Looking Good

ANDREW RATNER

September 11, 1993|By ANDREW RATNER

Visit Towson, the commercial heart of Baltimore County, on a Saturday and you are struck by its drowsiness. The streets are hardly teeming with shoppers. The street-scape has some conspicuous vacancies left by ex-furriers and others. And the food court at the handsome Towson Commons office tower is more like a half-court, with so many booths still empty more than a year after the building opened.

Visit Annapolis that same day and you are struck by the vibrancy of the state capital and Anne Arundel County seat. The sidewalks are full of people, the streets jammed with cars and a wide cornucopia of goods is available to separate you from your money.

The two communities might not seem to have much in common $$ economically, but they do share a concern at the moment: Annapolis is trying to protect its environment for doing business, while Baltimore County is trying to repair its image, both through stricter controls on business signage.

Baltimore County's extensive proposal would require businesses to display one larger sign, rather than several small ones. Billboards would be outlawed on rural and scenic routes. And streamers, inflatable gorillas and other gauche attention grabbers would be verboten. Of course, the County Council still must approve all this, and the legislators last summer were loath to confront a smaller controversy over the tiny real-estate signs that pop up on public rights-of-way every weekend.

But perhaps the council will take a cue from County Executive Roger B. Hayden, who has volunteered to tackle this matter. Politically, it's not a huge crowd-pleaser. Some residents care about it, as shown by the letters from community groups commending Mr. Hayden's proposal. But this is also an issue of aesthetics that many people, especially in business, think belongs in the private domain. That Mr. Hayden, a Republican, is willing to butt heads when prior Democratic administrations ignored this matter is to his credit.

The issue concerns more than just words on a piece of wood or plastic urging consumers to buy stuff. It's about whether a business community can work in concert to better the quality of life for residents and, in turn, improve its own climate for doing business. Cheaper housing and less congestion may be the overriding factors persuading middle-class families to move to more distant suburbs over Baltimore County, but the county's unkempt business strips don't help convince homebuyers that the place cares about itself. It's a subliminal shoulder shrug that says, ''We're nothing special.''

Observers last year complained about the aesthetics of downtown Towson, but Towson's the least of it. County planners have plotted some corridors that need correcting: Wise Avenue, Eastern Boulevard, Belair, Joppa, York, Reisterstown and Liberty roads and Route 40 West. They didn't even include honky-tonk Pulaski Highway because, as one planner noted, it's too far gone.

Which brings us to the fight in Annapolis. City Councilman John Hammond, with the support of the city administration, sponsored a bill that outlawed neon signs visible from business storefronts. The bill passed, but ran into flak after Chick Levitt complained that it was unfair to his long-time delicatessen in town.

A visit to Annapolis at dusk reveals the validity of Mr. Hammond's argument: A Main Street noted nationally for its subtle charm now wears neon signs exhorting people to buy fudge or have their tarot card read. It's as appropriate as doing ''the wave'' at the opera.

No, a little neon won't kill Annapolis, which attracts one of every four visitors to Maryland. Twice as many tourists are inclined to have a fancy dinner in Annapolis as they are while visiting the rest of the state, and they spend four times as many hours shopping as elsewhere, according to state tourism officials. But Mr. Hammond and his supporters are taking the long view: a little neon now, a few banners later, several more entrepreneurs who feel their right to spray their message is more important than the overall appeal of their marketplace, and before you know it . . . you've got the worst of Baltimore County.

Mr. Levitt should be ashamed for making a stink over his few neon signs. If not for the allure of Annapolis, his establishment might be another struggling luncheonette in a dead, little town -- and neither would he be running a bed and breakfast upstairs. Mr. Levitt should also realize that protecting what Annapolis has is easier than digging out of the hole Baltimore County is in.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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