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.