From suburb to small town Avenue: Developers are hoping a downtown 'main street' will bring a sense of community to White Marsh.

October 23, 1997|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

For years, White Marsh was a model of suburbia with its mall, shopping centers, wide streets and neighborhood cul-de-sacs -- a fast-growing area but never a community.

Now, the developer of White Marsh hopes to give that part of Baltimore County a communal spirit and the downtown it never had -- building restaurants, stores and a cinema along a single street designed to resemble a Maryland village.

Shops at the $45 million Avenue at White Marsh -- familiar names such as Old Navy Clothing Co. and Barnes & Noble Booksellers -- will have a familiar look, housed in buildings resembling a fire station, a mill, a city hall and a hardware store. Other staples of small-town life will be offered, too: outdoor entertainment, including a Christmas parade with marching bands and Santa.

The Avenue, scheduled to open its first store Wednesday, reflects a growing nationwide trend to retrofit mall-weary suburbs with pedestrian-oriented main streets.

But planners and architects concede that while outdoor promenades can foster a sense of community, they are often main streets that go nowhere.

The Avenue, for example, is wedged between the mall and Interstate 95, and so far has no pedestrian links to White Marsh's thousands of homes. Even before the Nottingham Properties Inc. project opens, some acknowledge there is a significant difference between a thriving community and a shopping center with distinctive architecture.

"We are designating it as a town, but it isn't a town yet," said Gary Bowden, principal designer with RTKL Associates Inc., which designed the Avenue, Reston Town Center in Virginia and several other main street projects.

A main street where people can walk, drive and even park is a backlash against that icon of suburbia -- the mall -- and it provides retailers with more flexibility in their designs.

'Old idea coming back'

"Most indoor shopping malls are boring," said Witold Rybczynski, director of the urban design program at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's new to be outside, to see fresh air. It's an old idea that is coming back."

That aspiration is reflected in projects from San Jose, Calif., to Boca Raton, Fla., as retailers and shoppers rediscover the charm of downtown streets.

"It's a return to the feelings people have for small-town living," said Michael Beyard, vice president of strategic development with the Urban Land Institute in Washington.

One of the first and most successful of the recent suburban main street projects is Reston Town Center. Created in 1990 to give the planned community of Reston a downtown focus, the center mixes shopping, restaurants, offices and a theater within walking distance of homes.

On a recent fall day in Reston, a bus load of senior citizens had dropped in for lunch, parents chased toddlers enchanted with the plaza fountain, and the Hyatt Regency's waiters were setting up a buffet in a pavilion that becomes an ice rink in winter. The town center bustles nearly every day, and during such events as the Christmas parade or art festival, crowds swell to the tens of thousands.

"This is the point that brings everyone together," said Randa R. Mendenhall, marketing director of Equity Office Properties, which owns the town center. "People want a place where they can congregate, where they can stroll up and down."

Nottingham began planning the Avenue about five years ago, after perceiving a trend to combine entertainment and shopping.

Creating community

"We are trying to create a sense of community here," said P. Douglas Dollenberg, president and chief executive of Nottingham, the developer of White Marsh.

Creating an old-time main street with a two-way street and angle parking hinged on abandoning the traditional belief that shoppers want acres of parking, wide streets and a roof over their heads when they walk from store to store. And it meant persuading the county as well, eventually requiring a new type of development called a planned unit development.

"The concept in the early 1980s was that the town center was a mall," said county Planning Director Arnold F. "Pat" Keller.

White Marsh reflects that planning attitude -- a business hub ringed by houses, apartments and condominiums. While the 30,000-household community has the features of a town -- including a library, police station and post office -- the buildings are so far apart it is nearly impossible to traverse the area without a car.

"White Marsh is a postal zone," said Adam E. Paul Sr., head of the White Marsh Civic Association.

As a result, the Avenue is in some ways a main street without a town. The nearest homes are a half-mile away, across a major road.

One key will be to complete a sidewalk linking houses with the Avenue, mall and other businesses, Keller said.

"The challenge of the suburbs is to create linkages," he said. "I think this is a good step forward. At least it brings that sense of night life."

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