'Drive,' he said, but he didn't like it one bit


April 14, 1996|By Brian Sullam

I HAVE NEVER worked so close to so many different stores.

It's too bad they are so inaccessible.

The panorama from The Sun's second-story office on Gov. Ritchie Highway is a shopper's nirvana. Retailers of every conceivable stripe line the highway: Best Products, Ames, Pier 1, BJ's Warehouse, T.J. Maxx, Western Auto, CVS/Pharmacy, Frank's Nursery and Crafts, Standard Carpets and Waterbed Galleries, among others.

And although I cannot see them from the office, on the other side of Jumpers Hole Road, there are more stores, including Burlington Coat Factory, Baby Superstore, a Kmart and Metro Food Store. Down the road is Marley Station, the large regional shopping mall with several large department stores and dozens of specialty shops.

This incredible concentration of stores is within walking distance, though I would probably lose my life if I set off on foot to reach them.

'Road kill your first day'

There are no sidewalks for pedestrians. None of the intersections within a quarter of a mile of Ritchie Highway and Jumpers Hole Road have clearly marked crosswalks. The traffic lights don't even have crossing signals for pedestrians.

Even more daunting for the pedestrians are the motorists who drive parking lots and access roads at speeds more appropriate for cruising the interstates.

When I casually mentioned that I was thinking of walking across the street to grab a bite to eat, Candy Thomson, the bureau's long-time chief, warned me off. "You don't want to be road kill your first day on the job," she said.

I took her words to heart and hopped into my car for a quarter-mile drive to grab a burger and fries.

As in many other suburban communities across America, life in Anne Arundel County is organized around the automobile.

Without a car, attending to the simplest daily needs of life is next to impossible. Need to get a book from the library? Drive to it. Want to get a newspaper and a gallon of milk? Drive to the nearest convenience store. Want to mail a letter and buy some stamps? Drive to the post office.

Had I worked in The Sun's Annapolis bureau on West Street, I could have accomplished all those errands on foot.

Many laments over the demise of the American pedestrian have already been written. Development patterns of the past 40 years cannot be undone. But at the same time, we have enough experience to recognize some of the obvious problems of suburban development to prevent them from recurring.

Aside from the large number of stores that I can see from my office, I can also see acres of parking. A few trees and bushes break up the large expanse, but very few of the spaces are occupied. I would bet that even in the height of the Christmas shopping season only a fraction of them are used.

The abundance of parking spaces creates a barren asphalt wilderness unfit for humans -- unless they happen to be riding inside an automobile.

Across the shopping complex where our office is located is a newsstand and card store that carries a good selection of newspapers. On days when I remember, I have strolled to the store to buy a paper to read with lunch.

The walk from my building to the newsstand takes four minutes each way. With the recent spell of chilly spring weather, the walk has been pleasant. A couple of months from now when the thermometer and relative humidity are both in the high 90s, that walk will resemble a short version of the Bataan Death March.

Surplus of stores

Back when there was a smattering of shopping centers, it may have made sense to require developers to have a large number of spaces to accommodate the tremendous numbers of shoppers flocking to the limited number of centers.

But a shortage of retailers is no longer the problem in suburban jurisdictions such as Anne Arundel. If anything, there is a surplus of stores in some sections of the county. Just about every major national chain -- from Wal-Mart to Nordstrom -- seems to have an outlet somewhere in the county. And more are clamoring to come in.

The only problem is that not all of these stores succeed. In the past several years, major stand-alone stores such as Leedmark, F&M, Farm Fresh and others have closed their doors.

In a tight urbanized setting, the demise of a store usually means that storefront windows are painted over or boarded up. As long as adjacent stores continue to operate, the closed store doesn't dominate the streetscape. When one of these large retail establishments shutters its doors in a suburban community, its demise is felt immediately. The death of large "category killer" store creates a barren landscape where acres of parking lots become receptacles for trash and abandoned automobiles.

That is certainly not the place this pedestrian would want to walk.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 4/14/96

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