(Update 3:35 p.m.)—The owners of Middle River Depot aren't intimidated by a referendum drive aimed at rezoning and preventing the construction of their planned recreation complex.
The 55-acre depot at Eastern Avenue and White Marsh Boulevard includes a former warehouse of 1.9-million square feet. Preliminary drawings by the Baltimore firm Design Collective include a gym, indoor sport facilities and a music venue. The outdoor spaces include nods to the area's rich aviation history. The project is expected to create about 4,000 permanent jobs.
"We're getting a little bit of resistance from a development group that wants to stop the growth of Middle River for his own intentions," said Sal Smeke, a managing member for Middle River Station LLC, which bought the depot in an auction from the General Services Administration in 2006 for $37.5 million.
"At the end of the day it's all in the hands of the community, so if the community believes they would like to see an abandoned spot there or an empty site, it's up to really them to decide," he added.
The resistance is coming largely from the Cordish Companies. The Baltimore Sun reported last week that Cordish, owners of the nearby Carroll Island Shopping Center, spearheaded the effort and that Cordish representatives discussed the potential petition drive at an Essex-Middle River Civic Council meeting in September.
In August, the County Council approved new business major zoning for the depot, potentially clearing the way for the sports, entertainment, retail and residential complex.
"We believe that for the community, it's going to be a home run for everybody, as a grocery center, as a retail complex as an entertainment area and so many other uses that we're thinking will come as the project develops," Smeke said.
In an interview in her office last month, Councilwoman Cathy Bevins said Cordish CEO David Cordish had spoken with her about the issues with Walmart, but "It all came down to jobs for me."
The referendum effort faces a steep uphill climb. Petitioners must get 29,000 signatures—a third of them by Oct. 15—to place the issue on the ballot in 2014, according to the Sun. No county law has ever been successfully petitioned to referendum. A separate petition drive was launched against the rezoning of the former Solo Cup factory in Owings Mills.
A website and literature for the petition drives allege that the rezoning maps in the third and sixth councilmanic districts are the result of a "broken" system and destroy "major employent opportunities that build communities." The development, opponents claim, is against the Midde River community plan, adopted by the County Council in 2007.
That plan mentions the depot specifically just once, in discussing consequences of increased traffic on White Marsh Boulevard. The plan does offer light industry as a goal for White Marsh Boulevard between Windlass Run and Eastern Avenue to "provide employment opportunities for area residents."
Still, many residents appear content with the project. At Wednesday's meeting of the Essex-Middle River Civic Council, council president Bob Bendler of Wilson Point said Smeke led community leaders on a tour of the depot, a former Glenn L. Martin Co. factory.
Residents were "encouraged and impressed" by Smeke, said Bendler, adding that "just about everything" from a community wish list for the project was added in the concept plan. Smeke was invited to a future civic council meeting, Bendler said.
In the unlikely event the referendum forces the depot project into a two-year holding pattern, Smeke assured that the owners are in for the long haul.
"Every property that we have worked in the last 40, 50 years in the past, we have never sold it. So we're looking for a long vision," he said. "To build this project is not going to take 10 minutes, but it's a beautiful project. We'll transform the area completely."
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