Owings Mills sees a growth spurt at 14 Development boom promises offices, jobs, new sense of identity

June 16, 1998|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Owings Mills is coming of age, in a growth spurt unrivaled since the planned community's birth 14 years ago.

Six new office buildings are going up, and Sears and Lord & Taylor stores are being added to the mall. Scheduled to open are an 18-screen movie theater by the end of the year and a five-restaurant park next spring.

Consultants are also drawing up development plans for a crucial 45-acre parcel near the Metro station in the community's center.

Together, the projects are likely to create thousands of jobs in this northwest Baltimore County community. But while fast-growing Owings Mills is home to more than 40,000 residents and some of the area's most prominent companies, in some respects the community is a gangly teen-ager still searching for its identity.

"We wanted to create an area where people would live and

work," said Jack Dillon, a former county planner who helped create Owings Mills in 1984. Instead, he said, "we achieved another bedroom community."

Owings Mills was born of efforts in the 1970s to control sprawl by directing growth to a wedge of sparsely populated land between Reisterstown and Liberty roads. Inspired by Columbia and Reston, Va., planners envisioned a community of homes and offices built around a regional mall and linked to Baltimore by Metro. At the center of the new community would be an 80-acre lake.

But regulatory agencies balked at creating a lake that would have destroyed trout in the Red Run stream, forcing developers of Owings Mills New Town -- a residential area in the heart of Owings Mills -- to overhaul their plans.

Instead of offering high-rise, waterfront condominiums and apartments, along with single-family homes, they built mid-rise apartments, condominiums and townhouses. Most of the single-family homes were never built.

"It was a real sad day when they couldn't get the lake," said Carmen Gilmore, assistant vice president for marketing for Owings Mills New Town.

When Owings Mills New Town is completed in about five years, it will have fewer than the 5,000 homes developers expected to build. Still, disappointment over the loss of the lake is ebbing.

"I love Owings Mills," said T. Kevin Carney, president of Thomas Builders, who has been building houses there since 1993. "It looks like a village in Columbia. It has all the characteristics people want."

Carol Hirschburg moved from the city to Owings Mills five years ago in search of a more suburban atmosphere. "What caught my eye is it's a planned community. Things are put together well. For all your necessities, they're here."

Fulfilling its mission

County officials say Owings Mills has succeeded in helping control sprawl and attract jobs. "On balance, I'd give it good marks," said county Planning Director Arnold F. "Pat" Keller.

But economic reality has sometimes tarnished the planners' dreams. As the county slid into recession in the early 1990s, builders tried to entice buyers by offering less expensive homes. They made townhouses more narrow and built them back-to-back.

The County Council, worried that the quality of housing was starting to deteriorate, responded with stricter design standards. Still, concerns linger that the housing densities that helped curb sprawl may have created future troubles for Owings Mills.

"If quality of construction isn't up to snuff, we're going to have a major problem," Dillon warned.

But he believes high-profile commercial projects may keep the residential developments from deteriorating.

Owings Mills is one of the big engines in the region's job machine, attracting powerful companies such as T. Rowe Price and Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

"Owings Mills represents a major facility that attracts corporations," county Economic Development Director Robert L. Hannon said. "It's a primary offering of the county and allows us to continue to attract corporate clients."

Since the mid-1980s, more than 5.5 million square feet of commercial space has been developed in Owings Mills, and several new offices will open in the fall when the Red Run Boulevard extension is complete.

Among the developments under construction or about to be built: A 110,000-square-foot regional headquarters for Automatic Data Processing Inc. in Riparius Center.

A 90,000-square-foot office/flex building on Red Run Boulevard

A 100,000-square-foot office building in the Red Run Corporate Center.

The addition of Sears and Lord & Taylor department stores and numerous smaller shops to the Owings Mills Town Center.

An 18-screen cinema and a restaurant park.

A Hilton Inn.

A new phase of residential construction at Owings Mills New Town.

Striving for focus

Planners expect construction in Owings Mills to continue for another 20 years. But as the community matures, the need to have a focus becomes more important, planners say.

"There were a lot of really good ideas, but a focus of place didn't come together to make it a city," said Michael A. Stern, a Pittsburgh-based landscape architect who has studied Owings Mills.

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