Volume 12, Issue 18 ~ April 29-May 5, 2004
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Battling for Parole

Look again at Parole — and imagine it with people
A new developer takes on the old battle ground
by Sonia Linebaugh

This April was time for Parole Plaza to turn a corner. With a new owner taking on the one-time shopping center, politicians, developers, county planners, lawyers, activists and citizens gathered hoping to heal the wounds of old battles and to salvage their dreams for a people-oriented town center.

Their hopes fell short when new owner Erwin L. Greenberg skipped the forum. Then the man invited to spark the vision, Fred Kent of Projects for Public Places, warned that the problem was more than Parole Plaza, spanning the entire Parole area.

“This is really bad,” said Kent. “There’s more asphalt here than I’ve seen anywhere. Human beings are the lowest priority in this community. That’s obvious.”

Not one person in the gathering of 30 disagreed. Parole, all agreed, is a casualty.

Wounds are part of Parole’s long story.

From Civil War POW Camp to Shoppers’ Paradise
Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross, once nursed wounded and dying soldiers at the site of Anne Arundel County’s hotly contested Parole Plaza. Despite her efforts, thousands died of injury and disease.

Red Cross founder Clara Barton, below, tended wounded parolees — prisoners of war awaiting release — at Camp Parole, shown above in one of the only known photos.

During the Civil War, a prisoner of war could be paroled: Released, that is, on the promise that he would either return to custody at a specified time or not take up arms against his captors. The men were held at camps run by their own troops before returning to their regiments. Camp Parole was one of these places: a Union-held camp where Union troops — parolees — captured by the Confederates awaited prisoner exchanges. Here they got a shave, a bath and a clean set of clothes.

One such parolee was Union Private Israel Himes of Company B, 78th Regiment, Pennsylvania. Himes arrived at Camp Parole on December 31, 1862, as a prisoner of war from the Battle of Stone’s Creek at Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He appeared on the muster roll at Parole, save for a brief period marked AWOL, until October 24, 1863. Then he returned to his unit, only to die on June 4, 1864, of wounds received in action at New Hope Church, Georgia.

In peacetime a century later, Parole’s story was rewritten. It became Parole Plaza, the premier shopping destination for much of Anne Arundel County.

June McGuckian, a 30-year resident of Arnold, remembers the thrill of discovering that Parole.

Having grown up in Washington, D.C., McGuckian was loyal to the department store known for decades as Woodies. Woodward & Lothrop “was better than Macy’s for upscale clothing and furniture,” McGuckian says.

When she and husband George moved to Arnold in 1968, they were delighted to find Woodies next to Sears at the beautifully landscaped Parole Plaza.

“It was the best of both worlds,” says McGuckian. “Right next to Woodies, there were appliances and hardware at Sears. I met friends in a wonderful lunch room in another store. And people were crazy about grocery shopping at the Magruders. For middle-class people, Parole Plaza was a wonderful place — though it nearly killed downtown Annapolis.”

Pinning down Parole
Parole sits at the west end of the 14,630-acre Annapolis Neck Peninsula, which includes the city of Annapolis. Four hundred and ninety acres of the region — including the 33-acre Parole Plaza — were designated a Parole Growth Management Area by 1990 legislation to focus commercial, employment and high-density residential development within a defined circle.

The Growth Management Area is bounded by Bestgate Road and Annapolis Commerce Park on the north, Route 2 on the east, Gingerville on the south, to the west Broad Creek near Harry S Truman Parkway. Within it are the region’s monuments of commercial development: Anne Arundel Medical Park, Westfield Shoppingtown (aka Annapolis Mall), Jennifer Square Shopping Center, Annapolis Plaza, Forest Plaza, Festival at Riva and Annapolis Harbour Center.

photo by Marion Warren
Parole before commercial development, circa 1957, from M.E. Warren’s Cityscapes series in The Eye of the Beholder.
U.S. Route 50/301 cuts the growth area in two. Other major streets criss-crossing the 490-acre Parole area are Forest Drive, Riva Road, Jennifer Road, Bestgate Road, Route 2, Route 450 and Route 665.

Among and around all this commercial enterprise live 14,031 people in 6,946 housing units, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. That’s 1,364 people per square mile, compared with 5,327 people per square mile in Annapolis proper.

The Growth Management Area has succeeded by its own definition — flourishing as a center for high-density commerce — except for floundering Parole Plaza, Anne Arundel County’s first shopping town.

Today’s Parole Plaza is a wounded, diseased prisoner of a war held captive by developers, politicians and visionaries. Just as earlier Parole Plaza had emptied downtown, so the Annapolis Mall devastated Parole Plaza. After decaying for more than a decade, the Plaza is a wreck of boarded-up buildings crumbling into a flat gray parking lot. A single towering pine is the visible remnant of its popular open-air mall. Solvents requiring a multi-million dollar cleanup have seeped into the ground.

