It may not look like much, but the empty Baltimore County shopping center surrounded by a sea of empty gray concrete is one of Maryland’s most divisive, and consequential, pieces of land.

Purchased by a county-based developer in 2020, Lutherville Station stands a few yards away from a light rail stop that connects Baltimore County to the city and Anne Arundel County. It has been eyed for new development that would add retail stores, commercial tenants and housing — lots of it — to the grounds.

An old, abandoned shopping center with a large, empty parking lot.
All commercial tenants at one section of Lutherville Station, shown here on Jan. 24, 2024, have moved out. The new owner plans to turn the massive parking lot and abandoned buildings into a new, mixed-use development. (Daniel Zawodny)

But a few blocks away, neighbors have planted black signs in their yards with a clear message for the developer: “NO APARTMENTS NO COMPROMISE. SAVE SUBURBIA.”

State and county lawmakers, energized with a renewed urgency on housing policy, have sought to make the developer’s path forward easier. Maryland policymakers and planners consider Lutherville Station a textbook example of the kind of place that should be developed: one near a public transit line, situated on vacant commercial land and in a county exploding with potential but limited in how much land it has to add more growth.

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Last month, County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. introduced legislation that would allow mixed-use projects — or those with more two or more uses, such as housing and retail — to skip County Council approval and head straight to the county’s Zoning Review board. The development would be based on the county’s Master Plan and limited to “nodes” in “aging neighborhood centers, major arterials, within a quarter mile of a transit corridor, or large greyfield sites,” such as abandoned shopping centers and malls.

Two black and white yard signs, one that reads "save suburbia, no new light rail, no TOD, no apartments" and the other "no apartments, no compromise" are staked into the grass in front of a suburban street with cars and single family homes in the background.
Signs opposing plans to redevelop the area around the Lutherville light rail station are scattered throughout a nearby neighborhood. (Daniel Zawodny)

Olszewski has said he supports redevelopment at Lutherville Station. A spokeswoman said Tuesday that he hopes to see the process play out.

But it’s not clear if the local legislation, which County Council members are expected to discuss at a Tuesday meeting, can pass. And without it, the project will hinge on the support of the County Council, which has been reluctant to greenlight new housing projects — especially in the face of community resistance.

“There’s something to me that is problematic if you’re trying to bypass a public body,” said County Council chair Izzy Patoka, a Democrat whose District 2 includes Pikesville, Gwynn Oak and Stevenson, about the local bill. The measure would strip a council member’s authority to introduce a resolution in support of a development in their district before it heads to zoning board members.

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Patoka, a former planner, said he would not support Olszewski’s mixed-use development bill as written due to its ability to dilute council members’ say. While he said he could not comment on the specifics of the Lutherville site, he acknowledged the community’s concerns about overcrowding, traffic and zoning.

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Meanwhile, at the state level, Gov. Wes Moore’s administration wants to grant expanded powers to developers to add more density — square footage or height — to projects including those within one mile of a passenger rail station. The administration also wants to invest in public transit for climate and sustainability purposes.

All these debates converge at one point: Lutherville Station.

Developer Mark Renbaum, Principal of MLR Partners, wants to add 450 apartment units there, as well as new shops, restaurants, public green space and maybe some office space if the market will bear it.

In an interview with The Baltimore Banner, Renbaum said he can feel all eyes on him.

A man wearing a black jacket stands in front of a sign for a strip mall that says Lutherville Station.
Mark Renbaum, Principal of MLR Partners, stands in a nearly empty parking lot at Lutherville Station, a site he plans to soon develop with new office and apartment space, on Jan. 24, 2024. (Daniel Zawodny)

“Lutherville Station is a proxy on a much greater discussion, which is a really important discussion for the future of Baltimore County and the future of the state,” Renbaum said last month. “If this project doesn’t work, I think it’s a proxy on how you’re going to make the rest of all this work.”

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Renbaum said he engaged in about 2½ years’ of community outreach and engagement ahead of closing on the property and has absorbed the feedback: He said the current version of his proposal calls for more public park space, about 20% fewer apartment units than originally planned and no three-bedroom layouts to accommodate concerns about overcrowding and school capacity. And he said he’s willing to commit, legally, to address other concerns such as stormwater management, sewer and traffic.

