While previous discussions of the plans to replace the nearly-dead Frederick Towne Mall with a third Walmart in Frederick were dominated by detractors, Thursday night’s discussion brought out a contingent of residents in favor of the replacement.
The developer of the site has proposed a new Walmart with a more-inviting design to replace the mall on the “Golden Mile,” the struggling retail corridor on West Patrick Street between U.S. 15 and Interstate 270.
The new Walmart would include green space and walking paths for pedestrians, as well as retail space for an additional 10 to 15 stores, and a restaurant site, according to the developer.
About 150 residents attended a meeting at the former Bon-Ton store in the empty mall organized by the owners of the property, Rockwood Capital. Residents asked questions of the property after a presentation from the developer and architects.
DLC Management, a New York-based firm that is developing the property, has asked the city to change the zoning for the roughly 50-acre site from mixed use, which requires a housing component, to general commercial, which would allow a Walmart to be built.
The design elements include larger windows, multiple entrances, and a facade that incorporates different materials and design elements intended to create a more pleasing version of the traditional big-box store.
The property is owned by Rockwood Capital, a firm with offices in New York and California.
The Frederick Planning Commission recommended at a March meeting that the aldermen reject the zoning change.
It’s the third time the plans have been presented publicly, with vocal opponents and proponents of the plan to replace the nearly empty Frederick Towne Mall sparring at previous meetings, and online on social media sites. An online petition drive on the website Change.org has nearly 1,500 signatures, with residents urging the aldermen not to approve the zoning change.
Steven Holman, who said he lives on the Golden Mile and created the petition, has been one of the more outspoken residents. He called Walmart a “noted job destroyer,” and said the city did not need to add a third store.
Other residents spoke in favor of the change.
Gary Brooks, the owner of Barley and Hops Grill and Microbrewery, praised the Walmart plan, and said he wanted to find out about leasing options for the additional retail sites that will be located near the Walmart.
“I was on the planning commission when we created the small area plan — this is exactly what was designed,” Brooks said.
The city’s Golden Mile Small Area Plan, created by the Frederick Planning Department with input from residents, business owners and developers, includes guidelines for zoning and design standards for businesses when they update their storefronts in the area.
Alderman Karen Young (D) said after the meeting that she was disappointed that the meeting didn’t extend long enough to allow all the residents to ask their questions — the event ran from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. — but that she’s heard from residents in favor of the Walmart and also those opposed to it.
“People are really divided on this issue,” she said. “If you asked me to give you a poll now? No way could I call it. And I’m a former market researcher, and I could not call it right now.”
Nina Albert, the director of community affairs for Walmart, said the store would not receive or seek any form of tax credits or tax incentives in building the store, a concern raised by several residents.
David Severn, a Frederick lawyer who represents the mall’s developers, said the hope is the plan for the store — which would be linked to a change in zoning to ensure the property would look essentially the same — would be an incentive for the aldermen to approve the zoning change.
While many clamor for other shopping opportunities such as Nordstrom and Trader Joe’s, John Coury, assistant vice president of Rockwood Capital, said those retailers won’t come to the area.
As for locating a third Walmart in Frederick, Albert said demographic studies show a number of Montgomery County shoppers use the Frederick stores, and that a store on the Golden Mile would also appeal to shoppers from Western Maryland, such as Washington County.
However, both Montgomery and Washington counties already have Walmarts as well.
There are several stores, such as a Verizon Wireless, Panera Bread, Sonic, and LA Fitness, among others, that would be willing to locate in the retail locations next to a new Walmart, according to Severn.
Once the heart of a long stretch of booming retail shops on U.S. 40 that gave it the Golden Mile nickname, the mall now has only one store, John’s Hallmark.
Now even that lone holdout in the mall is in the process of closing.
John’s Hallmark owner, John Slocum, said the store was still open as of Friday, but he was in the process of eliminating inventory.
Residents will have an opportunity to offer their input on the plan to the Board of Aldermen on June 5 at 3 p.m. at Frederick’s City Hall, 101 N. Court St.