Downtown Annapolis found new life as a tourist destination built on its historic appeal and waterside charm and bolstered by restaurants and bars, national retailers and small-scale shops, which all together created a sense of place that satisfies residents while appealing to tourists.

So far, Parole Plaza has not risen to its own challenge: Will it ever find a new life? What will that new life look like? Is there enough goodwill to create a place that brings people a sense of pride and neighborhood as Historic Annapolis has done?

There have been plenty of answers to the second question, but none has yet satisfied the first or the third.

A Decade of Battles
Since 1990, Parole’s future has been hotly debated in Anne Arundel County. To spur new life, there have been meetings, plans, counter-plans, arguments and design standards. Political fights have broken apparent truces over Parole Plaza, including a veto by County Executive Janet Owens and accusations of foul play by Councilwoman Barbara Samorajczyk. The most recent development is a change of ownership.

The battles have not been civil. Nor have they achieved victory.

Hope flourished with the new millennium, as then-owner Freedman and Company Real Estate Inc. proposed a multi-phase 25-year plan for revitalizing the site as a walkable town center.

The plan should have been good news, for in 1994, the Parole Growth Management Area directives of 1990 grew into a vision: a walkable town center with internal streets, public plazas and bicycle and pedestrian paths. County laws require a zoning and code review every five years, so again at the millennium Parole was reviewed. The Parole Committee went even further to preserve a people-friendly town center. Their product was a two-inch thick volume, including pages of new design standards championed by County Councilwoman Barbara Samorajczyk.

But a new battle broke out when it came to light that owner Carl Freedman meant to anchor his grand walkable town center with a Wal-Mart store and parking lot.

In that battle, Baltimore Regional Partnership — a smart-growth coalition including Chesapeake Bay Foundation — urged Anne Arundel County’s Department of Planning and Zoning to ensure that the Parole site be used in keeping with earlier people-friendly plans, affirmed and amended over the decade.

The Partnership made two key demands: First, that the county and the developer construct a defining infrastructure that would literally lock the plan in concrete. Second, that both the Wal-Mart and any other stores have direct frontage on internal streets or plazas within the town center.

Meanwhile the Parole Committee’s revised plan was finally passed by the County Council November, 2001, by a vote of 4–3. Ten days later, County Executive Janet Owens vetoed the measure, insisting that the plan was flawed because it had been based unwittingly on the wrong version of the design standards approved by the Parole Growth Management Committee.

Samorajczyk counterattacked, claiming that Owens’ veto gave up the county’s legal right to require that design standards be met. The councilwoman charged that a grading permit for the site was issued prior to execution of a development agreement, meaning that Freedman had signed a prior lease with Wal-Mart and the county.

In turn, Owens insisted that no permits would be granted until the proposed design satisfied county standards.

photo by Sonia Linebaugh
Asked to consult in the development of Parole, Fred Kent, founder and president of Project for Public Spaces, warned that “Parking with nice-looking buildings is not a place. Put your attention on place, and everything else will follow.”
In an October 17, 2002, interview, Owens told Bay Weekly that “Citizens want to know what’s going to happen, but I can’t help them,” regarding Parole development.

“I don’t have a role until the owner and potential buyer come to terms,” the county executive continued. “The county has no role until the deal is finalized. As it stands, all the codes Wal-Mart is allowed are legal. The forthcoming design standards that the community is working on will determine the look.”

Preempting tougher standards, Freedman applied to change the original development guidelines of the Parole Town Center Growth Management Area. Anne Arundel County agreed to changes that would have allowed bigger and taller buildings including a 16-story landmark building surrounded by other towers of eight and 12 stories. Reduced open space was also proposed.

Yet after all that battling, no ground was turned. Neither the Wal-Mart nor the concrete infrastructure materialized. Back to ground zero, Freedman put Parole Plaza up for sale. Eventually he sought bankruptcy protection to avoid losing the site to foreclosure, according to a report in the Baltimore Sun.

Finally, Freedman found a buyer for Parole Plaza. This April, the Erwin L. Greenberg Commercial Corporation went to settlement on Parole Plaza, raising new hopes that old wounds would heal and a new town center might be born. In that spirit of hope, community activists and county officials gathered April 26 to share their sense of place with Parole’s new owner.

Greenberg’s Sense of Place
Erwin L. Greenberg Commercial Corporation, in a joint venture with PREI, the real estate investment arm of Prudential Financial, Inc., has its own plans for Parole Plaza. The Baltimore-based developer is paying $25 million to purchase the 33-acre site, which it plans to transform into a $300 million mix of retail stores, office towers and residential units.

