Businesses criticize boulevard project Owners say face lift to Middle River street could deter customers

March 02, 1998|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

A $5.4 million face lift for eastern Baltimore County -- the most ambitious street- scape effort in county history -- finally promises to brighten Middle River's struggling commercial corridor.

But merchants warn that beauty's only skin deep.

From a successful seafood house to a fledgling hair and nail salon, scores of business people along Eastern Boulevard have told officials they fear the project could block traffic, rob them of business or even close them.

County officials, though, contend the revitalization of Eastern Boulevard is crucial to the rebirth of the east side, which the streetscape's project manager calls "the front yard of Baltimore County."

In the most costly portion of County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger's planned offensive to revitalize aging neighborhoods, a 1.7-mile stretch of Eastern Boulevard from Selig Avenue to Martin Boulevard will be overhauled with sidewalks, curbs, trees and traffic pattern changes at crossovers in the grass median strip.

Shoulders of the state right of way, used by some merchants, will be taken up by the new construction. Construction could start in September, officials said.

Similar projects -- costing nearly $13 million in all -- have been completed or are under way in Reisterstown, Catonsville, Towson, Dundalk, Parkville and Overlea. But none, officials say, has seen such opposition as on the east side -- a once-thriving region of steel plants and automobile factories that has slipped into a post-Industrial Age rust belt.

"I stand here shaking," Michelle Miller, owner of Michelle's Hair Nail & Tanning Salon at 2201 Eastern Blvd., told a crowd of more than 100 who turned out last week for a progress report on the streetscape project.

"I'm worried about survival because I could lose all my customers while you build sidewalks and plant trees," Miller said. "I just signed a five-year lease. Will the county pay for any lost business, if I have to close?"

Of course not, said Raymond L. Heil, streetscape project manager for the county Office of Community Conservation.

"But what is the alternative?" Heil said later. "Should we do nothing?" Heil added the project should not affect Miller's business.

'Mistrust of government'

For 25 years, Albert Strzegowski has operated Al's Seafood at 1551 Eastern Blvd., and says that while he favors the streetscape concept, "There is this mistrust of government. They say they won't block customers out, but I'll believe it when I see it."

Strzegowski, who sells more than 500 bushels of steamed crabs in a summer week, acknowledged the project "is certainly welcomed because we have to change the area's image. Some people wrongfully think this is the armpit of the county."

Once a thriving industrial center, eastern Baltimore County has lost tens of thousands of blue-collar jobs since the early 1970s, and many east-siders have moved to suburbs. While pockets of proud neighborhoods remain, some areas have descended into cores of crime and low-cost housing.

Complexes targeted

Until recently, the Villages of Tall Trees -- and surrounding streets a block from the planned streetscape -- were the most crime-ridden area in the county. A renovation is planned there through private developers.

Officials also have targeted rundown World War II apartment complexes such as Riverdale Village, which contributed to the area's decline.

Under the county's overall plan, Riverdale and other decaying apartment developments such as Chesapeake Village and Tidewater Village will be demolished or partially rehabilitated.

While some businesses have managed to endure, others have closed. The county has established enterprise zones in North Point, Rosedale, Sparrows Point and Middle River to attract new business. And, new residents are renovating shore homes along the county's 176 miles of shoreline.

On Eastern Boulevard, initial plans show that some of the new construction will alter entrances to businesses, with curbed concrete islands replacing road shoulders.

Project 'long overdue'

The effort wins praise from Capt. James Johnson, commander of the Essex police precinct. "The streetscape project is long overdue and will greatly improve the aesthetics of the corridor," said Johnson. "It should open new doors."

Area merchants are concerned.

For Bob Warnick, owner of the Gun Shop and Fishing Tackle Shop, sidewalks will mean a loss of 10 parking spaces in front of his store.

"It's like the job they did in Essex with a similar project 20 years ago," Warnick said. "I didn't see that save 'downtown' Essex. The designers and engineers sit in Towson and tell us what we need. They even sent notices about public meetings to the wrong addresses."

Dave Parsons, owner of ADP Automotive Recovery at 1728 Eastern Blvd., said the beautification will hurt his business unless changes are made in front of his property.

"The idea is fine, but when they remove the shoulders of the road for the sidewalks, I won't have any room to move my trucks around," said Parsons, who also said merchants were not notified of public meetings on the project.

Meeting to discuss concerns

Heil, who said "mistakes were made" on the addresses, assured merchants their concerns will be discussed at a meeting next month.

But changes will cause the project's cost to increase, said Michael Frazier, a consulting engineer working on the project.

To Janice Hundt, owner of a liquor store and license tag service on Eastern Boulevard, "There is a certain push to this project, and that can be good. But the reality of this is if we don't get customers in, we will be driven out of business."

Pub Date: 3/02/98

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