Seeking more sway in western Baltimore County redevelopment, County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. is backing a council proposal to prop up a redevelopment authority in greater Woodlawn and make it easier to acquire and redevelop property.
Already officials are eyeing a massive, multimillion-dollar redevelopment project at Security Square Mall as an opportunity to start flexing broader land acquisition powers granted by the General Assembly in 2022 through a quasi-public West Baltimore County Redevelopment Authority.
The bill, sponsored by first-term Councilman Patrick “Pat” Young and Councilman Izzy Patoka, comes little more than a year after the General Assembly passed a law allowing Baltimore County to create the organization through local legislation to facilitate west side redevelopment.
The Maryland law allows the county to delegate nearly all land acquisition and conveyance powers to the redevelopment authority, and permits the redevelopment authority to issue bonds not backed by the county.
If the council signs off, Baltimore County or, by extension, the development authority, would be able to acquire any property within the area targeted for redevelopment “by purchase, lease, gift, condemnation, or any other legal means,” under Maryland law. The county — and authority — could redevelop, sell, transfer or otherwise dispose of it for commercial, residential or industrial use. Under the local bill, the authority would have the right of first refusal of county-owned and foreclosed non-residential properties.
“This is a path for the county to play an active role on redevelopment in neglected areas,” said Young, who represents the portion of Woodlawn that includes languishing Security Square Mall, where the county has gone full tilt on revitalization, largely by buying mall property.
Without a quasi-public developer, Young said, “you have to rely on internal structures to move forward a plan that has not traditionally, or ever, been used that way before.”
The authority would allow the county to have a role in redevelopment while under the advisement of those with more expertise.
“The county is not by nature a private sector developer,” Deputy County Administrative Officer Sameer Sidh said in an interview about the Woodlawn mall.
A joint venture could allow the county to “shape the vision” of Security Square Mall “while allowing the private sector to have an opportunity to develop some elements,” Sidh said. “That’s kind the balance that we’re hoping to strike.”
The council proposal would establish an authority to facilitate redevelopment within roughly 13 square miles between the Liberty Road corridor and U.S. 40. The area includes Woodlawn, much of Milford Mill and part of Lochearn in the 1st, 2nd and 4th councilmanic districts. Two councilmen — including 4th District Council Chair Julian Jones — and the Randallstown NAACP support the bill.
The redevelopment authority would be the first of its kind in Baltimore County, and one of just a few in the state; Prince George’s County established a quasi-public developer in 1996, and Laurel has its own authority.
The bill doesn’t propose rules governing exactly how it would function. Instead, the authority would adopt its own bylaws for bidding, purchasing and personnel operations, as well as regulations for “operation and use of land, property” and undertakings in the authority’s jurisdiction, according to the draft.
But already the nonexistent developer has a pot of money at its disposal: Gov. Wes Moore committed $750,000 in operating funds and $250,000 in his capital budget to a west county redevelopment authority. Olszewski set aside $500,000 for a redevelopment authority in this year’s capital budget. Asked how the capital funding will be used, a county spokeswoman said only that it was for the redevelopment authority.
Really what we’re talking about is, this is where mostly African Americans live. And you have a council that is not diverse. ... We just want to make sure that we have a voice on the direction of how all of this goes.
Ryan Coleman, president of Randallstown NAACP
The authority would be able to issue bonds and other securities, Young said, and solicit bids and proposals for planning and building. The authority would also identify redevelopment opportunities, possibly by using an inventory of vacant and blighted properties the council voted to create earlier this year.
The bill doesn’t reinvent the wheel, Randallstown NAACP chapter president Ryan Coleman said.
“It’s in line with a lot of the other authorities,” said Coleman, who previously worked as an aide in the county executive administration when now-U.S. Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger served in the 1990s and early aughts.
But “really what we’re talking about is, this is where mostly African Americans live,” Coleman said. “And you have a council that is not diverse. ... We just want to make sure that we have a voice on the direction of how all of this [Woodlawn-area redevelopment] goes.”
Asked about guardrails that preclude eminent domain and the county’s expanded land acquisition powers from disparately affecting communities — particularly low-income residents — Jones, who represents parts of Woodlawn and Milford Mill, said: “It takes an act of the council to do any of those things.”
Measures like eminent domain must be reserved for projects “that are wanted and needed by the community,” Jones, the lone council member who is Black, said. And Baltimore County already has the ability to use it, he added.
Constituents should feel at ease knowing “there would be due process on the council’s side,” he said. The bill says council members would vote whether to approve authority redevelopment projects when signing off on the executive’s capital budget each year.
As drafted, the county administrative officer, along with an executive appointee and state and local lawmakers who represent the greater Woodlawn area, would make up the redevelopment authority’s non-voting members. They would select 11 “public members” to oversee the authority over a four-year term; the oversight team would be selected from a list of candidates nominated by each non-voting official, and must live in the 1st, 2nd or 4th councilmanic districts.
The county’s chief administrator, Stacy Rodgers, budget director and attorney would serve as the authority’ executive director, secretary-treasurer and general counsel, unless the authority decided to appoint others.
In a statement, Olszewski said the redevelopment authority “can be an important catalyst to support the residential, commercial, and industrial redevelopment that will encourage growth” in western parts of the county, where he believes “deeply in doing all we can to create opportunity.”
Security Square Mall ‘a golden opportunity’?
Coleman said discussions about a redevelopment authority began in earnest after Baltimore County joined the NAACP chapter in its efforts to rehab Security Square.
Officials have been spending down $20 million in state and local dollars on a monthslong community planning process, consultant reports and acquisition — to the tune of $16.85 million — for 18 acres of mall property.
“It was obvious that another entity pushing these things would really be advantageous,” Coleman said. “That’s why it’s important to get representation of race on there.”
Even lawmakers who challenged the powers of such an authority, like Republican Del. Kathy Szeliga, see its potential.
Through Security Square Mall, Baltimore County has “a golden opportunity” to revive greater Woodlawn, said Szeliga. And if a quasi-public developer succeeds there, Szeliga thinks it’s worth considering a similar effort focused on redeveloping the area around northeastern White Marsh Mall in her district.
Republican Councilman David Marks, whose district includes White Marsh, agreed.
“The bill is simply an attempt to focus economic development resources in a needy part of the county,” Marks said. “People have asked, ‘When is this gonna happen with White Marsh Mall?”
If the redevelopment authority works on the west side, “and gains public support, maybe it’s an option,” he added.
Coleman and west side lawmakers also floated the commercial corridor on western Liberty Road — which decades of various revitalization programs have failed to revive — as a place to focus redevelopment efforts. If approved, Young wants the authority to be a nexus for public-private partnerships; officials have said for months their vision for Security Square Mall relies on such a joint venture.
Young said the bill is “not just about the Security Square Mall development – it’s about showing what we can do in a small area that needs redevelopment, and could potentially” be expanded through the county.
The council is expected to discuss the bill during its work session June 27.