Baltimore County in the 'post-growth' era

New master plan:Public-private redevelopment corporation could help revive older areas

Agenda '99

Goals for the new year

January 05, 1999

BALTIMORE County's master plans have typically concentrated on ways to cope with growth. And no wonder.

Since 1950, the population has swelled from 270,273 to 725,780, propelling the county past the city as the region's biggest governmental subdivision. In the past decade, though, the momentum has slowed as newer, more distant suburban counties became popular.

This spring, a new blueprint called Master Plan 2010 is slated for County Council approval. Instead of focusing on where to channel additional growth, this version calls needed attention to broader societal issues and recommends steps to improve education, public safety, health, social services and economic development.

The new thrust is good, but the draft is heavy with generalities. Definitive proposals for specific neighborhoods are missing. Those are the details that might build constituencies for the recommended shift in public investments.

More particulars also would give a reliable road map to the County Council, which plans to use the master plan as a basis for zoning decisions in the next decade.

For all its post-war transformation, two-thirds of Baltimore County remains rural. Ninety percent of residents live on the urban/suburban side of a boundary established in 1967 to concentrate public water and sewage. A typical county home is more than 30 years old and often in a neighborhood beginning to show wear.

Two demographic bulges are striking: the growth in senior citizens and minorities. On the west side, for example, more than half the public school students are minorities. Infrastructure and housing must be vigorously maintained, lest families begin bypassing older communities for newer suburbs.

A decade ago, the county created two residential and commercial growth pockets - Owings Mills and Perry Hall-White Marsh. Both are doing well.

By now turning their focus to older neighborhoods, planners hope to prevent the hemorrhage of human and economic capital that has so devastated Baltimore. Doing so will require much government spending on infrastructure, coupled with private investment.

``We as a county in the last 20 years have been in denial,'' planner P. David Fields says. ``It's been so easy to attribute any problems we have to the city.''

Two communities - Essex-Middle River in the east and the Lansdowne area in the west - are models for the concentrated public-private intervention planners contemplate. In Essex-Middle River, an aging shopping center is being modernized, rundown low-income rental housing is being demolished, schools are being improved and new recreational facilities are going up.

The extension of Route 43 from Eastern Boulevard to the growing White Marsh business area is an important part of the plan. County Executive Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger yesterday labeled it a priority in his agenda for the upcoming legislative session in Annapolis.

One idea that planners advocate is especially worthwhile: Establishing a private or quasi-public redevelopment corporation with the power to acquire property through condemnation. Other jurisdictions successfully use such agencies.

The new redevelopment corporation could coordinate revitalization in the aging commercial districts of Arbutus, Catonsville, Woodlawn, Pikesville, Liberty Road, Reisterstown, Towson, Joppa-Loch Raven, Parkville, Overlea, Essex and Dundalk. Many of those hubs have properties that lie vacant or underutilized, creating blight.

The master plan recommends more rigid governmental measures to protect the rural two-thirds of the county. Planners have designated only two commercial centers - Hereford and Jacksonville - to serve the 66,000 people living in areas beyond public water and sewer access.

In the 1970s, Baltimore County pioneered tools to control explosive growth with its ``town centers'' and protection of the northern valleys. The new plan's philosophy is equally forward-looking and dovetails with the ``smart growth'' policies of Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

As public hearings on the draft begin this month, Baltimore County officials need to offer more specifics so that residents will know how the plan could affect them.

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