Crystal Spring: Concerns and Opportunities

Forest Drive

Forest Drive at Hilltop Lane, photo from Century21.com

Forest Drive at Hilltop Lane

Having grown up in Annapolis in the 1970′s, I can remember when much of Forest Drive was, in fact, forest.  Over the years I’ve watched development change the character of the corridor as one property after another became a residential subdivision or a strip shopping center.

These decades of development have shrunk the natural habitat for many species of animals, added sedimentation and pollution to our creeks, and increased daily vehicle counts on our roadways by the thousands.

Moreover, the piecemeal way in which the corridor was developed has left it with a fragmented identity.  One of the qualities people love most about Annapolis is its authentic sense of place.  Ironically, many residents along Forest Drive feel disconnected instead.

For these reasons and more, I am concerned about the impact of Crystal Spring Annapolis, a proposed development on the largest privately owned forest remaining on Forest Drive.  I would love to see the forest preserved, and often find myself asking, “When is enough development enough?”

Like most Annapolitans, I recognize that property owners have the right to build on their property.  We also recognize that developers may care less about environmental preservation, traffic impacts and quality design than they do about maximizing the return on their investment.  Therefore we demand that our government not only work with the applicant but protect the community’s interests as well.

People often ask whether I support Crystal Spring or plan to fight it.  My response is informed by the fact that this private property will be developed at some point.  We have the ability to influence not whether it is developed, but how.  Therefore, my response to the question – and my focus as Mayor – is to ensure that the final product is the best it can be for our community.

The property

CS proposed site plan 20130108

Crystal Spring proposed site plan, January 8, 2013. Click image for full size.

Crystal Spring covers 190 acres at the juncture of Forest Drive and Spa Road.  It includes the Chesapeake Dressage horse riding center and the Wellness House of Annapolis cancer support home.  The development site is 111 acres of which roughly 82 acres are forest.

The owners have signed a purchase agreement with a company called Crystal Spring Development, LLC to build a senior housing mixed-use development called Crystal Spring Annapolis.  The plan is anchored by a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC) proposed to include 362 units.  It also proposes to include 126 townhomes, 176,000 square feet of retail space, and other amenities including a cultural arts center, an 80-room inn and spa, a chapel, a 2-acre outdoor village green, and a new, expanded home for the Wellness House.

All told, the area proposed for development spans 64 acres of which roughly 49 are presently forested.  In short, it will be one of the largest developments in the City’s history. 

Options

The Crystal Spring concept is not the only way this property can be developed.  The law allows a sprawling subdivision of several hundred houses which would almost certainly add significant traffic to Forest Drive during the morning and evening commutes.  Another possibility is for the property to be split up and sold off in pieces, contributing even more to the disjointed nature of Forest Drive.

Given the allowable alternatives, Crystal Spring’s concept of a mixed-use village center anchored by a CCRC is a promising option with many potential benefits to our community.  The developers have already made significant improvements in response to community feedback and comments from the City, earning support from the South River Federation and others.  Several positive aspects of the plan include the following:

Newtowne 20 outfall

Stormwater outfall from Newtowne 20. Photo by South River Federation on Patch.com.

  • The developers have made an unprecedented commitment to reforest acre-for-acre all woodland that is cleared.  Any reforestation done offsite will be planted in environmentally sensitive areas under the guidance of the City and the South River Federation.
  • The property owner will place more than 75 acres of woodland and open space into permanent conservation.  All told, the plan preserves 125 acres – roughly two-thirds of the entire site – as open space or undeveloped.
  • In addition to extensive onsite stormwater management, the developers will restore two unregulated drainage areas offsite.  This will improve water quality in Crab Creek by treating runoff from a 70-acre area that includes Annapolis Middle School and Newtowne 20.
  • The plan proposes more than 2 acres of green roofs, 5 acres of permeable roadways, and geothermal heating and cooling for 400,000 square feet of building space.
  • The plan extends Skippers Lane, providing an alternative connector road from Spa Road all the way to the Safeway shopping plaza.
  • Crystal Spring will fund a free trolley from Crystal Spring to downtown.  This will make it easy for the new residents of Crystal Spring as well as residents of Hunt Meadow and along the Spa Road corridor to visit downtown attractions and businesses without driving.
  • The plan extends the bike lane in front of the Safeway from Hilltop Lane to Spa Road.
  • The completed project will provide 1,200 permanent jobs onsite, and the developers have committed to provide job skills training for local residents.

