Hustle, bustle welcome as signs of new vitality


March 26, 1995|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe | Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Sun Staff Writer

Motorists cruising the Beltway past exits 20 and 21 -- Reisterstown Road and Park Heights Avenue -- may think they know what the area is about. To many, Pikesville means Jewish and wealthy.

But this image represents only part of the picture.

The Baltimore County community of 30,000 is predominantly Jewish, but more than a third of the population is not. And the community, which dates back more than 200 years, had established Catholic and Protestant congregations long before the first synagogue was built.

Although Pikesville can boast many beautiful, upscale developments, housing in the area is diverse, with low-end rental apartments to mansions all located within a few miles.

The community also has a bustling business district running through the heart of it, a district that just seven or eight years ago had fallen on such hard times that some residents doubted it would come back.

But now, almost every storefront is occupied and the Pikesville Chamber of Commerce reports there are more than 1,200 businesses along the Reisterstown Road corridor. "In a three-mile radius, we have just about everything," says David Uhlfelder, a CPA who has worked and lived in Pikesville for decades. "It's terrific. It's accessible to everything."

"There's all kinds of people living in Pikesville," says Beverly Margolis, a real estate agent with Long and Foster Real Estate Inc. and a longtime resident. "It has a little bit of everything for everyone."

Mr. Uhlfelder, who has lived in Pikesville for 35 years, says diversity is what keeps the area interesting.

The center of town is not only home to hundreds of businesses, but to state police headquarters, a Maryland National Guard Armory, two country clubs and a huge, 100-year-old cemetery, Druid Ridge.

Years ago, Pikesville was known for its shopping district. Trendy boutiques, dress shops and fur and jewelry stores lined Reisterstown Road and drew shoppers from miles around.

"This place had fabulous dress stores," says Nancy Garfinkle, executive director of the Pikesville Chamber of Commerce. "But by the mid- to late-1980s, the shopping shift had taken place."

The "shift" -- which affected American main streets and business districts across the country -- took place when regional malls lured shoppers and tenants away in droves.

Almost overnight, stores started moving to nearby Owings Mills Mall or closing, unable to compete with the malls, merchants say.

"It looked like a bomb went off in the center of Pikesville," says Gary Van Hoven, a longtime resident and co-owner of Joan and Gary's Original Bagel Co. "Vacant stores were popping up all over. It looked terrible."

In 1992 as part of a countywide revitalization project, Baltimore County pumped $1.2 million into Pikesville's Streetscape Project, repairing sidewalks, replacing benches and street lights, adding small park and sprucing up the place.

The half-mile project was a success, attracting many new businesses, but left another 1 1/2 miles along Reisterstown Road untouched.

But rather than wait for a second phase, which could take years, a core group of merchants formed the Pikesville South Project and soon raised $16,000 to replace benches and trash cans south of the Streetscape project themselves, says Gabe Rosenbush, a commercial real estate consultant and member of the committee.

The chamber says Streetscape and other improvements have attracted almost $12 million in reinvestment. Where vacant shops stood a few years ago, national and regional chains have moved in, including Boston Chicken, Blockbuster Video, Pizza Hut, Office Mart and Staples. As of February, the retail vacancy rate had dropped to less than 6 percent.

"When you see chains like Boston Chicken and Rite Aid coming in here, you know you've turned a corner," says Mr. Van Hoven.

The next big step is the renovation and expansion of the Pikes Theater, which has been closed for 11 years but is slated to become a regional arts center. Baltimore County bought the site for $800,000 and now leases it for $1 a year to the Greater Baltimore Cultural Arts Foundation, established to organize the renovation project.

Last year, the state legislature approved a matching grant of $500,000 toward the $3 million project, which will turn the 58-year-old, single-screen theater into a multipurpose arts center for live theater, dance, vintage films, art shows and concerts.

"This will be the jewel of Pikesville," says Mr. Uhlfelder, who serves as president of the arts foundation.

Area merchants think the theater will be a regional draw and further improve Pikesville's south end, which had deteriorated during the 1980s.

Ms. Garfinkle says the influx of Russian Jewish immigrants into south Pikesville also has helped stabilize the area, as the new residents have purchased smaller, older homes there. "Most buy a house within 18 months of getting here," she says. "That's been a very stabilizing force in that end of town."

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