Maryland’s state government plans to take a more active role in promoting development around transit stations, launching studies of the best options to build around Baltimore transit stops and along the MARC commuter train’s Penn Line.
“It’s priming the pump to get these things moving and to show the state is fully engaged,” state Transportation Secretary Paul J. Wiedefeld said in an interview Tuesday.
The state wants to take a comprehensive look at opportunities for what’s known as transit-oriented development, which typically involves building housing, shops and offices around transit hubs. The state believes that well-thought-out projects can benefit both communities and commuters and wants to cultivate the most viable ideas.
“We have a tremendous opportunity for the state to play a more active role that maybe we haven’t played historically in the past,” Wiedefeld said.
The state is issuing a request for proposals Wednesday to hire consultants to map out options in two areas: one along the MARC Penn Line and another around the Baltimore region’s Light Rail and Metro SubwayLink stops.
The first phase of the MARC study will include stations between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.: West Baltimore, Halethorpe, BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, Odenton, Bowie State and Seabrook.
The second phase of the MARC study will include stations north of Baltimore: Martin State Airport, Edgewood, Aberdeen and Perryville.
The Baltimore-area study is focused on existing Light Rail and Metro Subway stations, and doesn’t explicitly include development along the proposed east-west Red Line — though transportation officials have touted the Red Line as a catalyst for economic development.
The studies will identify both opportunities and challenges for development, such as financing hurdles or zoning entanglements.
“We’re not starting from scratch. There’s been different developers and counties that have interest,” Wiedefeld said.
Transit-oriented developments can be complex, involving state and local governments and private developers. There can be issues around zoning, financing, taxes — and politics.
In Baltimore County, for example, it took years of planning, a legal fight and waiting out an economic downturn before a combination of government-funded development (garage, library, community college branch) and privately-funded development (apartments, stores, restaurants, offices) opened around the Owings Mills subway station.
The COVID-19 recession tanked another transit-oriented project to redevelop Baltimore County’s former Martin Aircraft manufacturing plant into a sports complex surrounded by new retailers, a hotel and residences next to a MARC commuter station. That led developers who won state approval to instead sell the Middle River property to a real estate firm, which said it would build warehouses on the 49-acre property.
Even when market conditions and state support align, transit-oriented development can be thorny locally. In Lutherville-Timonium, a developer’s efforts to win a state designation for redevelopment of the aged Lutherville Station shopping center near a light rail stop has drawn protests from northern Baltimore County residents who say they want to keep out renters — lest their neighborhoods become more urbanized.
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. supported redeveloping the former Martin Aircraft site, but has not said whether the second-term Democrat will request a transit-oriented designation to redevelop Lutherville Station and the project would need zoning changes approved by the County Council.
“Our administration strongly believes in the potential of leveraging transit-adjacent sites for redevelopment and mixed used opportunities to ensure the long-term vitality of our largely built-out communities,” Palmisano wrote in a statement.
Anne Arundel County already has one state-designated transit-oriented development zone, at the Odenton MARC station, where a planned parking garage will free up surface lots for future development, said County Executive Steuart Pittman. And the county has an application pending for a transit-oriented development zone at the Light Rail’s Cromwell Station in Glen Burnie, where the station and a large parking lot sit across the street from a struggling old shopping center.
“Cromwell is a huge opportunity, it’s an area that needs commercial revitalization,” said Pittman, a Democrat.
Pittman said he’s “thrilled” with the state’s interest in transit-oriented development.
“There’s an alignment now,” he said. “Under the Hogan administration, obviously transit was not a high priority. ... Now we have an administration that understands smart growth and understands transit-oriented development.”
Local transit advocates have long pushed for development along the region’s rail lines, arguing that more apartments and retail space will boost the economy and provide sustainable housing options. Eric Norton, policy director for the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, welcomed the nod towards transit-oriented development from the state — and said the state should focus efforts on stations outside of the city, calling them the “most underutilized.”
“The assets [stations] are already there, but they aren’t living up to their potential,” said Norton. “This is long overdue.”
Lutherville Station developer Mark Renbaum, CEO of Schwaber Holdings, said he’s “looking forward to working with the state” on development as transportation officials seek ways to improve regional transit systems.
“For a property like Lutherville Station — which is great real estate — it’s at the perfect time to be demolished and redeveloped into a brand new, mixed use space,” he said; but it’s “the amount of political hurdles” that are holding the developer back from redeveloping the lot as hundreds of apartments, offices and retailers.
If the transit study finds favorable economic conditions for transit-oriented redevelopment, Renbaum said “of course it will” ameliorate public resistance to his $228 million proposal; and he hopes the study addresses “the fact that politics are getting in the way of sound economic decision-making.”
The New Carrollton Metro Station in Prince George’s County is perhaps the best example of what transit-oriented development can achieve, said Wiedefeld, who previously ran the D.C. Metro system.
Where that Metro station was once surrounded mostly by parking, Metro worked with the county government to move a parking garage to open up a significant area for development. Construction is underway to ultimately include a Kaiser Permanente office building, a Metro office building, apartments, Amtrak improvements and more.
New Carrollton is also an example of the complexity of such developments, with many partners involved.
“It takes that type of involvement,” Wiedefeld said. “It doesn’t really matter who is running it, per se. … The real issue is getting people around the table.”
The plan is for the Baltimore-area study to be complete by the end of the year, with the MARC Penn Line study completed in early 2024.
“We have a unique opportunity to enliven our neighborhoods, bring residents and visitors together and celebrate the people and places that make Maryland special,” Gov. Wes Moore, a Democrat, said in a statement. “With equitable, sustainable and accessible transit as the centerpiece, we can respect and preserve the things we love about our neighborhoods, and rejuvenate them as vibrant economic centers of community life.”
Baltimore Banner reporter Daniel Zawodny contributed to this article.