Above all, Crystal Spring presents an opportunity to anchor Forest Drive with a much needed sense of place.  In contrast with the decades of piecemeal development characterizing much of the corridor, Crystal Spring offers well-designed walkable neighborhoods, intergenerational housing, multiple transportation options, public gathering places, vibrant retail and hundreds of new jobs.

Still, the plan’s impact on traffic and the environment, in particular the loss of so much mature woodland, is a concern to many of us.  Simply put, I believe the size of the proposed development is too big, and have urged the developers to further reduce the amount of acreage being cleared.

The City’s review process is the key to addressing all of these concerns and ensuring compliance with zoning, the City’s Comprehensive Plan, and other regulations.

The process

The City’s review process has three basic stages:  First, the City’s professional staff reviews the plans, recommends revisions if needed, and once satisfied, recommends approval.  Second, the city’s volunteer Planning Commission reviews the revised plans and holds a public hearing.  Once the Planning Commission is satisfied, it may approve the plans, often with additional conditions.  Third, once plans have received Planning Commission approval, the developer needs to receive grading and building permits in order to begin construction.

Crystal Spring is still at the first stage in the process.

Changes to the process

Last year I directed that the City ensure all environmental features are properly identified at the very beginning of the process.  This change ended up adding a year to the review of Crystal Spring, but it was necessary to ensure the integrity and quality of our environmental review.

Also last year, the City Council appointed a Forest Conservation Act (FCA) Working Group to review the City’s legislative and regulatory framework for allowing development in wooded areas.  The Council is now considering legislation recommended by the Working Group. A majority of the Council and I agree that any changes we enact to the FCA will apply to Crystal Spring.

Review of Crystal Spring

The first approval required of Crystal Spring was the Forest Stand Delineation (FSD), an inventory of all natural resources on the property. The City required the development team to revise their proposed FSD more than half a dozen times because it did not adequately identify the site’s forest coverage and other natural features.

More recently, after the development team submitted their proposed Forest Conservation Plan (FCP), City staff issued 12 pages of comments to request clarification and revisions.  As of this writing, the developers have yet to submit an approved FCP.

This detailed review by the City’s professional staff demonstrates their thoroughness and impartiality, and I am pleased with their insistence on getting this right.  Moreover, staff’s comments validate many of the concerns expressed by the Annapolis Environmental Commission and others about the developers’ initial submittals.

I have directed this process be as transparent as possible.  All of the Crystal Spring submittals are posted online, and City staff reviews all public comments in earnest.  Once the traffic study is released I encourage the public to review it carefully, scrutinize the methodology, and offer feedback. The same holds true for the environmental reviews, economic analysis and other reports.

Next steps

Change takes time.  I have called on the City’s professional staff to raise the bar and make Crystal Spring a model for environmental protection and quality design.  As the plans work their way through the review process, I am confident the City will require further changes that will address many of the community’s concerns.

The community’s voice needs to be heard.  I invite interested citizens to follow the project’s progress on the City’s website at bit.ly/11wpY0W.  Take the time to let me and your alderperson know your views, analyze studies as they are made available, submit feedback to the City’s professional staff, and express your comments to the Planning Commission at the appropriate time.

By working together, we have an opportunity to make Crystal Spring Annapolis the best it can possibly be – a village center that enhances our community for decades to come.

- Mayor Josh Cohen, August 12, 2013

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Guest Column in Baltimore Sun – July 19, 2013

 

City Dock Plans Restores the Luster of Annapolis’ Crown Jewel -The “No” Club is hindering changes that Annapolis needs

 By Joshua J. Cohen

2:59 p.m. EDT, July 18, 2013

Many of Annapolis‘ established downtown interests seem to reflexively resist change. Annapolitans even have a name for it: the Downtown “No” Club.

