On the Avenue A welcome change: The problem with White Marsh's new 'Main Street' is White Marsh.

November 16, 1997

THERE IS A good amount of cynicism regarding the $45 million Avenue at White Marsh, a shopping area that attempts to create a traditional Main Street. The harshest critics call it fake, contrived, a street without a town, leading nowhere.

To be sure, the Avenue doesn't really go any place. It sits along a commercial strip, much like a shopping center. It lacks municipal structures and residential components. Essentially it's a gussied-up shopping plaza.

But enough of the sneers and cynicism. There are many positives about the Avenue, the most significant being its very existence. It shows that we have started to rediscover the value of the small town and the city block.

The Avenue is part of a welcome, larger trend. It is exemplified by the growing use of traditional, small-town elements in new developments (Ellicott City's Terra Maria and Baltimore County's planned Honeygo project are good local examples), glimmerings of life in many downtown areas, and efforts to retrofit suburban communities such as White Marsh so that they feel like real neighborhoods.

Suburbia often lacks aesthetics and a sense of community. Two decades ago, Baltimore County wisely decided to develop White Marsh and Owings Mills as "town centers," funneling growth to specific areas while protecting farmland and forests. Now it is clear the implementation was gravely flawed.

These areas were built according to a principle that is finally becoming passe -- the segregation of homes from everything else. Scattering subdivisions, shopping areas, offices and a police station within the same ZIP code do not a community make. That is what was done in Owings Mills and White Marsh. They lack a focal point and interconnections. They are dominated by streets and parking lots. You can't get around these "town centers" without a car.

White Marsh should have been built around a functional Main Street from the start. As it is, the Avenue clashes with its surroundings. But being there feels nice. It promises residents a pleasant place to walk, talk and engage in civic rituals. The community needs that.

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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