We Must Stand Up For Good Buildings

COMMENT

August 08, 1993|By BRIAN SULLAM

The design of Tevis Oil's proposed 24-hour gas station and convenience store in the heart of Westminster reminds me of a loudmouth at a party.

It is brash. It calls attention to itself and disturbs everything around it. In a neighborhood of quiet brick-front and clapboard buildings, it would be a plastic and metal monstrosity. It would create a visual dissonance that would clash with the buildings in its immediate vicinity.

Tevis Oil's proposal for Main and Carroll streets may not be the worst offender when it comes to ugly buildings, but it's the most prominent example of late and is emblematic of why Carroll is getting progressively less attractive. Too many developments of the past two decades have muscled their way into the county without any consideration for the existing structures or neighborhood and even less regard for natural topography and vegetation.

As a result, the sight of these buildings -- from subdivisions in South Carroll to shopping centers in Hampstead -- offends rather than pleases.

Driving around the county and taking in the countryside and small towns is no longer a wholly enriching experience. Farm fields, forests and vistas of rolling hills are replaced by fast-food stores, self-storage businesses and ticky-tacky houses.

Appearances do matter, and that is one reason people across the county are up in arms about development. "We were in favor of progress until we saw what it looked like," is a phrase repeated by many county residents.

Carroll's uglification is taking place even though the county has a sophisticated master plan, a well-managed farm land preservation program and a new, and tough, forest conservation ordinance. What the county lacks, however, is the public will to demand that developers build structures that enhance the appearance of the community. Too many developers consider aesthetics a nuisance.

Throughout history, humans have demonstrated they are capable of erecting beautiful buildings. Some are every simple: the Parthenon in Athens or the Pyramids in Egypt. Others are much more visually complex, like Chartres Cathedral. And not all attractive buildings are old. In this region, the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Oriole Park at Camden Yards and Carroll Community College are examples of new buildings that please the eye and enhance the environment.

Appearances send out a multitude of messages. Attractive buildings speak volumes about a community and its self-image. Development that takes note of the designs and scale of existing structures reinforces the subconscious feeling that the community is valued and worth preserving.

Development that clashes with or overwhelms the existing buildings and scale sends the message that the existing community isn't worth much. People become alienated from their surroundings and eventually from their community.

Think about how people feel about living in Uniontown as opposed to, say, The Greens of Westminster.

Residents of Uniontown, with its tree-lined streets, brick sidewalks and attractive houses and stores, take pride in their community and are willing to exert themselves to preserve its appearance.

That feeling of community solidarity, however, doesn't seem to exist at The Greens, a typical suburban subdivision built in the 1980s with little mature vegetation, predictable layout and houses of ordinary design. Rather than preserve the current appearance of The Greens, most residents would probably prefer to change it. While appearance isn't the only factor that determines a community's spirit, it is worth noting that during the Westminster election last spring, the turnout at The Greens was extremely low -- an indication of alienation from local affairs.

While growth in Carroll is inevitable, ugliness is not. Aesthetic considerations should be given a much higher priority than they are receiving because these new subdivisions and structures will be with us a long, long time.

The county's top officials have to demand more from developers than they are currently getting. In too many cases, officials are passive when it comes to the appearance of new buildings. Just because a chain wants to establish itself in Carroll doesn't mean that the community has to accept a cheap-looking building that has been replicated throughout the country.

Towns with tough design standards often attract business because the developers know their investment will be protected as future development follows. More important, residents of the community will feel comfortable.

By approving the current design calling for a brightly lighted 24-hour gas station, convenience store and sub shop on Westminster's historic Main Street, city officials will be telling the community that the town's appearance must take a back seat to commercial progress.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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