Call it the case of the disappearing development.
Ten months after the City Council approved a $65-million retail center in north Baltimore following nearly a year of heated community debate, there is no discernible progress.
Land records show that no property has changed hands on the 11-acre site centered at Howard and 25th streets. No building permits have been granted for the parcels, the city permits website shows.
Anderson Automotive, which was to vacate its dealership and sell 7 acres of land as part of the deal, continues to sell used cars from its 25th Street showrooms. Two employees said they’ve been told to expect to sell cars on the site for the foreseeable future.
At least two City Council members, Belinda Conaway and Mary Pat Clarke, are scratching their heads about the status of the project.
“I am asking around, but I really don’t know,” Clarke said in an interview. “I’ve heard the same rumors you have that the developer has sold it to someone else.”
Adding to the mystery, a source in Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s office said the project is “on hold” but couldn’t say why.
Hoopla Turns Quiet
The silence today is a far cry from the drumbeat of publicity a year ago, when Wal-Mart formed a website promoting the project and sent ready-made letters to area residents to sign and return to the City Council.
Back then, R. Richard (“Rick”) Walker, the developer, was hailed as a visionary who was bringing modern retailing to the city, providing north Baltimore with stores that residents now have to go to Baltimore County to find – and creating 700-750 permanent jobs in the process.
Others assailed the project, saying that big-box retailers would hurt local independent merchants and that a suburban-style plaza could not be shoehorned into a tight urban space between 25th and 24th streets.
After months of protests at City Hall and online petitioning, the critics lost as the City Council unanimously gave the project a green light.
Walker said his company would start building by spring 2011 and complete the complex – containing specialty retailers, 1,091 parking spaces and 70-90 residential units in addition to 230,000-square-feet of Wal-Mart and Lowe’s – by summer 2012.
Since then, precious little has happened – and Walker isn’t saying why.
The developer, who lives in Canada but whose company, WV Urban Developments LLC, is based in Bloomington Hills, Mich., did not answer emails from The Brew. The project’s website has not been updated for many months.
Jon Laria, lawyer for the Walker group, finally acknowledged on Friday that the project has been delayed. He blamed the setback on two lawsuits filed by city residents and property owners.
Lawsuits on Appeal
Last March, Judge Pamela J. White of Baltimore City Circuit Court dismissed the lawsuit by Allen Hicks and Douglas Armstrong, saying the residents lacked “standing.” Their suit challenged the City Council’s approval of the project as a Planned Unit Development (PUD), saying that rules about traffic mitigation and due process were not followed.
The dismissal was appealed to the Court of Special Appeals. The other suit, filed by Brendan Coyne and Hampden Village Merchants Association president Benn Ray, challenged the PUD based on alleged flaws in the traffic impact study. That suit was also rejected for lack of “standing” and was appealed, Ray said last week.
Armstrong, who lives on Howard Street (“I can see the project from my house”), was contemptuous of charges that the lawsuits are stalling 25th Street Station.
“Litigation can’t be accused of holding up the project,” he said yesterday, noting that in June, the city rejected an offer by himself and Hicks to mediate the suit.
“The city was very vehemently against mediation, which would have sped the whole thing up, would have sped the court proceedings up,” Armstrong said.
Laria declined to discuss the details of the project or lawsuits, but e-mailed this statement to The Brew: “The lawsuits were dismissed, but the dismissals have been appealed to the Court of Special Appeals. Unfortunately, they have affected our schedule and our effort to bring jobs and investment to the city and the neighborhood.”
Rumors Fill the Void
Because a dismissed lawsuit on appeal is not normally grounds to stop a project that’s been approved by a government body, rumors have been circulating that the project has been delayed for other reasons.
Among the rumors: that Wal-Mart has pulled the plug on the project, that financing hasn’t materialized and that Walker is seeking someone else to take the project off his hands.
Scott Yurow, who is responsible for leasing retail space, confirmed Friday that no leases have been signed.
E-mails sent to spokespersons for Wal-Mart and Lowe’s were not answered. The Wal-Mart Baltimore Community Action Network, a website set by the retailer to promote the project last year, has not been freshened up with news on the project for months.
The last major official action by the city was taken in February, when officials granted the project a waiver from the state’s strict stormwater regulations. The project was originally billed to residents as a “green development” that would use vegetated roofing and rain gardens to reduce stormwater run-off.