In late-January, President Barack Obama, with Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley in tow, popped into a Glenarden, MD Costco to discuss raising the Federal Minimum Wage.
O’Malley, a rumored 2016 presidential hopeful, even lead the chant, "Its time to raise the wage! It’s time to raise the wage! It’s time to raise the wage!”
The next day, O’Malley’s appointed Chair of Maryland’s Sustainable Growth Commission, Jon Laria, was throwing a fit because Baltimore City residents have concerns over a large, controversial Walmart project, 25th St. Station, he has been working hard to bring into North Baltimore.
This project has received a controversial waiver for environmental regulations passed in 2007, even though the development was not announced until 2009 and now,in 2014, ground hasn’t even been broken yet.
The Baltimore Brew reports:
The postponement didn’t go over well with attorney Jon M. Laria, who represents the development team.
“More obstruction! Way to go!” he said afterwards, putting on his coat to leave. “Write that down!”
The residents meanwhile, were angry about the characterization, arguing that the developers brought the procedural impediments on themselves by not being more open to neighborhood concerns about traffic, noise impacts and the needs of pedestrians.
The hearing was for a swath of new waivers for the 25th Street Station development, all of which were passed.
The question here is whether or not O’Malley, by appointing someone to the Sustainable Growth Commission who works hard to bring Walmarts to Baltimore, who helps such Walmarts skate regulations everyone else is expected to adhere to, is exercising sound, presidential-quality judgment.
In O’Malley’s own words, “… [the] Sustainable Growth Commission will help leverage Maryland’s position as a national leader in environmental initiatives, while helping Maryland create a sustainable approach to development throughout our State, and building a more sustainable environment for future generations of Marylanders.”
Are environmental waivers for Walmart in Baltimore city really positioning Maryland as a “national leader in environmental development?” Is bringing more Walmarts into Baltimore city an example of “a sustainable approach to development?”
Below is a letter to Baltimore Sun reporter Lorraine Mirabella from Baltimore resident and Bmore Local member, Patrick Smith, asking these very same questions.
Shouldn’t we all be asking these questions? Why aren’t we?
Hi, Ms. Mirabella. You likely saw this Baltimore Brew story about the 25th Street/WalMart meetings.
You can call WalMart a lot of things. But you can’t call them “sustainable.”
So why is a group of developers — represented by Governor O’Malley’s sustainability chair — allowed to steamroll the wishes of a neighborhood by forcing a WalMart onto a Remington neighborhood that has fought against it?
The development company’s lead attorney - Jon M. Laria - was appointed chair of Governor Martin O’Malley’s Sustainable Growth Commission a few years back. Does WalMart count as “sustainable growth?” Certainly there’s no need here to even attempt to document all that’s wrong with WalMart and the chilling effect they have on everything they touch - from their employees to the environment to local economies.
There are no fewer than 18 WalMarts within 21 miles of downtown Baltimore. Adding one more WalMart to the metro area by wedging it into a dense, urban area with an already crumbling infrastructure and traffic-choked streets is the opposite of “sustainable,” no matter who the developer’s attorney is.
It’s time to pull the plug on the Remington WalMart. If there’s anyone involved with the BMore Local movement you’d like to talk with about WalMart or the 25th Street Station goings-on, I’m happy to offer help.
thanks for reading.
- Patrick Smith
Development’s Environmental Claims Are Questioned
A former industrial site overlooking Baltimore’s Jones Falls river valley has become the latest test case for the limits of “green” marketing. Sandwiched between the up-and-coming neighborhoods of Remington and Old Goucher, developer WV Urban Partners intends to build a large retail center on the site, anchored by a Walmart superstore. The development has been the subject of controversy and lawsuits since it was first announced, with many residents strongly opposed to the project’s suburban design as well as its potential impact on local businesses. Adding to this debate are questions surrounding 25th Street Station’s environmental cost to the City.
Marketed as a “sustainable design” that “will meet or exceed Baltimore’s Green Building ordinance,” the development instead skirts key environmental regulations. With the help of project attorney Jon Laria, Walmart and WV Urban Partners have managed to bypass Maryland’s 2007 Stormwater Management Act—a move that could potentially save the project millions of dollars. In a seeming conflict of interest, Laria—a major campaign contributor to Governor Martin O’Malley—also serves as the Chair of Maryland’s Sustainable Growth Commission.
By dodging state requirements to control rain runoff, 25th Street Station also conflicts with Baltimore’s fiscal priorities, as the city is in the midst of an EPA-mandated $2 billion upgrade of its aging stormwater and sewer infrastructure. These upgrades are part of an effort to control stormwater run-off, what environmental watchdog group Blue Water Baltimore calls “the biggest threat to water quality in the Baltimore Harbor/Patapsco River watershed.” City residents will bear the cost of this upgrade with a 42% increase in water and sewer fees. Walmart, however, will save significantly on the construction of a much less robust stormwater collection system.
The Walmart site sits less than three miles from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and a stone’s throw from Jones Falls and Stony Run, and thus will have a direct and outsized impact on the watershed. Despite the store’s partial green roof, the acres of asphalt surrounding the store will effectively dump the site’s runoff and water pollution directly into Baltimore’s aging sewer system, and from there into the Chesapeake Bay.
In 2010, the project received a waiver exempting it from current state stormwater law. Such waivers were intended only for developments begun before 2009, even though the 25th Street Station project was first announced in December of that year and was not approved until November of 2010. After a series of lawsuits delayed the project, groundbreaking is now scheduled for 2014—five years after the stormwater law went into effect.
