Pikesville: Work in Progress

July 22, 1993

As you enter Pikesville, there's a new sign welcoming you to that northwest Baltimore County community. Nothing out of the ordinary -- except for the fact there's a big pillar of broken granite in front of it. Apparently, the stone is there for an artsy effect, but a visitor can't be certain whether the sign is completed or a work in progress.

It's an apt metaphor for the village of Pikesville, which is still struggling for a new identity. Its commercial strip probably has more untapped potential than the county's other inner Beltway business districts because it is surrounded by a growing, affluent suburb. However, it must wrestle with the same problems that confront most urban "Main Streets": Parking is tight and new malls and strip centers have infused more than a hundred stores into the area in just a few years, pumping up competition for Pikesville's mom and pop operators.

This morning, county officials are to unveil a new $1 million streetscape for Pikesville, with salmon-colored sidewalks, Victorian street lamps and a modern fountain on a little plaza. They hope the sprucing up will attract shoppers to Pikesville, and many merchants are grateful for the attention (though they are required to contribute with their own facade improvements.) "It gives it a village look. It's gotta help," says deli owner Martin Lev.

But others aren't so sure -- most conspicuously the owner of Fields Pharmacy, a Pikesville institution for 101 years. Fields was the only store not to participate, and owner Jeffrey Levin comes off as sort of a tortured character in this plot. While no one questions his investment in and commitment to Pikesville, his insistence that the work was a waste of $1 million has caused much divisiveness.

Actually, Mr. Levin makes many good points: The streetscape won't solve parking woes nor will it infuse the area with people as would a courthouse, a community college annex or a re-opened Pikes Theater, all projects that have already withered or continue as distant dreams on a drawing board. Mr. Levin's protestations might come off as Monday-morning quarterbacking, but he does lead us to wonder whether the county has a strong sense of what it wants to accomplish.

County Executive Roger Hayden has often cautioned that government can't do everything; its role is as a catalyst. But the county has seen enough streetscape projects from urban renewal days -- in Essex, for instance -- to realize new sidewalks and lamp posts alone won't remake Pikesville. It looks like a job half-done, like the new welcome sign.

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