Forty minutes northeast of Baltimore, at the Boulevard at Box Hill shopping mall in Harford County, hundreds of empty parking spaces surround a J.C. Penney store. Signs out front proclaim: “CLOSING. Entire store, 75 to 90 percent off. Everything must go!”
J.C. Penney, which is closing 150 stores in malls nationally, is one of several major retail chains going bankrupt or shifting to strictly online selling as the coronavirus recession and competition with Amazon.com have combined to drain mall-based retail.
Veronica Cassilly, a retired environmental science teacher, shakes her head outside of the big box store. She says she’s disgusted, in part because the mall itself is fairly new – but soon to be partly vacant and thrown away, like a giant fast-food container.
“J.C. Penney is a renter, and now they’re done, and the land is wasted – and it happens over and over and over again,” Cassilly said.
According to a recent study by an international investment bank, Barclays, the percentage of U.S. malls with a vacancy rate of more than 20 percent – putting them in danger of failing -- increased to 28 percent in September, up from just 8 percent a year ago.
And yet, despite the acres of vacant mall space opening up in Harford County and elsewhere, not far from the J.C. Penney here, a developer is planning to clear-cut more than 300 acres of old growth forest to build a brand new retail and business project.
The Abingdon Business Park is proposed by the Chesapeake Real Estate Group, led by James Lighthizer. Defenders of the project say that it will include 2.5 million square feet of new warehouses, commercial space and shops on land that is already zoned for commercial and industrial purposes. Both Lighthizer and Harford County Executive Barry Glassman declined to be interviewed about the project, which has been challenged in court.
To local activists like Veronica Cassilly, the project makes no sense because it will pave over a healthy stretch of trees and wetlands called the Abingdon Woods, which enhances the quality of life for local residents and filters water flowing into the Chesapeake Bay.
Cassilly argues the Abingdon Business Park is not necessary, because there are already 18 empty warehouses in the region, not to mention the J.C. Penney site.
“Yeah, it’s pretty sad. We are about to clear cut 330 acres of a most spectacular forest to build a warehouse. And J.C. Penney’s is going to be vacant in another month,” Cassilly said. “We don’t have the luxury of being wasteful anymore. We really don’t have that luxury in Maryland or anyplace else on the continental United States to waste land like this.”
On a recent afternoon, Cassilly led a tour through the Abingdon Woods. She walked down a winding path, past more than century-old oak trees, a carpet of ferns, and a stream in a shaded valley.
“When you get down in here, a little ways farther, you are going to see the most beautiful patch of mountain laurel,” she said. “Again, something you just don’t find anymore – a forest like this, with mountain laurel everywhere. To find a forest like this, this is a gem.”
A gem that, in the eyes of too many developers and elected officials, has no value outside of its zoning and development potential.
“It’s just unconscionable,” Cassilly said. “Once you cut a forest down, you can’t get that back. Once you blacktop the Earth, you can’t get that back.”
Photo of Veronica Cassilly in Abingdon Woods by Tom Pelton