From the Baltimore Sun

Odenton push urged

Agency draft says funds needed to keep town plan going

By Phillip McGowan
Sun reporter

March 25, 2007

The vision for transforming Odenton into a walkable community of homes, offices and entertainment will collapse if the county and state don't act now to build the infrastructure to lure developers, according to a draft report prepared for Anne Arundel County's economic development agency.

The report, a copy of which was obtained by The Sun, predicts that without a county infusion of at least $30 million to lay a framework of roads and sewer and water lines, builders may abandon plans for a unified town center of 1,600 acres and erect a mishmash of smaller projects to serve the wave of defense workers due to arrive at nearby Fort Meade.

Such a chain reaction would drive those white-collar workers to settle and shop in more desirable areas, such as Columbia or Baltimore, and leave Odenton to languish, costing the local government tens of millions of dollars in taxes and fees, the report said.

"In Odenton, the County has been presented with an extraordinary opportunity for growth," according to the January draft prepared by ZHA Inc., an Annapolis real estate consultant. "The extent to which the County can capture that growth will depend upon whether the County responds to the challenge by making the required investment in infrastructure improvements. Without that investment, much of the potential growth will be lost to surrounding counties or will fail to materialize altogether."

Robert L. Hannon, chief executive of the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp., said that the report is being revised, in part because it does not specify a build-out schedule or contain a market analysis of the town center, and there is a discrepancy over which capital projects are needed to jump-start the town center and their cost.

He said the report, commissioned last year by then-County Executive Janet S. Owens, the state and a group of developers, will be finalized within a few weeks. County officials did not disclose its cost.

Hannon said the report's purpose is to create "a sense of opportunity" about the town center.

"The intention is to have a report that gives information that people can rely on, rather than dismiss it because it has no credibility," Hannon said.

He and other Anne Arundel officials emphasized that County Executive John R. Leopold, a Republican, is a strong supporter of the Odenton Town Center and other "transit-oriented" projects as a way to preserve open space, reduce traffic and provide affordable housing.

In fact, they note that Leopold has called on Gov. Martin O'Malley and other state leaders to expedite a five-mile overhaul of Route 175, which runs along Fort Meade and into downtown Odenton, so that the roadwork is complete by the time an estimated 12,000 jobs arrive at the Army post in 2011. A spokeswoman for Leopold said he has not read the report.

While not privy to the details of the report, several business leaders said the urgency of the recommendations is fueled by the base realignment and closure process, also known as BRAC.

"If we don't get on board this train at the station, we will be left behind," said Bob Burdon, chief executive of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce.

Without the infrastructure in place, he and others predicted that the 40-year-old goal to transform Odenton into a regional growth magnet may unravel into a clumsy array of hotels, strip malls and gas stations.

"It will just be like Ritchie Highway - that's my fear," said Jay Baldwin, president of Reliable Contracting Co. Inc., a partner in a $150 million development around the Odenton MARC station.

The town center, conceived in the 1960s, is designed to connect fast-growing Odenton's busy MARC station to a shopping core with easy access to hiking and biking trails and its historic district.

The County Council approved development rules for Odenton in 2004. That next year, developers secured crucial wetlands approval to build the town center. The county has approved no development within the town center, but several projects are in various stages of the planning process.

County spokeswoman Rhonda Wardlaw said that the completion of the county's three town centers - in Parole, Glen Burnie and Odenton - would be accomplished in conjunction with the revision of the county's growth blueprint, known as the General Development Plan. That plan is reviewed every decade, and Leopold has said he anticipated that the review - which would include comprehensive zoning - would take 12 months to 18 months.

Developers and others said the county cannot afford to wait and suggested that Leopold's timeline to complete the development plan is too optimistic. County Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Democrat who represents Odenton, has drafted a bill to clarify Odenton's development provisions but said the Leopold administration wants to take up zoning changes only as a part of the plan.

"Proponents of the town center said its financial impact more than justifies pushing ahead.

A county investment of $30.7 million to $46.6 million for work including construction of Town Center Boulevard and a pedestrian bridge over Route 175 would net $174.7 million in one-time fees and taxes, if the project were fully built out at 36 million square feet of homes, apartments, shops, restaurants and offices, the report said.

The completed town center would generate about $83.2 million annually in income and property taxes and other fees, the report said.

"It shows that this kind of development will pay for itself many times over," said David Lewis, president of Osprey Property Co., which is partnering with Reliable Contracting on the $150 million development.

Builders would normally pay for infrastructure costs upfront, but - unlike with the $400 million town center in Parole, where one developer, Greenberg Gibbons Commercial, owns the land - several developers are trying to piece together large parcels in Odenton, said Jay Winer, president of A.J. Properties in Odenton, a leading proponent of the town center.

Developers would jump if the county created special taxing districts, similar to what has been done at Arundel Mills and the National Business Park, Benoit said.

The councilman said the county executive needs to do more to expedite the capital projects.

"I haven't seen the level of commitment I was hoping to get from the local government," Benoit said.

The county has executed land swaps to enable the building of Town Center Boulevard and is coordinating environmental cleanup efforts with the state to keep pieces of the project moving, Hannon said.

The county's finances are playing a role in the funding pace. Anne Arundel may face $200 million in new operating expenses to pay for 10 union contracts and rising health care cost for retired government workers. Anne Arundel also faces a $1.5 billion schools maintenance backlog.

"I know [Leopold] is very much in favor of the town center, and he has assured me that he will do all that he can," Baldwin said. "But in terms of finances, his hands are tied."

(Revised March 2007)