But with opposition committed to “no compromise,” Renbaum said, his concessions have fallen on deaf ears. He said he’s undeterred, at least for now.

“No one’s breaking down anyone’s doors right now, saying they want 50,000 square feet of office. That’s a much harder sell these days,” Renbaum said. “Retail here I think will do very well. But the retail is going to want the residential to be in place. And then all of a sudden, we can create something magical.”

A digital rendering of a large green field with buildings on three sides.
A digital model of the proposed overhaul of Lutherville Station. (JP2 Architects)

Those signs are one example why Maryland’s top housing official said top-down intervention can sometimes be justified given just how bad the state’s housing affordability and supply challenges have become.

Fifteen years of bad housing policy yielded too-few units, state Housing Secretary Jacob R. Day said at a November affordable-housing summit, making the government’s response necessary — even at the local level.

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“What I don’t think is important is that anybody who has a problem with a development occurring on a piece of property be given an elevated position of ‘I can kill it by yelling at the local government officials on the other side of the table,’ ” Day said, attributing “resistance” as a major barrier to more production across the state.

In Baltimore County, Terry Hickey, the director of the Department of Housing and Community Development, said the county executive’s mixed-use bill could “level the playing field” between those on both sides of the development argument. Community members should be given a say in the process, he said — but not a veto. And council members should not feel forced to defer to them.

Without new housing opportunities, Hickey and Department of Planning Director Steve Lafferty said, growth in the county could stagnate. Housing can add to the property tax base, help improve public infrastructure and draw new investment to the area. Without Lutherville Station, the county risks more “business as usual,” Lafferty said.

But community members have made their resistance to the Lutherville Station project known, speaking against the plans at in-person meetings and in a series of guest commentary pieces published in The Baltimore Sun since October, after the newspaper’s editorial board questioned the role of racism in the resistance movement. Several responses penned by community representatives, the district’s county councilman and neighbors followed, arguing instead that the objections to the project stemmed mostly from other concerns, including about school crowding, traffic and community character.

“To insinuate race has any bearing on the resistance to this project is misinformed and untrue,” Lutherville resident Whitney Dudley wrote in an October guest commentary piece in The Sun. “There are several concerns regarding the impact on the environment, infrastructure, traffic and school overcrowding to name those most often expressed.”

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The resistance has also migrated over to social media, where Republican Todd Crandell called on community members to organize against the county’s proposed 2030 Master Plan. Crandell said he would submit an amendment to eliminate the development “nodes” altogether.

“Low-income, subsidized housing projects in the 7th district could occur in these nodes through a Development Review process run entirely by the County Executive and his administration,” Crandell said on Facebook, drawing a parallel to a federal program that helped housing voucher recipients to move to the suburbs in the 1990s.

“This is worse,” he wrote.

Facing a shortfall of available land, the county has few other options for building up its housing supply outside of getting big, new projects done in strategic places, said Marsha S. McLaughlin, a retired planning director for Howard County who lives near Lutherville Station.

Part of a grassroots community group called We The People, McLaughlin said resistance actors tend to misjudge the speed and scale with which projects move forward. And some like to point fingers at developers for problems that are better handled elsewhere, such as with the local school board, county budget officers or county council members, she added.

“The county needs to provide adequate public facilities, and no one should be panicking over that,” McLaughlin said. “Those issues can be addressed. The harder issue is trying to explain who will live in these [apartments]. ... That’s the phobia in Lutherville.”

Republican County Councilman Wade Kach, in October, noted that Lutherville Station was largely vacant, and new growth there could be an asset.

“This may very well be the last opportunity for the citizens of Lutherville to have a meaningful role in the Lutherville Station redevelopment,” he wrote in a Sun commentary piece.

Kach warned community members that refusing to compromise could cause the county to resort to legislation that strips him of his zoning authority.

“This is not idle speculation,” he warned. A few months later, Olzewski’s bill went before the council.

County Councilman Mike Ertel also told The Banner he would not support the mixed-use bill. Councilmembers Julian Jones, Pat Young and David Marks did not respond to a request for comment.

Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America, a national service organization that places emerging journalists with local newsrooms that cover underreported issues.