With the swipe of an excavator, a demolition crew began taking down the abandoned Solo Cup factory in Owings Mills on Thursday, work that will clear the way for new development that was once threatened by opposition.
When the abandoned plant is flattened, developers plan to build a $140 million shopping center anchored by the upscale grocer Wegmans, as well as a gym, restaurants, offices and stores. Developers say Foundry Row will open by late 2015 or early 2016.
The ceremonial start to demolition at the site on the corner of Reisterstown and Painters Mill roads followed months of debate among residents, developers and Baltimore County Council members.
Councilwoman Vicki Almond, a Democrat who represents Owings Mills, called it "a very joyous occasion."
"It was like proof that this is finally going to happen now," she said.
Opponents have said the development would saturate the retail market and tie up roads. Supporters said it would provide shopping choices.
"We're looking forward to having some retail in our own backyard and some more restaurant options — as well as to not have the eyesore sitting there," said Cheryl Aaron, of the Greater Greenspring Association. "It's a good thing.'"
Developer Brian Gibbons said Foundry Row would "create a new gateway."
"It's really going to change the face of Owings Mills," said Gibbons, chairman and CEO of Greenberg Gibbons, which is based in Owings Mills. "In addition to the tremendous economic impact, it's going to have a great psychological impact."
Gibbons said interior demolition began about six months ago. It will take another eight to nine months to finish taking down the 1.8 million-square-foot facility.
"Come the end of the year, it should be pretty much gone," he said.
Plans for Foundry Row call for 365,000 square feet of retail space and 60,000 square feet of offices.
Almond said the project would "bring people and business into Owings Mills. I think it'll help other businesses in the area to raise the bar."
Solo Cup announced plans three years ago to close the plant, eliminating more than 500 jobs. The Illinois-based company acquired the plant in 2004 when it purchased Sweetheart Cup.
The developers' request for retail zoning last year became one of the county's most contested land-use decisions in years.
Developers behind the nearby Metro Centre and the redevelopment of the Owings Mills Mall joined with some residents worried about traffic on Reisterstown Road. Some warned that retail development of the Solo Cup property would hurt the Owings Mills Mall, which has struggled with high vacancy rates for years.
Councilman Kenneth Oliver, a Randallstown Democrat whose district includes Owings Mills, said the Solo Cup site should be preserved for manufacturing use.
After the County Council approved the retail zoning request last August, companies tied to other developers, including Metro Centre developer Howard Brown, funded a petition drive aimed at putting the question to voters in a referendum.
The coalition spent nearly $600,000 and hired workers to circulate petitions in the community to fight Foundry Row and other zoning issues.
The county elections board rejected the petitions. Referendum supporters have appealed the case to county circuit court. Gibbons said this week he plans to push ahead despite the legal challenge.
"We're moving forward," he said. "Whatever other things are attempted [by other developers], we'll just have to see."
Gibbons, who is developing the Solo Cup site with Vanguard, said Foundry Row would complement other projects in Owings Mills, and vice versa.
The county opened a new library branch last month at Metro Centre, and that mixed-use development will eventually be home to offices, retail apartments and a satellite branch of the Community College of Baltimore County.
"Foundry Row will be an amenity to Metro Centre, and I think Metro Centre will be a feeder and an amenity to Foundry Row," Gibbons said. "Certainly, if I lived in Metro Centre, I'd love to have a Wegmans down the street."
He said the grocer would generate business for Foundry Row as a whole.
"It's like a Disney World for food stores," he said.
The cup plant was dedicated in 1962 as a 360,000-square-foot facility run by the Maryland Cup Corp.
At the time, a Baltimore Sun reporter called it an "ultra modern paper products plant" with a warehouse and offices, as well as special features to control quality, such as automatic humidity and temperature controls in processing areas.
Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.