Whipping East Joppa Road into shape

March 23, 1995|By Patrick Ercolano

THE CHAMPS Elysees, it ain't.

I'm talking about the two-mile stretch of East Joppa Road between Goucher Boulevard and Perring Parkway that has evolved into a model of the ugly suburban thoroughfare -- a four-lane artery choked with traffic and marred by haphazard business development.

Carbon copies of the Joppa Road corridor dot the American landscape. A burger joint sits next to a gas station next to a bank next to an auto parts store next to a strip mall, and so on. In all their smoggy, cluttered glory, they memorialize the lack of proper planning by suburban builders and local government officials during the decades after World War II.

If only the solution were as simple as the idea cooked up by Baltimore City Councilman John Cain, who has proposed changing the name of Pulaski Highway to Pulaski Boulevard, thinking that would lend it the class it sorely lacks. (Why not Champs Pulaski?)

More concrete methods will be needed to improve the appearance of East Joppa Road. A complete make-over isn't necessary, though an uplifting nip here and tuck there would be beneficial.

The Towson-Loch Raven Community Council (TLRCC), an umbrella group of 12 area community associations, has been active in bringing about just those kinds of small but helpful changes. Probably the council's most visible campaign to date has been the one it has waged in recent years against the owners and operators of four nighttime businesses in the Orchard Tree Lane business park, near the intersection of Joppa Road and Loch Raven Boulevard.

These four businesses -- the Club 101 and Club Manhattan after-hours establishments, the KAOS strip club and the Skateland roller skating rink -- have been regularly featured in the county police blotter for incidents involving noise, litter, gambling and vandalism linked to patrons. Exacerbating the problem for certain area residents is the proximity of the business park to their homes. Homeowners on Green Pastures Drive, just to the east of Orchard Tree Lane, say noise from Club 101 can be heard in their homes in the wee hours. When the establishment opens its back door in the summer, the nearby residents can also see inside the club.

Until last August, Baltimore County had no statute regulating after-hours spots such as Club 101 and Club Manhattan. But then the County Council, prodded by community pressure, finally passed a law that allows such clubs to continue operating until August 1995. At that time, they will have to seek a special zoning exception to stay open.

Club Manhattan, as it happens, won't be around that long. After its owners violated county zoning laws by showcasing totally nude dancers, a county District Court judge, two weeks ago ordered the club to shut down before June 1.

The same week that ruling was announced, a county zoning commissioner decided that Club 101 has operated legally -- despite long-standing community complaints about noise coming from the establishment. Neighborhood residents now worry that if the owner of Club 101 applies for a zoning exception this summer, the process could allow him to remain open for months. And if he wins the exception (which seems doubtful because Club 101 sits so near a residential area), an appeal of that finding could drag on indefinitely while the club continues operating. In that event, a TLRCC official hints, the community could fight back by citing state noise ordinances that have more teeth than local noise regulations.

The TLRCC also has raised questions about a recently opened establishment on Orchard Tree Lane that has begun removing its pool tables and installing a stage. The suspicion is that another strip club is coming to the business park. The owners deny this, but local residents and community officials have let it be known that they are keeping a close eye on this and other Orchard Tree Lane businesses. In fact, at the residents' urging, Towson Councilman Douglas B. Riley has introduced a bill designed to rein-in some of the rowdiness associated with Skateland.

Now, after all these reactive measures, community council leaders have decided to become more pro-active in ensuring that their area remains a nice place to live. They have begun encouraging business owners along the Joppa Road corridor to consider new landscaping and more uniform signs to make the area more attractive, particularly on its eastern side.

There is good news, too, from the west end of the corridor: A Florida developer plans to spend $33 million to breathe life into the moribund Towson Marketplace near the intersection of Joppa and Goucher, a 43-acre site that has great potential but has languished for years with many empty storefronts. The place will be de-malled -- turned inside out so it will essentially become a fancy strip shopping center. Anchor stores such as Montgomery Ward, Best Products, and Marshall's will stay, joined by new retail shops and a 4,000-seat, 20-screen movie complex that would run box-office hits as well as art-house features.

Some nearby residents are complaining that this transformation will bring unwanted noise and traffic. For now, though, the fears seem outweighed by the local consensus that something has to be done to raise Towson Marketplace from the dead. It is hoped that the proposed changes will make the revamped shopping center a selling point for the communities all along the East Joppa corridor, rather than a reason for residents to sell out and move on down the road.

Patrick Ercolano writes editorials on Baltimore County for The Evening Sun.

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