The forgotten report

April 20, 1995|By Antero Pietila

WE ARE approaching the fourth anniversary of the "Baltimore and Beyond" report.

"While the city boasts a glittering chain of waterside projects, it also is becoming poorer and poorer, losing more middle-class residents every year," warned urbanologists Neal Peirce and Curtis W. Johnson. "Without some real help, Baltimore is in danger of becoming America's next Detroit or Newark, N.J."

This was a prophecy Baltimoreans did not want to hear. The report, commissioned by the Abell Foundation and printed as a supplement in The Baltimore Sun, was forgotten almost as soon as it came out.

Baltimore's continuing slide in the past four years is beyond question. Not only are middle-class families still fleeing, but so are important corporations and stores that are essential to a city's vigor and livability.

Which brings us to the second part of the report's conclusion:

"The surrounding counties have developed into economically independent jurisdictions, no longer slow-moving satellites of the big city," the authors warned. "If the city's free fall and the counties' withdrawal aren't stopped soon, economic prospects and the quality of life from Columbia to Bel Air, Glen Burnie to the Pennsylvania border, will be imperiled."

If the first part of the warning contained in "Baltimore and Beyond" is self-evident by now, the second part is increasingly becoming so. It may have taken two centuries for Baltimore to get to a point where its long-term future is uncertain, but many suburbs clearly will reach that stage much sooner.

Baltimore County has realized that. First under County Executive Roger Hayden and now under C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, it is trying to revitalize deteriorating older suburban communities. How much can be done to reverse trends caused by a complicated web of economic and social factors is debatable.

American communities have been on the go ever since horse carriages, streetcars and automobiles gave people mobility. This has led to much sprawl and life cycles of neighborhoods that seem to be ever shorter as more appealing new communities are built all the time.

The Rouse Co.'s decision to put Harundale Mall, near Glen Burnie, on the block aptly illustrates this dilemma of constant change.

The development in 1950 of Harundale, a community of 1,013 modest prefabricated one-story houses erected on concrete slabs, marked the start of phenomenal post-World War II suburbanization of previously rural Anne Arundel County.

The needs of the new community's more than 5,000 people were first served by a strip shopping center. Harundale Mall, reportedly the first enclosed shopping mall east of the Mississippi, was opened in 1958.

Development soon leapfrogged past the Harundale area, however. By the mid-1980s, Marley Station, a bigger and far more appealing mall, was built at the intersection of Ritchie Highway and Route 100. Harundale Mall, which was not convenient to an interstate ramp, soon developed into a struggling complex with a down-market appeal.

Outdated malls often are renovated and relaunched. Some are able to find a niche and thrive, others eventually are demolished and the land used for other purposes.

The uncertainty surrounding the future of Harundale Mall may symbolize the whole Harundale community. One of the reasons so many Baltimore City neighborhoods are in trouble is that their housing stock is no longer desirable. Houses can be updated, but they are too small and narrow to satisfy today's customers -- and lack decks and garages.

The challenge of the Harundale community is to prevent a similar situation from being repeated there. The modest houses coveted by returning GIs when they were built 45 years ago may have trouble satisfying the demands of today's homebuyers.

Harundale's long-term fate is particularly intriguing because the community's location, except for a missing interstate ramp, is quite ideal.

In the early years, its proximity to Westinghouse, the county's largest private employer, made Harundale desirable. Today, Westinghouse may be scaling down and restructuring its operations, but the area surrounding the Baltimore-Washington International Airport remains Anne Arundel's economic engine. Yet the very modesty of Harundale's housing stock is likely to send most potential residents looking at fancier neighborhoods near Odenton.

As older communities like Harundale age, counties like Anne Arundel will be confronted with problems that Baltimore City has already had to deal with. There are no easy answers, no magic potions of rejuvenation.

Four years ago, the "Baltimore and Beyond" report raised the hope that "sheer necessity" would drive the city and the surrounding counties closer together on such issues as waste disposal, air quality control and land-use policies.

So far, this has not happened. But it is significant that in his short time in office, Baltimore County's Mr. Ruppersberger at least has developed a seemingly smooth working relationship with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. They both recognize that despite many differences, their jurisdictions are in the same boat. They either float or sink together.

Antero Pietila writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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