The latest version of this “No” Club is the self-described Coalition to Save Annapolis, an unusual alliance of United States Yacht Shows, the Ward One Residents Association, the Annapolis Business Association, Historic Annapolis Inc. and others. These groups are united by their opposition to a rezoning ordinance I introduced to implement Phase One of a City Dock Master Plan that has been more than two years in the making.

Ordinance 7-13 will facilitate two wonderful objectives of the City Dock plan: first, open up a panoramic vista of our historic lower Main Street; and second, establish a wide public open space along Annapolis’ fabled “Ego Alley” waterfront. Although the concept is beautiful, most of the property involved is privately owned. The only way to achieve these public benefits is by working with a willing property owner.

The ordinance will establish a new mixed-use zone for three properties along Ego Alley that include the former Fawcett Boat Supplies building, a vacant cinderblock eyesore. The ordinance also will enable a land swap in which the city will give up a small area of landlocked property in return for a publicly owned waterfront promenade — a good deal for our community.

The old Fawcett property has sat vacant for years, due in part to the high cost of renovating the building, which sits in the flood plain. Fortunately, a group of investors led by Mark Ordan, CEO of Sunrise Senior Living, signed a purchase agreement with the owners in April. Mr. Ordan was enthusiastic about the plan. Our community could not ask for a better scenario than to have an interested buyer who shares the community’s vision to establish public waterfront access and enhance our historic views — and who has the resources to make it happen.

One would have expected community leaders to reach out to Mr. Ordan and work with him to shape the project in a positive way. Instead, members of the Coalition to Save Annapolis staged a press conference to oppose the plans. They called on me to withdraw the ordinance and embark upon two more years of new studies. They proclaimed “Annapolis is not for sale!” even though the old Fawcett site is private property. They staged their protest before even seeing the proposed plans, a day before Mr. Ordan had scheduled an open house to receive public input.

One might wonder — as Mark Ordan did — how community leaders could so cavalierly risk losing such an outstanding opportunity. The president of one of the Save Annapolis groups explained to me that she would be fine if the building remained vacant for 10 more years if that’s what it took to figure out how to do it “right.” Such is the mindset of the “No” Club.

“Save Annapolis” was successful — not in saving our town but in hijacking the process. It prompted Mr. Ordan’s team to cancel additional open houses and withdraw from the project. The coalition had no alternative solutions to offer.

Despite this setback, I and others in the community are continuing to pursue the plan’s vision of expanding public access to the water and enhancing the historic views of Main Street. Many of us are disappointed in the coalition’s obstructionist tactics and have been encouraging Mr. Ordan’s team to give it another try. Some preliminary discussions have been promising, but we remain a long way from resuscitating the project.

A recent Susan Reimer column, while correct about many things, missed the mark in characterizing my actions as “yielding” to the coalition. The tactics of the “No” Club have strengthened my resolve to pursue this project even more.

What we need now is dialogue, not obstruction. Any project of this significance raises legitimate questions and concerns. The building’s appearance, height and zoning are all key issues that need to be carefully considered. I believe that more time and dialogue will produce positive results. This is why I postponed a recent public hearing — not because I “folded,” but because holding the public hearing while the two sides were so far apart would have been counterproductive.

I remain fully committed to the revitalization of City Dock and call on those with concerns to choose the more challenging path of dialogue and compromise instead of obstruction. City Dock — our town’s crown jewel — is worth it.

http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bs-ed-city-dock-20130718,0,5083126.story

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Circulator Trolley Ridership Hits Six Figures – Press Release

On the two year anniversary of launching the Circulator Trolley, ridership has increased 161 percent from last year, averaging a monthly ridership of 14,000.

 “In just two years, our Circulator Trolley has proven its value in making it easier to get around downtown,” Mayor Cohen said.  “To have ridership on the Circulator more than double in just one year’s time is truly remarkable.  What’s more, the Circulator demonstrates that there is more than one way to improve parking options downtown.  The Circulator is a big reason why parking garage usage has increased by double digits since we launched the service two years ago.”

