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Gas station plan a flashpoint for a neighborhood with aspirations

Residents rallying against a Royal Farms proposed at the corner of Harford and Glenmore avenues.

royal farms gas opponents

A June demonstration against proposed Royal Farms store and gas station on Harford Road.

Photo by: Fern Shen

Sign-waving residents came out in force Saturday to oppose a planned Royal Farms convenience store in northeast Baltimore, saying that it would undermine neighborhood revival efforts that could serve as a model for a shrinking city.

“This area is one of the places that could attract young families – it’s undergoing a bit of a renaissance,” Nick McDaniels said, as his wife Amie McDaniels held their squirming young daughter, Charlie.

Independently-owned businesses like Clementine (a family-friendly, farm-to-table restaurant in Hamilton) and Red Canoe (the bookstore and cafe in Lauraville) were a major reason why the couple bought a house in the area a couple of years ago, McDaniels said.

Not far from the gas station site is Hamilton, where new stores and restaurants are brightening the old commercial corridor.

New businesses in Hamilton (shown here) and nearby Lauraville have been brightening the Harford Road corridor. (Photo by Fern Shen)

But now, just up Harford Road from Lauraville and Hamilton, Royal Farms is proposing a 24-hour, 5,121-square-foot convenience store with 7 pumps (each with two fueling devices) and 74 parking places.

The property is a union hiring hall and parking lot, at the Glenmore Avenue intersection, right across from the local branch of the Enoch Pratt Library, at a 5-way intersection where Old Harford Road comes in.

“It’s going to be like a truck stop!” said nearby resident Roop Vijayan. “It’s going to make Harford Road look like Pulaski Highway!”

Over the weekend, with less than a day’s notice, about 65 people including McDaniels and Vijayan convened at that intersection to talk to a reporter and voice their opposition to the project.

The lawyer representing Royal Farms at community meetings in recent weeks didn’t return The Brew’s calls but the marketing manager for the chain, Ed Stronski, did send a copy of the site plan and answered questions.

From the site plan submitted by Royal Farms for Baltimore city officials to review.

From the site plan submitted by Royal Farms for Baltimore city officials to review.

“We certainly want to work with the city to resolve any traffic concerns,” Stronski said of the project, which would require “conditional use” approval by the city’s Board of Municipal Zoning Appeals.

Pushing strollers and holding signs that said “Jobs, not cars” and “Neighborhood, not mega store” was a crowd that included newcomers like the McDaniels family but also many longtime residents.

Tyler Somerville, whose family has lived in the area since 1927, was one of several who said the gas station threatens to erase the gains Hamilton and Lauraville have made as a result of small independently-owned businesses that have boosted property values and walk-ability.

“Politicians didn’t make that happen,” the 62-year-old Somerville said, “People did.”

One Group Voted “Yes”

But although grass-roots organizing against the project appears strong, one community group – the one whose turf includes the parcel – voted to support it.

And now City Councilman Robert Curran is citing that recent 13 to 11 vote by members of the Glenham-Belhar Community Association as a major reason why he supports the convenience store-gas station project.

“Those are 24 people who are their representatives and who showed up at the meeting and who paid their dues,” Curran said, in a phone interview with The Brew. “Their vote on this carries a lot of weight with me.”

The Hamilton neighborhood, in northeast Baltimore, has attracted young families in recent years.

Downtown Hamilton is a few blocks south of the gas station site. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Meanwhile other nearby community groups are up in arms. “It’s just over our border, but boy is it going to affect us,” said John Reuter, president of the Westfield Improvement Association, which voted unanimously to oppose the gas station.

In other neighborhoods which have yet to vote (Lauraville and Hamilton Hills, for instance), the Royal Farms is lighting up the listservs.

“People are asking how those 13 votes count more than all of us?” Vijayan said. “A lot of people had no idea this was happening.”

From site plan for Royal Farms project, between Glenmore and Mary avenues, on Harford Road, marked up to reflect traffic mitigation discussion.

From site plan for Royal Farms project, between Glenmore and Mary avenues, on Harford Road, marked up to reflect traffic mitigation discussion.

