Vanguard bid chosen for Government Center project
Wednesday, 30 October 2013 12:19

Vanguard Commercial Development’s plan calls for retail along Wise Avenue, with athletic fields remaining intact.

Panel’s decision awaits approval vote by council

by Ben Boehl

Baltimore County officials have announced that Vanguard Commercial Development Inc. has been selected by a county panel as the preferred bidder for the North Point Government Center site.    
    The recommendation of Vanguard will now be sent to the County Council for approval.
    “We are very excited, and we look forward to working with the community,” said Vanguard co-founder Len Weinberg.
    Vanguard and Sollers Investors LLC were the only companies to bid on the North Point Government Center site.
    The process began in December, when County Executive Kevin Kamenetz unveiled a plan to solicit bids on three county properties: the Government Center, the Fire Station 2 building in Towson and the Police Substation building in Randallstown.
    At a closed-door press conference in Towson on Wednesday, Kamenetz noted that the three buildings were aging and said he believed the best option for the county was to sell them to private companies and use the resulting money to build new facilities.
    “All three properties are on highly-traveled corridors,” Kamenetz said. “We have had some interest. Folks kept asking if the county was willing to sell those properties, so we thought ‘why not do a formal process?’”
    The formal Request for Proposal process was initiated on Jan. 7 and closed on April 5.
    A panel was selected that included Susan Dubin, Assistant County Attorney and Chief, Transactions Section, Office of Law; Amy L. Hicks Grossi, Assistant County Attorney and Chief, Real Estate Compliance Division, Department of Permits, Approvals and Inspections; Sharon Klots, Chief, Policy and Program Planning, Department of Economic Development; Donna Morrison, Deputy Administrative Officer and Andrea Van Arsdale, Director, Department of Planning.
    At the Wednesday press conference, the county revealed details of the competing  Vanguard and Sollers bids for the first time.
    Vanguard’s winning bid was $2.1 million for roughly half the Government Center site, while Sollers offered to pay $5 million for the entire site.
    Kamenetz stated that the panel was more impressed with the amenities that Vanguard offered.
    The Vanguard plan calls for demolishing the current Government Center structure and building a new 21,000-square-foot facility for the recreation programs currently housed at the Government Center.
    The recreation center will include facilities for indoor soccer, wrestling, theater and singing groups.
    The athletic fields would be retained by the county, with enhancements to baseball dugouts and spectator bleachers provided by Vanguard.
    The other major Government Center occupant, North Point Police Precinct 12, is already slated to move to the former Eastwood Elementary School site.
    Finally, the Vanguard plan would create a retail center along the Wise Avenue front of the property, which will be called Merritt Pavilion.
    Kamenetz praised the plan at Wednesday’s press conference.
    “It promotes the walk-ability concept,” he said. “I can see a kid and his family going to the ball fields and then taking the kids to go get an ice cream.”
    The county executive added that the panel liked the tree-lined amphitheater and gazebo proposed for the site.
    Kamenetz said it will be a good spot from which to watch the July 4th fireworks, which Vanguard said would remain at the site.
    “This is an amenity that does not exist anywhere else in the county,” he noted.
    Sollers bid falls short
    The Sollers proposal would have conveyed the 5.2-acre parcel of land located at the former Seagram’s distillery to the county, with a new recreation center and athletic fields being built at that site.
    The entire 27.8 acres of the Government Center property would then be taken over by Dundalk Investors, LLC, which would have been created by members of the Sollers Investors group specifically for the Government Center project; the Sollers group’s plan was to build a “big box” store.
    The county reported that no specific users or tenants were identified in the Sollers plan.
    Regarding the Seagram’s property, the county reported the land was suitable for development.    
    According to Kamenetz, the committee had some concerns about environmental issues at the site, given that the former industrial property was subjected to a Voluntary Cleanup Program (VCP) Response Action Plan (RAP) through the Maryland Department of the Environment. 
    Although the planned environmental remediation was deemed sufficient to address any long-term threats, the panel thought the time-consuming environmental regulatory process could cause a delay, while the county was eager to move at a faster pace.
    Kamenetz added that the 5.2 acres of field space the Sollers plan would provide at the Seagram’s site was less than half the 12 acres that the Vanguard plan would allow the county to retain at the Government Center location.
    John Vontran of Sollers Investors was unavailable for comment.
    Dundalk United, the group formed by opponents of the Government Center sale and the closing of Eastwood Elementary, had opposed both the Vanguard and Sollers plans, but Kamenetz said the Vanguard plan will not take away any park space as the group has claimed.
    “This is no issue, because field space is not lost. I don’t know why anyone would be opposed.  Not only will it be retained, but [it] will receive upgrades to the facility,” he said.
    Community leaders were invited to a county briefing on the outcome of the RFP process to be held at 11 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 24 at the same time the county’s decision was publicly announced.
    Many said they would be unable to attend, since the meeting would be in the middle of a work day. It was not clear if Dundalk United representatives were among those invited.

