Expansion of proposed retail complex sought

July 06, 2007|By Jazzmen Tynes and Laura Barnhardt | Jazzmen Tynes and Laura Barnhardt,sun reporters

The first store or restaurant is still years away, but the developer of a town center planned for Catonsville is already talking about an expansion.

The Promenade, a proposed Main Street-style complex of restaurants, shops and offices could double in size, if the developer of the project succeeds in purchasing state land at the nearby Spring Grove Hospital Center.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Friday's Maryland section about a proposed town center in Catonsville included incorrect information about the number of acres that the developer wishes to purchase from the state. Stephen Whalen, managing partner of Whalen Properties, says he is seeking to buy about 30 acres of the 200-acre Spring Grove Hospital Center property.
THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR

At the same time, Whalen Properties is in talks with state highway planners about creating a ramp to the town center from the Beltway interchange at Frederick Road.

Elected officials say they support the plans, and that the revisions will address residents' concerns about traffic. Some residents are wary of a large development, believing it will disrupt the surrounding suburban neighborhood by increasing traffic along quiet streets and will take business away from merchants in the area. These neighbors say they would rather see Spring Grove used as a park with trails and ball fields.

"I'm not anti-development," said Michele Mazzocco, who lives nearby. "I just wish that the efforts would be focused on the malls that are already present along Route 40."

She and others have begun circulating petitions to stop the development of state-owned land into retail space and asking that the property be turned into a park, or used for human services such as a homeless shelter or drug treatment facility, maintained by the state.

Plans for the $325 million town center include a hotel, offices, shops, restaurants and some type of housing - apartments or condominiums - in multi-story buildings along a main street. The property is near the Beltway and Wilkens Avenue.

Stephen Whalen, managing partner of Whalen Properties, has not yet submitted a formal proposal to the county for review and community input. But he has been discussing his plans for a 17-acre parcel that his company owns for more than two years.

Now, he is asking the state to consider selling him another parcel, also 17 acres, from the 200-acre Spring Grove campus for his town center. The 440-bed psychiatric hospital is made up of dozens of buildings, spread over 200 acres, much of it wooded.

Earlier this week, Whalen met with state officials about his plans and toured the hospital grounds with environmental consultants.

If he is able to purchase the land, the developer would be responsible for cleaning up a former dumping area at the hospital. Whalen said he also talked about possibly tearing down four cabins, renovating one of the buildings and helping to build a new central hospital facility.

Before a portion of the Spring Grove campus could be purchased, that land would have to declared "surplus" by the state - an idea supported by local elected officials.

"The local and state elected officials and the county executive have made it clear to the governor and others that we think this is an exciting project," said Donald I. Mohler III, a spokesman for County Executive James T. Smith Jr.

County officials and residents have discussed potential uses of the Spring Grove property for more than a year.

A task force of business and community leaders held two public hearings last year on what the property should be used for if the state ever decides to close the Spring Grove facility.

The task force's recommendations included an indoor athletic or multipurpose facility, walking and hiking paths and a cultural arts center.

Cheryl Wasmund of the Old Catonsville Neighborhood Association said that residents have said at community meetings that they want green spaces to be maintained in Catonsville, especially at Spring Grove.

"One of the things I heard over and over again within the community is that people want open space and more playing fields," she said.

But the task force also supported the idea of selling a small portion to Whalen for The Promenade.

And Councilman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat, said he believes the property can accommodate the town center - and recreational and government facilities.

He has been in recent talks with state highway planners about building a raised road that would allow direct access to The Promenade and the psychiatric facility from the Beltway near Frederick Road. He says the roads would help traffic in the surrounding area, because shoppers wouldn't be tempted to cut through residential streets to get to the town center, Whalen said.

If the project and the highway proposals are approved, Whalen said, construction could begin by 2009.

jazzmen.tynes@baltsun.com laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

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