Glenham-Belhar’s secretary, John Whelan, said the group may have to revisit the issue at a special meeting, in light of the broader community’s antipathy to the project. “I don’t see how we can ignore the whole thing, in spite of the vote,” he said.

But the group’s president, Joe Oaks said he is “staying neutral” on the gas station flap and has not decided yet how to handle it. Oaks had a bitter reply when told that some at Saturday’s meeting said they hadn’t known about Glenham-Belhar and vowed to start attending meetings and pay the annual $12 annual dues needed to be able to vote.

“They always say that,” said Oaks, who has headed the association for nine years.

“Do I get in a pissing contest between competing community organizations?” Curran asked, rhetorically.

Taking the Opposition “with a Grain of Salt”

Curran said Royal Farms’ representatives “have informally been to talk to me when it was in the concept stage” and praised the company for “going to the community first.” (Their plans are at the “site review” stage with the city, which is planing a traffic study, according to Mike Hilliard, community services director for the local community association umbrella group Harbel.)

Curran said he thinks most of the complaining so far is driven by area business owners who fear the chain store’s lower food and gas prices.

“I take with a grain of salt all the opposition at this time. I believe it is competition-driven,” he said. “Competition? Hello! That’s good for the consumer!”

Baltimore City Councilman Robert Curran. (Photo: Baltimore City Council website)

Baltimore City Councilman Robert Curran. (Photo: City Council website)

Other than observing that the project might need to be scaled back a bit (“I think 14 gas pumps seems a little excessive”), Curran expressed few strong feelings about its merits.

“Is it the best use of that property? Probably not,” he said. “Is it the worst use of that property? Probably not.”

As for residents who accuse him of “carrying water” for Royal Farms, Curran advised them to “go back and check their history.” He recounted how he listened to community concerns a few years ago and opposed gas pumps at another Royal Farms store in the district.

Union Friends

Asked about his relationship with the building’s owners, the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 37, meanwhile, Curran does not hesitate to characterize it as close.

“The Operating Engineers had come to me [about it],” he said. “I have no problem saying the Operating Engineers are my friends. They want to say I carry water for the Engineers, I do!”

A Curran campaign sign is still on the side of the hulking structure at 5901 Harford Road. There’s a sign for City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young as well. (The union represents heavy equipment operators and other construction trades)

Campaign signs on the side of the building at 5901 Harford Road, site of the proposed gas station. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Campaign signs on the side of the building at 5901 Harford Road, site of the proposed gas station. (Photo by Fern Shen)

In the back, signs designating union officials’ parking spaces are still visible, as is a space for attorney and Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos. (Angelos’ law firm had rented space there until a couple of years ago.)

Better-Than-Vacant Argument

Some observers appear to have little enthusiasm for the idea of a Royal Farms in that spot, but worry that leaving the space unoccupied would be worse.

“What would the future be for that site? The union is relocating – it’s just a matter of time before they sell it,” said Hilliard, who said his organization takes no position on such matters when the community is divided.

Residents fear that a convenience store/gas station is going to tip their part of town toward a condition that is all too familiar in Baltimore.

Nail salons, check cashing outlets and chain stores still outnumber places like Green Onion and Clementine. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Still plenty of nail salons, check cashing outlets and chain stores. (Photo by Fern Shen)

“We’re going to have crackheads and hookers,” said Jackie Burnett, a 13-year resident who lives on Bertram Ave.

“Nobody wants to be in a neighborhood that looks like that so we’re going to have property values go down.” Others worry about bright lights, fumes and potential water pollution. (Some on Saturday expressed plans to pass out leaflets and possibly gather picketers at the site again.)

Aided by receiving “Main Street” status from the city, “downtown” Lauraville and Hamilton have been livened up in recent years with art galleries, restaurants, seasonal fairs and a Tuesday farmer’s market. But they also have their share of check-cashing places, low end retail, vacancies and crime.

“The residential side’s been healthy – property values are up – but the commercial district is troubled,” said Bill Barry, an active member of the Lauraville Improvement Association. Worry about the area’s future was rampant among the picketers Saturday.

A regular Brew commenter who goes by “JS” (and asked not to be identified because of her city job) lives around the corner from the project and said she’d rather see fewer car-oriented chains and more hip mom ‘n pop places like the Green Onion.

