Far-off spring grove development becomes issue in Balto. Co. Council race

… District 1 candidates Quirk, Whisler fielding questions on ‘Promenade’ …


Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

1:13 PM EDT, October 17, 2010

In the race for a seat on the Baltimore County Council in District 1, much debate revolves around a project that at best is years away from construction: a mixed-use commercial project far bigger than anything its developer has done before, which has not been officially filed and would be built on state-owned land in Catonsville that is not for sale.

The Promenade — envisioned by Catonsville developer Steve Whalen as a complex of more than a million square feet including stores, restaurants, hotels, office, condominiums and public recreation area — has been discussed around Catonsville for years. A community organization called Catonsville Voices emerged in opposition as the project has attracted support from some residents, county and state officials, and has already prompted customized state legislation and even liquor license transfers.

District 1 candidates, Democrat Tom Quirk and Republican Steve Whisler, both of Catonsville, have taken slightly different positions on the Promenade, neither one strictly opposed to it. Each man accuses the other of being beholden to developers, each insists on a rigorous examination of any proposal, including extensive citizen participation.

Whalen said he’s envisoning a complex of roughly 1.4 million square feet of built space, or about 20-percent larger than the Towson Town Center shopping mall, next to the beltway, using some land that is now part of the Spring Grove Hospital Center, a state psychiatric institution.

Opponents argue that’s too big for the area and “threatens the tranquility of the Catonsville region,” as the Catonsville Voices Web site says. The group claims the Promenade would undermine thriving main streets in Catonsville and Arbutus, and that resources are better devoted to redeveloping existing commercial areas.

“I know revitalization is hard work,” said Jane Willeboordse, of Catonsville, a Promenade opponent. “but I think we have to embrace it rather than creating more of what we already have.”

Quirk and Whisler say the Promenade comes up a lot at candidate forums, even if it would likely be years before construction could begin.

“I don’t want to be known as the anti-Promenade candidate,” said Whisler, 42, a 20-year Navy veteran who has worked for a number of defense contractors since retiring from the military. By the same token, he said, “I don’t want to see the small-town feel of Catonsville and Arbutus go away.”

A political conservative who has been active for years in community organizations, Whisler said if state-owned land were to become available at the Spring Grove Hospital Center, he would put a commercial development in line behind several other potential uses. Among those: use half the 189-acre Spring Grove land for parks and athletic fields; elementary middle or high schools; new district court; new police station; expansion of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which borders Spring Grove on the southeast.

Quirk, 41, a financial planner, also puts the Promenade low in his wish list, conveying his own concerns about Catonsville’s main street, Frederick Road, which he said he worked to keep vibrant as a vice president of the Greater Catonsville Chamber of Commerce.

“I work right on Frederick Road,” said Quirk. “The last thing I want to do is hurt” business on that street.

Quirk has said that before he would have the land used for a commercial development — even one that included public park space — he would want to see the land used chiefly for public parks or expansion of UMBC.

That’s a shift from Quirk’s more unqualified support for the Promenade expressed in a letter to the “Catonsville Times” three years ago. He said the change in his thinking about the project came about as the scale of Whalen’s proposal expanded.

Whalen said his plans are “extremely preliminary,” but he’s already spent between $2 and $3 million on land, engineering, surveying, market studies and lobbying for the Promenade. He said the project cannot work unless he can buy about 29 acres along the beltway that is now part of the Spring Grove site. He said he already owns about 18 acres and would need 45 to 50 acres in a long, slender site running north to south along the western boundary of the beltway.

He estimated the Promenade would cost $350 million, a sum he said would be beyond his own ability to finance. His largest project up until now has been a $30 million, 160,000 square-foot office park in Catonsville. He said he would have to bring in a “joint venture partner.”

It’s unclear whether the land will ever become available, though.

Spokesmen for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which owns the land, and for Gov. Martin O’Malley, say essentially the same thing: there are no discussions of making any Spring Grove land available for development.

Whalen said his confidence in Spring Grove’s eventual diminishment if not outright closure is based on a trend in psychiatric treatment in general, and Maryland’s recent experience in particular. Since the Crownsville Hospital Center closed in 2004, four more state institutions treating psychiatric disorders or drug and alcohol abuse have shut down, including the Rosewood Center in Owings Mills and the Walter P. Carter Center in Baltimore City.

Eventually, Whalen reckons, Spring Grove will be on the list, as it has already shrunk since the 1950s from treating more than 3,000 patients to the current capacity of 449.

In the meantime, steps have been taken to pave the way for the Promenade, although the county says no plans have been filed.

Whalen said he has already transferred four liquor licenses from other businesses, fewer than half he said he would need for the project. He’s been getting support for the project from the outgoing District 1 Councilman S.G. Samuel Moxley and from County Executive James T. Smith Jr., who last fall urged the state Department of Transportation to improve the Frederick Road beltway interchange to accommodate the Promenade.

In the 2010 legislative session, the General Assembly unanimously adopted a move to include state hospital property in projects that were allowed to use tax districts and property tax increases to pay for highway and other improvements.

Tom Quirk
Age: 41
Residence: Catonsville
Occupation: Financial planner
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Western Maryland College (now McDaniel)

Steve Whisler
Age: 42
Residence: Catonsville
Occupation: Defense industry consultant
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Regents College, N.Y.; Master’s degree, Troy State University

Copyright © 2010, The Baltimore Sun
… Baltimore County Lodge No. 4 has endorsed candidate Tom Quick for the County Council seat in the District 1. …

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