When you call something a “premium outlet mall,” some people are going to have trouble resolving the inherent contradiction of the term.
So it’s not surprising that it took the Montgomery County Planning Board almost four hours Thursday to figure out a way to finesse approval of a development plan amendment that would allow the construction of the proposed 434,000-square-foot Clarksburg Premium Outlets at Cabin Branch, where the County Council approved only 120,000 square feet of retail as part of a mixed-use complex in 2003.
The basic issue was simply a matter of shifting already-approved space for offices to retail on the west side of I-270. Both were lumped together as nonresidential space under the original approval. But the discussion was prolonged by the evolving vision of Clarksburg, which will be home to 40,000 residents if long-planned developments are completed.
At one point, board members wrestled with the notion of a luxury discount mall. Could it include Target, where you can buy cheap underwear and socks? Must it preclude Walmart, where the low-priced T-shirts come packaged with concern about low wages and workplace safety in Bangladesh?
Or would the mall include only supposedly high-quality stores like Bloomingdale’s Outlet or specialty retailers where you can pay $300 for a tie originally marked $500?
“The premium outlet mall is quality?” asked Commissioner Norman Dreyfuss. “It’s stuff that’s discounted.”
In the end, the board and the mall’s developers agreed to restrict the mall so that no single tenant occupies more than 50,000 square feet. That would accommodate upscale department stores selling their off-season goods but would bar big-box retailers, especially a grocery store. That was a key requirement, because all agreed that they didn’t want the outlet mall to kill demand for the long-stalled Clarksburg town center across I-270, which developers hope to anchor with a large food store.
Keeping hopes alive for the town center is what planning Commissioner Casey Anderson called “elephant in room.” He worried that the outlet mall — with its food court and walking paths and amphitheater — would suck customers away from the town center, the absence of which has been a sore point for many recent transplants to Clarksburg.
The outlet mall’s developers — Streetscape Partners, together with Simon Property Group and New England Development — insisted their project would not include tenants who would compete with the sort of neighborhood stores envisioned for the town center. No general big-box retailers will be included, said attorney Robert Harris, who represented the applicants.
“A Walmart doesn’t look anything like an outlet mall, and I don’t see how you would approve that,” he said.
Streetscape principal Ron Kaplan added that there should be no concern that the developers would end up turning to big-box stores if for some reason the market turns against outlet retailers. He noted that the project will be self-financed and free from lender pressures because Simon Property Group is the nation’s biggest shopping mall owner.
Details of the project will be left to the preliminary and site plan approval stages. But the amendment as approved makes it clear that promised office space likely will come only in the latter phase of development.
The new plan calls for increasing the retail space by 364,000 square feet and reducing the office space by the same amount, to 1,936,000 square feet. The plan also includes a hotel and 1,139 units of housing.
As previously approved, the project was deemed not a threat to surrounding creeks that feed into Little Seneca Lake. But the Planning Board will take a close look at protection of waterways next Thursday when it considers a staff draft of the Clarksburg Limited Master Plan for the Ten Mile Creek watershed. Possible new restrictions on development could impact Pulte Homes’ plans to build 1,000 houses west of Clarksburg Road and the Peterson Cos.’ proposal to build a 450,000-square-foot retail and residential complex.