As expected, seasonal drops occurred during September, October and November and again in January. However, that trend quickly reverses in February, and shows a steady increase both years:

 

2011

 2012

 2013

January

2274

8214

February

3847

10143

March

4951

15071

April

7604

15722

May

9378

16071

June

10752

19088

July

6906

13302

 
August

4135

16499

 
September

2422

13602

 
October

3010

12403

 
November

1652

9295

 
December

4154

10410

 

Ridership during FY13 totaled 159,820.

“The residents, businesses and civic associations have embraced the Circulator and are responsible for its success,” Transportation Director Richard Newell said.  “I want to personally thank them for their confidence and for making mobility easier for everyone who lives, works and plays in Annapolis.”

Watch for the Circulator in this years July 4th Parade and take advantage of the free ride to and from the City garages to the fireworks display downtown.

For more information on the Circulator, go to AnnapolisCirculator.com.

 

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Statement on 110 Compromise Street

City Dock is the crown jewel of Annapolis.  Annapolitans cherish its authentic colonial scale, openness to the water and historic charm.  For more than two years, a community-led process has been developing a vision and plan to make City Dock more vibrant and walkable while preserving the qualities that make the area so special.

One of the key areas the community has identified for improvement is 110 Compromise Street, known as the former Fawcett building.  The fact that it is private property has stood in the way of achieving a key community goal to establish public open space along the waterfront.  In addition, the building is positioned in a way that obstructs the historic vista of Main Street.

Recently a team of investors led by Mark Ordan signed a purchase agreement with the owners of 110 Compromise Street.  The Ordan team was enthusiastic about implementing the community’s vision of creating public open space along the waterfront and opening up views of Main Street, all without spending a dime of taxpayer money.  For the past several weeks Mr. Ordan’s architects and engineers worked diligently to develop draft plans.  They spent considerable time meeting individually with alderpersons, residents and businesspersons in order to design a project that our entire community would be proud of.  Most notably, in response to community concerns about loss of parking, Ordan’s team made the decision to build an underground parking deck despite significant added expense.

Mr. Ordan invited several community leaders to an open house last Wednesday to review the initial draft plans for the property and offer suggestions.  He was as surprised as I was when he learned that many of these individuals chose instead to stage a press conference the day before the open house to protest plans they hadn’t even seen.

Instead of offering ideas to improve the design, this coalition calling themselves ”Save Annapolis” chose obstruction. They offered no alternative proposal or solution to revitalize 110 Compromise Street, instead playing on emotions and hyperbole to simply reject any change.

Last Thursday evening, Ordan’s team continued their public presentation of plans before the City’s Historic Preservation Commission for review and feedback.  They had scheduled another public open house for this evening.  Unfortunately, upon learning that the Coalition simply planned more protests instead of dialogue, Ordan’s team made the understandable decision to pull out.  Mr. Ordan called me yesterday to express his regret at this lost opportunity that we both believed would have offered a welcome shot in the arm for downtown.

Let me make it very clear: Save Annapolis has saved nothing except a cinderblock eyesore in the floodplain that has sat vacant for years, blocking the historic vista of lower Main Street and blocking public access along the water.

110 Compromise Street is private property.  The only way that our community will realize any public benefit on that property is by working collaboratively with a willing property owner.  Many residents and businesspersons recognize this and are as disappointed and perplexed as I am by the stance of these groups who are supposed to look out for the best interests of our town.

Last week, before Mr. Ordan pulled out, I requested a meeting with the Save Annapolis steering committee which is still scheduled for this afternoon.  I remain committed to seeking a solution for this property, and will call on Save Annapolis to come together with supporters of this proposal and seek common ground.  It is fitting that this property is located on Compromise Street, because compromise is what we need.  Not obstruction, not protests, but a collaborative effort to achieve a shared goal of revitalizing this blighted property in the heart of downtown.

Despite yesterday’s setback, I will seek to bring our community together to keep working toward that goal.

 

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