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A Possible Step Forward for Crystal Spring

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When the principals of Westport, Conn.-based Affirmative Hillpoint LLC, developers of the proposed mixed-use Village at Crystal Spring, initially pitched the project in 2011, they were hoping to have their first shovel in the ground at the Annapolis property by 2013.

That didn’t happen, but recent communication between the city’s Department of Neighborhood and Environmental Programs and Affirmative Hillpoint principals Marshall Breines and Jim Eagan have the duo thinking that the project could finally start to materialize next spring.

Citizens who oppose the project feel that timeline might be a little optimistic and have continued to voice concerns, citing Crystal Spring’s potential negative impact on traffic (have you ever driven on Forest Drive during rush hour?) and the environment in the already teeming Annapolis Neck Peninsula, where other projects also exist in various stages of progress.

Those concerns have led Breines and Eagan to reduce the size of the project more than five times in four years, to where it now leaves more than half of the 111-acre site at the southwest quadrant of the busy Forest Drive/Spa Road intersection virtually untouched.

That’s been the back-and-forth of the project; today, while the city awaits the duo’s next proposal next month, what’s going to happen with the largest remaining contiguous lot within the city limits remains a hot button issue.

The Latest

Analyzing the numbers reveals why Crystal Spring is a big deal: The project, which would be owned by National Lutheran Communities & Services, of Rockville, would cost in excess of $200 million to build and close to $300 million total. In addition, it would create 1,049 full- and part-time jobs, with job training and placement opportunities, and would generate net revenues of $900,000 annually for the city and $1.3 million to Anne Arundel County, according to Baltimore’s Sage Policy Group.

Breines and Eagan estimated the amount of retail space at about 143,000 square feet. “It was more than 180,000 when we started,” Breines said, and would include two anchors: a Harris Teeter grocery store and a flagship West Marine outlet.

Those two stores would encompass about 75,000 square feet, with the remainder consisting of neighborhood retail. But the big story is that two-thirds of the development would consist of a three-tiered continuing care retirement community (CCRC).

“There really have not been CCRCs embedded in mixed-use communities where seniors live, get services and still mix in with the rest of the area. That’s how we plan to keep our clients from living in the isolation that is so common to these projects, like [nearby] Ginger Cove,” said Breines.

As for the accommodations, the CCRC is projected to encompass about 362 units in the main building; also on-site would be 126 non-age restricted, market rate townhomes. Crystal Spring could also include a boutique hotel and a two-acre park with a greenhouse, “and in a perfect world, farm-to-table” food options, he said.

Breines is hoping that goal will be much easier to strive for than it has been.

“What has transpired is that the Annapolis City Planning Commission said, on record at the September session, that they would not make any judgments to be followed.

That turned out to be a key moment. “Earlier in our dealings, we received no particular feedback,” said Breines, “and the aftermath was our disheartenment with the city, [since it] left us guessing. Without guidance, we weren’t sure which way to turn.”

However, last month’s meeting left the duo in a more upbeat mood. “That has led to a much more productive [interaction] with the city planning office, to the point that we are working on an advanced submission,” he said, which needs more engineering work before its resubmission.

Just Say No-Growth

Today, the firm is making changes to Crystal Spring’s main east-west artery, Skipper Drive, which would parallel Forest Drive.

In addition, the development is looking more dense on the front end of the site, with the streetscape. “Along Skipper Road, you have elements of everything: the hotel, retail with residential above it and the CCRC,” said Breines. “Those types of changes create an opportunity that we’re more positive about, as we work with the city government and the community.”

The duo will begin meeting with the community in early November to introduce the plan to groups as they make final preparations.

The main stonewall in front of the project, according to Breines, Eagan and other observers, is protests from environmentalists, often concerning the heavily-wooded section in the middle of the property. “We’ve never believed that we were violating the environment,” Breines said. “The Forest Conservation Act has been used as a tool by the no-growth community to stop development.”

A key member of that no-growth community is David Prosten, immediate past chair of the Maryland Chapter/Anne Arundel Group of the Sierra Club, who said his group “got involved in 2012 when we saw the obvious environmental damage” that such development could cause.

“A rep for the developer came to show us what [Affirmative Hillpoint] planned to build, and it was obvious that the project would ruin the last forest in the city limits,” said Prosten, “plus, there would be runoff into Crab Creek, especially since they would take down 40 acres of trees.”

Not that Prosten and company are against any project, he said. “But you do have to follow the laws,” and one that he says isn’t being adhered is the 10-year comprehensive plan, which allows for no more than 140 residences on the land. Prosten is also concerned about how the amount of retail space is being tallied.

Other Projects

On the topic of progress, Pete Gutwald, director of the city’s office of planning and zoning, pointed out that the developers have still not submitted a formal plan, so “we will continue to work with their design team,” he said, adding that the most recent offering lacked details regarding stormwater management and traffic concerns.

Such concerns arise partially because Crystal Spring isn’t the only development planned for the Forest Drive corridor, as Parkeside Preserve and the Village Greens townhomes are not built out, the old Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund site is undeveloped and the public housing project Newtowne 20 could be revitalized. “We have to be mindful of that,” he said.

Gutwald added that getting the first shovel for Crystal Spring in the ground “by next spring is a little optimistic,” he said. “That depends on how soon we can get consensus between all concerned.”

But that consensus could be coming. “I’ve been operating under the assumption that something will happen,” said Jared Littman, the city alderperson for Ward 5. “They have the ability to produce a project that will meet city approval.”

Since Affirmative Hillpoint “has not submitted a new plan, it’s hard to be responsive to what is basically a hypothetical plan, which still has an expectation of clearing roughly 30 acres of an 85-acre tract of forest.”

While that is a high amount of acreage to bulldoze, Littman said that he “knows that [the developer is] entitled to do so, so I’ve encouraged them to reforest elsewhere within the 85 acres to make up for the loss, or on nearby parcels” in what’s known as the Annapolis Neck watershed.

“I’ve had reasonable discussions with them. I think they are trying to build a project that fits into the community and maximizes a profit,” he said. “I don’t begrudge them for that.”

Littman’s principal concerns are environmental, traffic and the additional 126 townhouses that are not age restricted. “That raises concerns about capacity at Hillsmere Elementary School, which is already over capacity and is the home of about a dozen “learning cottages” — otherwise known as trailers.

Open Lines

Today, Breines and Eagan are acting on that “good, clear feedback we received from the city planning office and after a number of work sessions that have lasted [nearly] a day,” said Breines.

They remain confident that the increase in traffic Crystal Spring will generate will be addressed via various infrastructure improvements. “Our project will have to contribute, in a substantial way, to whatever we collaborate on” along the two-mile (or so) stretch of Forest Drive between Chinquapin Round Road to where Forest turns into Bay Ridge Road.

All told, the duo are “cautiously upbeat,” since communication that had been “quite difficult has become much easier,” Breines said. “It was difficult initially due to the confusion in the process of responding to Conservation Act issues. That made it harder for the city to move forward, too.

“However,” he said, “the dust seems to have settled.”