“The neighborhood is going to shrivel up and die if this kind of place takes over,” she said. “It will be like a traffic corridor where people just whizz by.”

Several in the group, which included members of several northeast neighborhoods, vowed to continue meeting. (Photo by Fern Shen)

The protest drew members of several northeast Baltimore neighborhoods, many meeting each other for the first time. (Photo by Fern Shen)

For Gwendolyn Unoko, her fear is that the area could become a harsher place to raise her three children, who attend the nearby City Neighbors charter school.

“My kids use the [Pratt] library here four days a week,” she said. “It’s a wonderful family oriented neighborhood. We want to keep it that way.”

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  • http://twitter.com/janjamm jan angevine

    These Royal Farms are becoming a blight. There is no quality about them that anchors the neighborhood. They scream franchise, not of this locale, not a village but a cash machine. Worse, somehow, than the 7/11. Maybe because they are gigantic. You can’t develop neighborhoods with huge grab-and-go, junk food establishments. Put them at interstate highway interchanges. Put them in industrial centers. Don’t put them in neighborhoods trying to anchor their community. It’s just counter to good development standards. Stop it!

  • http://citythatbreeds.com Evan

    Wow, I was previously unaware that Royal Farms had such a stigma. I mean the one that inhabited the space at Burke’s Restaurant was hard to swallow and the war ignited over RoFo in Hampden was something, but this is a bit extreme considering how much worse it could be, as illustrated in the article. 

    I mean a guy was stabbed 52 times at Ibis Tavern last summer if I recall and that’s only a little further up Harford Rd, was there a protest then? (that’s an actual question, I’d like to know)

  • Rob

    “I take with a grain of salt all the opposition at this time. I believe
    it is competition-driven,” he said. “Competition? Hello! That’s good for the consumer!”

    Really?  Royal Farms is at Echodale Ave now closer to the main strips of Hamilton and Lauraville.  Why would they be upset if it moved further away from them?

  • Needsmorecoffee

    One thing I’d like to mention that doesn’t really come through in this story is the incredible traffic nightmare this plan engenders. 

    The proposed site is located at a 5-way intersection and it is already a difficult spot to get in and out of.  In fact, the city DOT will be conducting a traffic study on its own initiative–although it is not required for a site of this size–because THEY feel it’s already a hazardous area.  That speaks volumes.

    The other major issue is the scale of what is proposed.  Several WNIA members visited the RF location on Pulaski Hgwy at the 695/95 ramp, which is about the same size as what RF wants to put in on Harford Road (this was the comparison given to us by the Union rep and RF lawyers who attended our recent meeting.)  The difference is, Pulaski Highway is 3 lanes in each direction, not residential at all in that sector, and directly feeds on/off of a major highway (695) and Interstate 95.  Something that size really doesn’t seem appropriate smack dab in the middle of the bedroom communities that line Harford Road.

  • http://www.carfreebaltimore.com/ Mark

    I’ll just say we have to stop judging new development projects using the “it could be worse” fallback.  .

  • Richard

    I live in the area and I doubt that this will “ruin” the neighborhood. Although the current plan seems excessive (do they really need 74 parking spaces?) I prefer Royal Farms to the numerous liquor stores, hair salons, and check cashers that make up a large percentage of the “mom & pop” businesses in the Harford and Belair Road corridors. Instead of complaining, the locals who are against this should be thinking about how they can work with the developer to ensure that the final design mitigates negative effects, like increased car traffic. Maybe the final design can be more oriented towards the street and less set back. I’m sure there are ways to make even a Royal Farms more attractive.

  • Unellu

    Another story about an inconvenient convenience store and numerous parking spaces.  More concrete that’s all politicians want.  Human stupidity reaches its acme in the field of politics.  If the project’s impact on the community is as neutral as Curran sizes it up then why doesn’t he vote, “no gas station” rather than “yes, gas station”?  In his vocabulary concrete is good–it is solid, it encourages competition, it doesn’t support trees that can rot, fall and cause allergies, it is familiar, fixed, and O so needed in all the empty urban spaces adjacent to us. 

