The re-making of Baltimore County

April 20, 1994

"Timing is everything," the saying goes. "Image is everything," assures a popular commercial.

In community planning, both these axioms are correct -- image and timing are everything. And Baltimore County, which has stumbled in both those areas over the past generation, laudably is focusing on ways to remedy that.

Forty years ago, Baltimore County had a superb image. To have moved to the county from the city meant one was living the good life. Between 1950 and 1970, the county's population doubled. Government planners scurried for a place to put the new people and came up with a good idea: town centers in Owings Mills and White Marsh.

The county's timing, however, left something to be desired. While the infrastructure was still being put in place in Owings Mills and White Marsh through the boom '80s, thousands of middle-class families were ready to grab their piece of the American dream -- a detached home with a driveway and a lawn. And since Baltimore County wasn't ready to supply it, they skipped right over to Harford and Carroll counties and to southern Pennsylvania to get it -- and new business followed them there. Adding injury to insult, Baltimore County proceeded to "in-fill" its older, established communities with a hodge-podge of development to make up for the fact that the planned town centers weren't ready. In the process, the communities that were extremely desirable to earlier waves of county immigrants -- Essex, Parkville, Pikesville, Arbutus and others -- became less so.

Its image tarnished and its timing flawed, where does Baltimore County go from here? For starters, the idea that County Executive Roger Hayden proposed this month, to create an urban community conservation program, is a good one. Mr. Hayden wants to shift the county's planning director for the past six years, P. David Fields, into exploring and implementing revitalization efforts. With his global background and a broad, affectionate perspective of the county, Mr. Fields seems a good fit.

The coordinator might work with the heads of other county agencies to ensure capital improvements in the older sections of the county. But this initiative isn't just about more money; it's about the county stabilizing its established communities and becoming more attractive in the regional marketplace for middle-class homebuyers.

Baltimore's largest suburb can't do much about its missed opportunities over the past 20 years, but it can reclaim its image. The continued orderly development of stylish Owings Mills and Honeygo will help. So would a concentration on improving the schools and the parks and a sense of vibrancy to those urbanized communities around the Beltway that were once the reason people moved to, not away from, Baltimore County.

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