Around the region examples of Greenberg’s work abound.

Some of Greenberg’s current projects include Hunt Valley Town Centre north of Baltimore, Westminster Crossing in Carroll County and — in Anne Arundel — the Village at Waugh Chapel in Gambrills.

Waugh Chapel, widely touted as a model of town-center development is a sprawling 71-acre site with outdoor plazas, a lake with waterfall and fountains, a walking path and shaded promenades. The main street is home to Safeway, Marshalls, HomeGoods and Eckerd Drug as well as numerous small retailers and the offices of Anne Arundel Health System. Robert Andrews, one of the largest day spas on the East Coast, marks its status with a marble fountain in the middle of its salon.

Waugh Chapel has citizens as well, with 400 market-rate senior housing units and 12,600 additional units.

Clearly, Greenberg could create a Parole that’s — in the words of the ironic banner than hangs on the empty plaza — “Better than You Remember.”

That’s the question now. Will Greenberg’s new Parole satisfy the hunger of a community that’s watched for well over a decade, wishing and planning for a lively town center to fill that ugly void?

“What it comes down to is what the developer puts forth on the ground,” says Pat Faux, who has consulted with county planners on place-making. “The nature of place-making is it’s never done until it’s built.”

People-Friendly Place Making
To bring citizens’ voices into the new deal, Anne Pearson — christened by Bay Weekly the Doña Quixote of Anne Arundel’s sustainable future — organized her forum. Her goal was to inspire Greenberg with a vision of possibilities. Pearson called the event “a desperate plea for some imagination.”

Pearson, who fights for beauty, sustainability and a sense of the spiritual in our surroundings, established the Alliance for Sustainable Living in 1994 and spearheaded the Annapolis summits she called Sacred Places.

Pearson’s current fight for Parole’s future champions that indefinable but recognizable human appeal she calls a “sense of place.”

“We are looking at more than written design standards,” Pearson says. Place-making goes beyond design and beyond the finances of how many dollars-per-square-foot can be gained from a property to focus on the inherent worth of spaces that bring “peace of mind” and “spiritual gratification,” with planned green space, trees, benches, shade and recycling of storm water.

photo by Sonia Linebaugh
“What place-making is about,” she says, “is bringing to the surface the ‘felt’ connections that make a place appeal to our sensory perceptions.”

To reinforce her campaign, Pearson brought Fred Kent, founder and president of Project for Public Spaces, to the forum.

What Kent had to say was both appealing and challenging.

He told the well-intentioned activists that their strategy is all wrong. “You have to do exactly the opposite of everything you’ve been doing,” he warned. “Put your attention on ‘place,’ and everything else will follow,” said Kent.

“Parking with nice-looking buildings is not a place,” he said. “We don’t use big-box stores. Period. They destroy communities.”

Pointing out the obvious — the Parole area is a set of separate entities, shopping plazas, malls and centers — Kent explained that communities work best with a focal point, perhaps a municipal building or better still a landscaped public square, that ties into at least 10 spots. The connections can be as simple as pleasant walkways or outdoor seating. Or they can be complex, moving buildings and streets to new locations.

Thinking place first, said Kent, brings benefits. Intangible results include neighborly pride, friendliness, fun, vitality, celebration, sustainability, safety, walkability, charm, convenience and continuity. Tangible results show up as increased local business ownership, property values and retail sales. More pedestrian activity, better parking and traffic patterns brings increased use by women, children and the elderly. Crime goes down.

About Parole today, Kent found only one good thing: good bus shelters. Then he thought of a second, hidden right at the edge of Parole’s derelict plaza: a cemetery. Don’t forget the small woods at the corner of Route 2 and Forest Drive, the audience added, or the towering pine tree in what was once Parole Plaza’s green space.

“Fred Kent gives us a whole different paradigm to achieve the goal we’re looking for,” said Samorajczyk. “The synergy created by choosing 10 spots to interrelate sounds so dynamic.”

Some of his suggestions are so simple, you wonder why planners and developers didn’t think of it themselves.

Place thrives on people, for example. How do you get people?

Most developers would say parking.

But Kent says use seating, and make it accessible, comfortable, well-maintained and within view of the action but out of the pedestrian flow. Locate the seating near concessions, shelters, kiosks, water fountains and waste receptacles. Everyone likes to people watch, he says, though some people like to sit in the sun, others in the shade.

Look at Parole again, Kent urged. Don’t just look but imagine.

About the Author
Sonia Linebaugh credits development of her writing and related skills to her years as a New Bay Times writer, assistant editor, graphic designer and illustrator. Today she is a freelance writer, artist and teacher, who lives with her husband near the Bay. Her first book, At the Feet of Mother Meera, was published this year.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.
Last updated April 29, 2004 @ 2:17am.