    He’s sucking up to the royalty of Royal Farms and he is spouting the clever line that he didn’t suck up to them when he denied them gas pumps at another Royal Farms.  After the operating engineers have built up this Royal Farms he’ll send them over to the other one to put in some gas pumps–why not? 

    What’s  the story here?  We have to keep on building endless Royal Farms so the operating engineers will  keep on operating?  Isn’t that unsustainable?  But Curran is only interested in promoting his friends for the span of his political life.  This man needs surgery for myopia. 

    I can’t get over the name Royal Farms-it has nothing to do with royalty and absolutely nothing to with farms but evokes the image of swaying fields of tall ripe corn and pastures as far as the eye can see.  Only in America will pure unadulterated concrete be named Royal Farms.         

  • Baltimoreplaces

    Sense of place and community is becoming more important for people.  This is trend I believe we will see continue, becoming a paradigm shift in the way Americans live.  The American Dream of the ‘burbs, McMansions, long commutes, and parking lots and shopping malls that all look the same is slowly changing. 

    Hamilton has a tremendous amount of potential and I believe it will become a very desirable area in little more than a generation.  People are going to move there because of its housing stock, easy access to amenties and yes sense of place, which includes local businesses. As the area changes today’s nail salon becomes juice bar, the check cashing place becomes a yoga studio etc..  But the Royal Farms store will remain long after cars stop using gas.  

    • andrew

      If the paradigm shift you speak of is actually happening, it’s not happening on Harford Rd. in Hamilton. It’s a four lane road that feels like a drag racing strip. It might as well be a suburb, considering how long it takes to get downtown from there… not to mention the sparse public transport offerings. I can’t imagine gentrifiers are moving there and abandoning their cars for crappy MTA buses. These people will need access to gasoline stations, and it seems to me that a gas station would fit the bill pretty well… 

      • Amy

        Actually, my boyfriend and I bought a house in Hamilton 2 years ago. He takes the bus to work downtown almost every day. I would except I work in Remington, which is 1 1/2 to 2 hours by bus when you factor in the wait for transfers. Yes, the public transportation situation in Baltimore is abysmal, we all know that.  In the meantime when we do drive we have no problem gassing up our cars at the numerous existing stations along Harford Road.  

    • Lex Apostata

      Until we get decent, rail-based transit for the entire city, Hamilton will always be more like a suburb (with higher taxes) than it will be like a classic urban environment. Our addicition to building roads and parking lots instead of subways dooms Baltimore to slow, inevitable collapse.

      • traderjim7

        Baltimore is not getting rail based transit for two reasons: 1) there are not enough riders to support the high cost, and 2) the high crime rate keeps potential users away from public transit.
        It would be more helpful if those residents protesting this project spent that time protesting so many other issues that would improve life in Baltimore such as the lack of police on Baltimore streets, the police response times, the corruption in the Baltimore City housing department, the thousands of abandoned houses causing blight that the city owns, etc.

  • Dogfaceboy

    I remember the huge stink about Safeway—when all that sat in that spot on Harford Road for years was an abandoned bus barn.  The pitchforks and torches came out in full force.  And what happened?  Well, when it snows, we can all walk down and get our groceries.  We can pop over at just before 11:00 p.m. for that pint of fancy ice cream in nearly every flavor.  We can satisfy cravings and do our weekly shopping while everyone’s in church and pick up hair dye when we can’t stand the grey wires any longer.

    A convenience store is not a destination spot.  It’s not going to bring other neighborhoods’ crackheads and prostitutes here.  They’ll likely have regular police patrols and lights and people in and out, which may actually make it safer.  

    None of this, however, makes Bob Curran’s comments any less idiotic.  Business owners afraid that the competition will take business away?  Seriously?  

    • Stephanie

       I remember the Safeway flap, as well.  The difference is that that area needed a grocery store.  Hamilton doesn’t need another convenience store and/or gas station. 

      And to Bob Curran, the kindest thing I can say about your commentary is that you are out of touch.  I won’t even address the worst.

