Aerotropolis takes off

Plan to put BWI at center of development gains county support

February 16, 2007|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,sun reporter

One day soon at the state's largest airport, people may watch planes taking off from their bedroom window, head downstairs to shop at the town center or to get some work done at the office. Maybe they will catch the light rail to Hunt Valley, take the train to New York or fly to Europe.

If the vision of Anne Arundel County John R. Leopold comes true, dramatic, high-density development will blend with a regional transit hub based at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, forming an urban-style enclave known as an Aerotropolis.

As a projected million new people move to Maryland in the next two decades, he said, an Aerotropolis will help control growth by promoting mass transit and pedestrian-friendly living - and will give local government the revenue to operate under a voter-mandated tax cap.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Friday's Anne Arundel County Sun misquoted a spokesman, Mitchell Weber, describing the scope of a proposed hotel project by Asha Cos. of Howard County, near BWI Marshall Airport. Asha Cos. is not seeking to build homes or pursue residential zoning.
The Sun regrets the error.

"That kind of development, that mixed-use, transit-oriented development, is a vision ... I intend to pursue," Leopold said in a recent interview. "It's energy-saving; it's environmentally friendly; it's responsive to the political and growth realities that we face in the 21st century."

Aerotropolis, a term coined by University of North Carolina professor John Kasarda, is the vision of building large cities around airports, which are emerging as centers of commerce and entertainment. Bangkok, Dubai, Denver and Detroit have embraced the concept, building or planning to build mega-airports that are cities unto themselves.

Leopold's vision would expand on the town-center concept, such as Annapolis Towne Centre at Parole and Park Place in Annapolis, and focus condos, apartments, hotels, retail, offices around BWI.

He says he was inspired to press for transit-oriented development by separate multimillion-dollar transit-oriented developments proposed along MARC train lines in Odenton and Savage, the latter on the Howard County-Anne Arundel line, as well as the new Metrorail line to Washington Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia.

But the broader concept of Aerotropolis has taken off under Asha Cos. of Howard County and Heffner & Weber Cos. of Linthicum, which have proposed building four hotels, a 110,000-square-foot indoor aquatic center and a 120,000-square-foot town center along the Interstate 195 corridor in Linthicum, in the BWI Business District.

Mitchell Weber, president of Heffner & Weber Cos., said Leopold's support is clearing the way for county planners' approval. Weber anticipates that construction on the $300 million project will begin this summer and be complete by 2009, although the Asha developers are still seeking approvals to build homes.

Weber said the Asha project would create $150 million in tax revenue for the state over 10 years, and the county's share would exceed $90 million.

Weber said he is in talks with others who own property along I-195 to create future phases of what he's already been calling Aerotropolis.

The county would stand to gain an 85,000-square-foot conference center - a facility long sought in Anne Arundel - in a resort hotel in the Aerotropolis.

Local and state officials envision that such projects could help finance the heavy expense of multi-billion-dollar mass transit projects, such as the extension of the Washington-area Metro Green Line from Greenbelt to BWI, along with other public ventures.

Weber, who supports the estimated $2.5 billion Green Line extension, said the transportation component of the project is crucial to achieving the Aerotropolis theme.

"All of this ties together with putting BWI in a much more prominent position," Weber said.

Growth has become a top concern in Anne Arundel County and elsewhere in Central Maryland in recent years. An addition of at least 45,000 defense jobs to the state over the next four years is only exacerbating worries about already congested roads, storm-water runoff and poor air quality.

Some County Council members said directing growth toward transit centers in western Anne Arundel makes sense. The county has fewer than 6,400 acres of vacant, undeveloped land remaining for commercial and industrial use - and most of that land is around Fort Meade, which is slated to get at least 10,000 defense jobs by 2011, and BWI.

"That's just a continuation of a good philosophy," said Councilman Edward R. Reilly, a Crofton Republican.

Others are concerned about such a large urbanized development around BWI would stymie tourism in other parts of the county, including Annapolis.

"You get people to the airport, then you get them away from there because they will spend their money," said Councilman G. James "Jamie" Benoit, a Piney Orchard Democrat.

Leopold initially spoke about his vision for building Aerotropolis at a gathering of business leaders last month at BWI..

"I want to work closely and collaboratively with the private sector to accomplish my vision, to obtain that vision," Leopold said.

In a county that widely supports a revenue tax cap, which limits annual budget increases, Leopold says that he must support growth initiatives to keep the county fiscally afloat. Leopold ran on a no-new-taxes plank, and he recently rejected calls by the schools superintendent to raise the county income tax rate, which has been untouched for 40 years.

Benoit agreed with that proposition. He noted that since voters approved the tax cap in 1992, the county has incurred a $1.5 billion school maintenance backlog.

"The community has a decision to make: Do you want modest increases in taxes?" Benoit

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