Streamlined, smaller plan approved unanimously after contentious planning commission hearing

After a four-hour hearing, the first hour of which was consumed by a staff member explaining the "minor amendment" to the site plans, the Baltimore City Planning Commission on Thursday Nov. 21 voted to approve a long-awaited Walmart-anchored shopping center in Remington.

It was an epic moment in participatory democracy. About 90 people showed up, flowing from the low-ceilinged hearing room into the reception area outside, where they heard the testimony through intercom speakers. Two City Council members-Mary Pat Clarke and Carl Stokes-pleaded with the commissioners to send the project, a Planned Unit Development, or PUD, back to the City Council. More than a dozen speakers said they just wanted a Walmart.

City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector sits on the Planning Commission. A few days before the hearing, as emails opposing the changes began piling up like digital snowdrifts in planning director Thomas Stosur's email box, Spector explained the situation as she saw it. "It's permitted in the PUD. The Planning Department can approve minor amendments," she said. "There are people who oppose Walmart no matter what and they'll take any opportunity to kick sand up."

At the hearing, opponents said they wanted only that the design be improved, mostly to improve walkability and maybe move the loading docks away from some houses on 24th Street. That, and they want the city government to follow the law as it pertains to the development.

The minor amendment encompassed at least 17 line items and took Anthony Cataldo nearly an hour to explain to the commission. It came about this way:

In 2008, WV Urban Development brought plans for 25th Street Station, a mixed-use development with shops, housing, and two anchor "big box" stores, Walmart and Lowe's. The lobbying began immediately, neighbors picking sides while planners and architects went through round after round of design revisions, trying to make all the neighborhood groups in Remington, Old Goucher, Charles Village, and Hampden happy.

Not everyone was. But most were. The design stacked the Walmart atop of the Lowe's and included a three-story parking structure with a series of ramps to bring cars and people to the various elevations on the 11-acre site, which is bisected by Howard Street between 24th and 25th streets.

The holdouts-Benn Ray and Brendan Coyne-filed a lawsuit to stop the project, saying it would hurt local retailers (Benn Ray, a onetime City Paper staffer, owns and operates Atomic Books in Hampden) and depress wages and property values nearby. The suit went all the way to the court of appeals-the state's highest court. WV Urban won in January when the high court said Ray and Coyne lived too far from the proposed development to have standing to sue.

City officials, meanwhile, did everything they could to keep the corporate giant happy, exempting the project from strict new stormwater management requirements on the eve of the deadline and sending every signal that it wanted new development on the site, which is dominated by a long-shuttered car dealership.

Still, Ray and Coyne's suit, another suit among the developers and the landowner, and a wildly swinging economy took their toll: Lowe's dropped out of the deal in 2011.

"With the elimination of one big-box retailer," Cataldo testified, "the site organization remains as it was, but with improved pedestrian access." The two-story box with Walmart atop Lowe's shrank to one story, a three-story parking garage was eliminated. The proposed landscaping was changed, grading altered so a ramp that was sloping up from the street is now sloping down. One loading dock was eliminated and another redesigned. "The building sits fairly similar to where it was before," Cataldo said.

The changes created another opportunity for those who oppose the development. A major amendment to a PUD must go back to City Council to repeat the hearing and approval process. Only minor amendments can be approved directly by the Planning Commission. The city code defines a minor amendment as those which "(i) are limited to design features and interior planning; and (ii) do not include any change in the applicable density or bulk regulations."

Asked to justify the planning staff's conclusion that the changes are minor, Cataldo cited the PUD agreement itself, which contains a clause defining a major amendment as one altering the building's size by more than 460,000 square feet.

The explanation prompted a sigh from J. Carroll Holzer, a lawyer hired by the Remington Neighborhood Alliance, who would argue in testimony that the plan itself has become moot because the developer allowed it to lapse.

"The time schedule [within the PUD] expired in 2012 and no extension request was filed," Holzer testified. "So the Planning Commission has nothing to consider."

"Thanks for setting us straight," commission chairman Wilbur "Bill" Cunningham replied sarcastically. Holzer had mistakenly referred to "the county council," prompting laughter from Spector, who said the lawyer didn't even know where he was.

Adam Levine, an attorney with the city Law Department, opined that the Planning Commission could consider the changes minor: "If you believe that it's a minor modification then that is supportable by law." He said the definition of a major change would generally be one that exceeded "the maximum allowable developable space," leaving open the notion that any reduction in density would be "minor" by definition.

The Planning Department had "dozens and dozens of minor amendments over the years that fit exactly this profile," Stosur said. "If there was retail in the original plan, there is retail now . . . if there were driveways in the original plan there are driveways now."

It seemed a bit too pat for Jay Orr, an architect and nearby resident, who said he had worked on many projects in other places where changes like those proposed here would prompt a new review. The PUD itself is a kind of covenant between the developer and the neighborhoods, he said in testimony. "If you make this kind of precedent . . . then what value is the PUD as a contract?"

In his speech to the commission, Carl Stokes, whose 12th District includes the development, made the same point and promised to move the project quickly if they sent it to the council for such a review. "We're not trying to turn this back," he said. "We're not trying to break this open."

Most who spoke against the amendment likewise said they did not want to stop the development. "We just want to make certain that it's right," said Ken Abrams, president of the Old Goucher Business Alliance.

Bill Cunningham, a Hampden business owner, didn't buy that story. "The developers stay out of Remington because of these obstructionists who file all these lawsuits," he said, adding that the Walmart is "going to give jobs to our 10-year-olds who are smoking pot in the alley. They won't be slingin' when they're 16! They can get a job there. But it won't happen if you're all afraid of this one small group that is constantly filing lawsuits."

One by one, the commission members then demonstrated their fearlessness and voted unanimously to approve the project.

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