    • Julieasaylor

       The Royal Farms store at the corner of Harford and Echodale does not have a gas station and has a small parking lot. The one proposed at the Glenmore and Harford Road site would have 14 gas pumps and 72 parking spaces and be open 24/7. The new store *wouldn’t* be that much further–less than a mile away from the other Royal Farms

    • Julieasaylor

      There’s a big difference between opening a grocery store and a convenience store/gas station of similar size–the potential environmental impact. The gas station would create fumes and oil from runoff. If the store closes a future developer would have to remove the underground gas tanks. There’s a risk the tanks could leak.

      Further, people who purchase food at a convenience store are likely to eat the food and throw away the packaging on the ground, often as far as a block or two away. The area already has a significant rat problem, and this store is sure to make it worse.

      The intersection of Old Harford/Harford/Glenmore is already problematic from the standpoint of traffic flow. Old Harford comes into Harford Rd. at an oblique angle. Motorists shooting across Glenmore across Harford onto Old Harford already have enough to deal with, given the volume of traffic on the main road. A business of this size would only increase the volume of traffic in this area, possibly contributing to more accidents. I’ve already seen a child hit in this area, and don’t hope to be a witness to more of the same.

      Finally, are you aware that there’s a gas station less than a block away? At least three convenience stores within a mile of the proposed site? I DO think the “mega Royal Farms” will take business away from them–though I wish they all would close in favor of smaller, more environmentally sustainable businesses such as the Green Onion.

  • Jeremy3280

    Go look at all the vacancies on harford road. This will add great life to the corridor. It might hurt the scummy old gas stations that sell blunts and candy to the neighborhood for too much money.

  • Curtis

    Would the proposed Royal Farms at least have its 74 spaces in the back and not the front facing Hartford Road?  A parking lot between the store and the sidewalk would DESTROY the pedestrian environment and create another undefined suburban massing block designed solely with the automobile in mind — not the gateway you want to a mainstreet that promotes foot traffic.

     

  • Sheila

    This is insanity. There is no need. and certainly no need for a 24 hour venue of that size. Another nail in the coffin of a once good neighborhood. I have one child left in a private high school, then we’ll decide to stay or go. The residents in the immediate area must be physically ill over this. I am and I’m six blocks away.

  • Erik Boring

    Great article about proposed Royal Farms.  I find it hard to believe a traffic study of that intersection would have put the brakes on the proposal.  Here’s another interesting tidbit happening in Hamilton, A
    zoning hearing – Conditional Use Banquet Hall – 5503 Richard Avenue
    FOR the purpose of permitting, subject to certain conditions, the
    establishment, maintenance, and operation of a banquet hall on the
    property known as 5503 Richard Avenue – http://legistar.baltimorecitycouncil.com/detailreport/?key=5291.
    Currently within 100 ft. of 5 residences, this ordinance would add
    legitimacy to the questionable events that have been consistently held at
    this location for the last 6 years. Tickets at the door, cash bar
    “events” that have more in common with a nightclub than a banquet hall.
    During one such event on 12/29/2010 a man was shot and killed when a
    fight spilled out the front door. While currently zoned only for
    off-premise catering, the business continues to host events in full view
    of Police, Zoning enforcement and our City Councilman.  On June 27, the City Council’s Land Use and Transportation committee will hear testimony about the request for a conditional use. 

  • Seramatteo

    If you listen to the Marc Steiner Show that aired today, you’ll really see how out of touch he is. He yells and screams and talks over his constituents! It’s obsurd. It’s almost as if he’s just riding out his term. He could care less about this neighborhood.

    • traderjim7

      Riding out his term?? You must be kidding. He has been in there a long time, and he will be in there forever because the people of this city are stupid enough to keep voting them back in. ALL of the city council persons act this way. They don’t care about the people at all; it is only about how much money they can put in their pockets.

  • Jack McDougle

    Royal Farms is a great operator. Many don’t know this but Royal Farms is a local company based in Baltimore, Maryland. Royal Farms new stores are Leed certified which means they’re a green company . Compare Royal Farms a local company with 7-11 which has over 10,000 stores worldwide and is Japanese owned. Check out one of Royal Farms new stores … they’re beautiful stores made with brick , stone and batten board – surely would be the best looking building on Harford Road. Also Royal Farms unlike other convenience stores offers healthy alteranatives like fresh salads, fresh cut fruit, yogurts and other healthy options. So say yes to Royal Farms and the multi-national competitive gas stations and c-stores will  clean up their act. Vote and shop local. 