Community Reaction
    Once the word of the announcement spread, reaction came out from all over Dundalk. The Dundalk Renaissance Corp. released a statement in support of the selection of Vanguard.
    “DRC believes the sale of the North Point Government Center to Vanguard Commercial Development, Inc. is a positive outcome for those who live, work, shop, and play in our community. Many in the community, including the DRC, have been vocal about the need for public input and the lack of opportunities to date,” the DRC said in a written statement.
    “We look forward to the opportunity for public input in the upcoming PUD process, and hope that as many people as possible will participate to help make this project the best it can be.”
    The opposition group Dundalk United said in a statement issued on Monday that they remained opposed to any sale of the Government Center site.
    “Dundalk United remains adamantly opposed to Mr. Kamenetz’s proposed unprecedented action of selling a public park and recreation facilities for private commercial redevelopment. North Point Government Center Park is a treasured place, carefully preserved for our children and grandchildren,” the statement said.
    “It connects and binds generations to the Dundalk area. The loss of any part of this popular site will have a negative impact on the surrounding area. Property values will decrease, and there will be less open green space in the Eastfield-Stanbrook community.”
    Dundalk United was also critical of local politicians and the DRC.
    “We are disappointed in Seventh District Councilman John Olszewski, Sr., Delegate John Olszewski, Jr., and the Dundalk Renaissance Corp. Board under the leadership of Executive Director Amy Menzer for refusing to stand with us in our efforts. We will continue the good fight. It is un-American to sell parkland to a developer. It belongs to all the people.”
    John Ayres, president of the Norwood Holabird Community Association, was critical of the county for selecting the Vanguard plan over the Sollers Investors proposal.
    Ayres said he is worried about subdividing a portion of the property and selling it to Vanguard, and stated that he is worried that Vanguard could eventually sell the whole property.
    “The county is trying to play the public here, and I and NHCA Leadership are not stupid.  This whole recommendation with Vanguard by the county has a stink to it, and I smell re-election campaign contributions to [Kevin Kamenetz] by the owners of Vanguard in return for this award,” Ayres said in an e-mail to another party that he also forwarded to The Eagle.
    According to the Maryland Campaign Finance Database, Vanguard Equities, Inc. purchased $2000 worth of fundraiser tickets for the county executive’s campaign — formally the  Committee for Kamenetz — in May 2011. There was no report of any such fundraiser purchases for Sollers Investors or John Vontran.
    However; Mary Vontran and Patrick Vontran are both listed with ticket purchases of $1,000 each for Kamenetz’s committee in June 2011.
    Although Vanguard won the bidding on the Dundalk site, its bid for the Towson Fire Station was not selected.
    CVP-TF, LLC was selected over four other developers for that site.  101 Development Group LLC was the only group to bid on the Randallstown property and was selected.
    The proposals will be sent to the County Council for approval, and then will go through the Planned Unit Development [PUD] process. Baltimore County said that process could  take at least 12 to 18 months.
    Councilman John Olszewski Sr. told The Eagle that there is more work to be done by the County Council.
    “It’s a process that is playing out,” Olszewski said. “The same group [Dundalk United] kept ridiculing me saying that it was a done deal, and they were wrong.”