We don't have to be ugly

GWINN OWENS

February 13, 1992|By Gwinn Owens

EVERY metropolitan area has at least one but probably several -- totally commercialized radial streets with endless strips of car lots, fast-food restaurants, muffler shops, gas stations. Baltimore has its share: York Road, Ritchie Highway, Harford Road, Belair Road, Liberty Road. Their common characteristic is ugliness -- miles and miles demonstrating what H.L. Mencken called America's "lust to make the world intolerable."

Is it possible to have such streets, with their vigorous roadside competition and their need to attract the motorist's eye, and high aesthetic standards as well? The answer is yes. All it takes is community determination backed up by effective zoning.

There are probably a number of examples of enlightened commercial highways, but an outstanding one is the famous El Camino Real, the old Spanish "Royal Road," that runs south from San Francisco through the area now known as Silicon Valley. Though bordered by the usual commerce, from McDonald's to Jiffy Lube, El Camino is for most of its length a handsome highway.

Its role is that of, for example, Reisterstown Road or Pulaski Highway, old main arteries now serving local commercial needs, with through traffic carried on adjacent expressways (I-795 and I-95). But these Baltimore area roads are marked by the slovenly indifference of local government that has yielded an aesthetic nightmare.

This is not the case with El Camino, but its attractiveness did not come about by accident. To the contrary, enlightened zoning laws, enforcing aesthetic standards for every roadside enterprise, have produced a highway that is at worst tolerable and at best lovely.

El Camino traverses a number of the very prosperous small cities of Silicon Valley, and the zoning laws are therefore strictly local. The cities include Palo Alto (home of Stanford University), Mountain View, Los Altos, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara. Some have done a better job than others in enforcing aesthetic standards, but all provide an environment far superior to that of any comparable road in the Baltimore area.

Mountain View is probably the most attractive in the string of municipalities. The small city is delightful throughout, but the passing motorist knows it mainly from El Camino. Almost every kind of familiar commercial enterprise is strung along the highway, but the effect is far different from the usual American -- and Baltimore area -- standard.

Every commercial structure is screened behind attractive trees, shrubbery and lawns. A McDonald's, for example, is landscaped like someone's private home, its function betrayed only by the familiar signs. Its parking lot is bordered by a wall topped with shrubbery. An office park looks like a campus building. Even a small shopping center is designed and landscaped with subdued good taste.

Mountain View Mayor Arthur Pakahara explained to me that the aesthetic improvements were undertaken about 10 years ago with the passage of strict local zoning ordinances by most of the cities along El Camino. The codes limit the height of buildings, the size of signs and require certain setbacks and landscaping.

While no business was forced to invest in improvements in existing buildings and grounds, each was required to conform to the law as soon as it sought expansion or other improvements. Gradually -- and not always willingly -- most of the establishments now have conformed to the demands of the ordinances.

Mr. Takahara cited one specific case of how the law works. A few years ago Baltimore-based Jiffy Lube came before the Mountain View authorities with plans for one of its franchised service centers. The structure was to be strung out parallel to the highway with its gaping service bays visible to passing motorists. The city officials, citing zoning laws, required the company to relocate the building at right angles to the road so that the bays, with appropriate planting, are now hidden from the highway.

Another contributing factor to the general aesthetic surroundings of El Camino is a landscaped median strip, the result of some enlightened highway design by California authorities. (It also has the best traffic engineering I have ever seen on an urban road, leaving even a stranger no doubt about what lane he should be in and where to turn.)

The same improvements could be accomplished along our chaotic and depressing (and unsafe) radial roads if elected officials -- especially in Baltimore County -- had the will to do it.

But don't hold your breath.

Gwinn Owens, in retirement, lives in Baltimore County.

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