In a highly unusual reversal of procedure, Baltimore City extended the Walmart’s stormwater waiver and granted the project final approval on May 1, 2013, prior to review by the Planning Department’s design and site plan committees. This expedited and concealed approval came in the nick of time for the development—the waiver was set to expire on May 4, 2013, and would have forced the Walmart to include more expensive design features meant to protect the health of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
The extension now allows Walmart and WV Urban Partners to avoid current regulations, as long as they complete construction by 2017 (a full decade after the environmental law was passed) at a major savings to Walmart and an incalculable cost to the Chesapeake Bay.
Baltimore Residents Object to “Bait-and-Switch” Design for Walmart Store
It’s more than a letdown to area residents, who fought long and hard three years ago for architectural and pedestrian improvements that better suit the project’s central urban location. Since then, co-tenant Lowe’s Home Improvement has pulled out the project, sparking a redesign and making Walmart the main occupant as well as owner.
No longer the “urban mixed-use complex … compatible with the scale and character of the surrounding neighborhoods” that developer WV Urban Partners had sold to the community in 2010, the current blueprint has pedestrians navigate a city block of concrete pathways and stairwells before reaching the store’s new entrance. Those with mobility issues are left to rely on a lonely outdoor elevator, where residents worry they will become easy targets for criminals.
Controversially, the development plans also call for the destruction of historic Royer’s Hill Church to make room for the Walmart’s repositioned loading dock. Residents have petitioned the developer to save and repurpose the church. They note that the Walmart building is 55% smaller since Lowe’s departed, and that the site could now accommodate both structures. Built in 1891 as a mission of Lovely Lane United Methodist Church—the “Mother Church” of American Methodism—this stately stone chapel has been an architectural landmark in the Remington neighborhood for over 120 years.
In place of the church, the 2013 plans also reposition Walmart’s main vehicular entrance and loading area across the street from a block of historic rowhouses. Neighborhood resident Megan Hamilton worries that “Trucks idling constantly near homes will compromise the health of the many residents who, like myself have asthma.”
Despite the major redesign and residents’ concerns, the Baltimore City Planning Department considers the changes merely aesthetic, claiming that the modifications are “minor amendments” to the project. This semantic difference allows Walmart to bypass the full city-approval process, including all application requirements and fees.
Residents call foul play, objecting to what they feel is special treatment for the world’s largest retailer. “In most cities this change would automatically be classified as a major amendment,” says Jay Orr, an architect who works in the neighborhood. “According to Baltimore’s zoning code, minor amendments are reserved only for changes to interior plans or design features, not the significant revisions proposed here.”
Notwithstanding strong objections from residents and community groups, the project looks headed for city approval without the recommended design improvements and bypassing a full City Council review. This is on top of the millions of dollars in tax breaks and incentives being given to the project. Residents feel that Baltimore is once again selling itself short. Says resident Kris Northrup, “I guess that Walmart doesn’t have to play by the same rules as the rest of us.”
Walmart spokespersons have responded to community concerns with statements that the store will employ over 300 people and will provide affordable shopping for the neighborhood. However, residents point to recent studies showing that each new job at a Walmart store results in the loss of least one similar job in the surrounding area as nearby shops shutter their doors. This is exactly what many believe will happen with the Safeway grocery two blocks from the site.
Major amendment or not, many in the neighborhood feel cheated. “I don’t believe Walmart is willing to invest the money,” says resident Damien Nichols.
Despite protests from residents, neighborhood associations, churches, unions and more, the Baltimore City Council voted last night to approve a TIF tax subsidy for developer Michael Beatty’s controversial Harbor Point project.
Opponents argue that our tax funds should not be not be going to benefit this kind of development.
Councilman Carl Stokes, chairman of the Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee, called this “the worst piece of legislation I’ve ever seen.”
According to the Baltimore Brew, $95 million of the city’s future federal highway allocations will be directed to this project. But hey, our highways aren’t so bad, right?
Opponents point out that all we are doing is subsidizing Exelon’s (BG&E’s corporate owner) profits, and that this development could have easily taken place without taxpayer funding.
And the other problem, of course, is the project sits atop a toxic waste site - a significant portion of Baltimore poisoned by Honeywell and then “capped” to protect us from the toxins.
The following city council members voted to provide this development up to $125 million in city bonds for public improvements, despite protests from, as Councilwoman Rikki Spector referred to Baltimoreans, the “peanut gallery.”
Jack Young (Council President)
James B. Kraft (District 1)
Brandon M. Scott (District 2)
Robert Curran (District 3)
Rikki Spector (District 5)
Nick Mosby (District 7)
Helen Holton (District 8)
Pete Welch (District 9)
Edward Reisinger (District 10)
William H. Cole (District 11)
Warren Branch (District 13)
… [Councilman Jim] Kraft, who represents the First District where the project [the controversial Harbor Point development] is located, said he was following the wishes of community groups.
He said there was ‘much to do’ about the Fell’s Point Residents Association backing away from its prior support of Harbor Point. He characterized the group’s action as simply 34 people choosing to vote at a meeting. …"
from "Council suspends rules, approves Harbor Point TIF subsidy tonight" by Mark Reutter, The Baltimore Brew
When the Baltimore City Council wants to take a position hostile to small businesses, it frequently defers to the concerns of local community associations.
When the Baltimore City Council wants to take a position hostile to communities in support of large, corporate developments, they marginalize the comments of those very same community associations, as Councilman Kraft illustrates here.