  • Sabina Pade

    Projects of the sort discussed here create not only potential drawbacks, but opportunities as well.  Royal Farms is a large chain.  It has significant material means.  Hamilton residents could tap these.

    It is difficult, in the dog-eat-dog tradition of American business practices, to oppose the installation of a business on the grounds that it might prove a commercial success.  What one can do, on the other hand, is require that it be a good citizen.  Hamilton could, for example, oblige Royal Farms to use permeable paving material in its parking area, and to landscape the parking area abundantly.  Hamilton could require Royal Farms to collect the rainwater from its roof and use this rainwater for irrigation.  Hamilton could require Royal Farms to build its storefront to the sidewalk and place fuel pumps and parking to the rear, thereby maintaing the continuity of the street facades instrumental to a ‘main street’ feel.  Measures such as these, onerous to independently-owned small businesses, could make the new Royal Farms a marked improvement over that which currently stands on the site.

    If the proposed Royal Farms has a look and feel consistent with the image Hamilton is seeking to cultivate, the pimps and pushers will mostly stay away.

  • Richard

    The fact that Royal Farms is headquartered in Baltimore (Hampden nonetheless!) should give protestors pause.  I think this is a great opportunity for locals to engage the company, play on their sense of local pride, and try to make this store a showcase for how to do this sort of development in an environmentally sensitive and aesthetically pleasing way. To just say “no, no, no” won’t work. It’s time to be constructive and come up with suggestions to improve the design. Orienting the front door to the sidewalk would be one thing. Making sure that the parking and the gas pumps are in the back (or obscured in some way) would be another. This can all work out for the better. But people need to keep an open mind.

  • David H Ebelein

    I think Curran is ignorant of the community.  Most of the people in the community have not been made aware of the Royal Farms concept.  If the community was better informed, than more people would have shown up.

  • Jermaine Choke

    The real issue I have with this location is that is is being built on a disfunctional 5 way intersection that needs to be rebuilt to make it safe for the additional traffic this store will create.  Families want better and safer access to the public library accross the street. The neighbors in the immediate vicinity are already pounded by detouring traffic because the light only has two safe left turns in a five way intersection!  Saying no to the gas pumps and completeing an intersection redesign would make this property deal a little more palatable. 

  • Superb361

    Not do discount your opinion, but watch it with those conspiracy theories. In addition to being completely incorrect more often than not, lines like that are the often difference between being an informed voter, and a marginalized quack on a soapbox. ;)

  • Rose

    I come to Hamilton for worship services. I have been looking into moving into the area. I thought it was mainly a residential area, but why would another gas station, especially one of this size be necessary, if it is primarily a residential community? I have read several comments about putting the parking and pumps behind the store. Well, guess what? There are beautiful old homes behind that corner. Homes with yards and children playing in those yards!
    Shouldn’t part of getting permission to build something that is so intrusive and damaging to a community require proving that there is a need for it? There are numerous gas stations along Harford Road and already a 7-11 nearby. Just how much gas and cheap snacks does one neighborhood need?

  • concerned?

    Doesnt anyone worry that Mr. Vijayans comment is offensive to those that enjoy truck stops and live on Pulaski Highway?

    “It’s going to be like a truck stop!” said nearby resident Roop Vijayan. “It’s going to make Harford Road look like Pulaski Highway!”

    The Pulaski’s have a strong history in Maryland, and many families live on Pulaski Highway and near to it… are they not as good as the residents of Hamilton?

  • Gerald Neily

    Concerned?, so you actually think that folks who enjoy truck stops have been fretting about Hamilton residents who don’t want Royal Farms? And that people who live on Pulaski Highway are fretting about people who don’t want to live on a similar street? I’m sure that most people are not as easily offended as you. Moreover, not many people even in live on Pulaski, which is a predominantly commercial highway in the city. It had one major housing complex – Hollander Ridge. It was bulldozed a few years ago to make way for more commercial development… including most prominently a Royal Farms store. 

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