the Traffic Group Inc., a Baltimore engineering company, revealed that the development could push some of the major arteries around Parole - Route 2, Route 450 and Riva Road - over capacity. Rutter acknowledged that some of these roads are already overcrowded at peak times.

The State Highway Administration, however, believes that the traffic remedies proposed by Greenberg will keep traffic volume in check, SHA spokeswoman Kellie Boulware said.

Rutter questioned the accuracy of the estimated traffic spike, but even if the number of cars greatly increases along the perimeter of the town center, he said that some additional congestion is inevitable as Parole is revived.

"It's the main street of Parole ... if there's a few extra stop signs, get over it," Rutter said.

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