Vision of Owings Mills builds on Main Street

Proposed town center would curtail sprawl, give area 'a heart'

January 04, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

In a bid to create a much-needed centerpiece for one of Baltimore County's fastest growing communities, County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger will unveil a proposal this week to transform an Owings Mills commuter parking lot into a modern town center.

Borrowing from planned communities in Columbia and Reston, Va., the project would feature a pedestrian-oriented main street and town green ringed by shops, offices, 300 homes, a county library and a campus shared by several colleges.

The county says it needs $26 million to get started and is asking the state to provide half the money over two years. The funding would pay for a 2,000-space parking garage to replace the 47-acre Metro lot along Interstate 795 where the town center would be built.

"This is an opportunity to make Owings Mills a model for smart growth nationwide," Ruppersberger said. "It will give this community a heart, an identity and a focal point."

The county executive will formally announce his proposal tomorrow, when he releases his list of priorities for the 2000 General Assembly session that begins next week.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening will not include funding for the project in the state budget proposal he submits to the General Assembly on Jan. 19. The governor plans to visit the site Jan. 20 to learn more about the project, his spokesman said.

"All he's heard are some intriguing proposals. He hasn't had a chance to go out and walk the site to get a physical feel for the ideas they're proposing," said spokesman Michael Morrill.

Matches governor's plans

County officials say the town-center concept matches Glendening's desire to curtail urban sprawl by steering development to areas served by roads, water and sewer.

Preliminary drawings show a 1-acre town square that could be used for festivals, concerts and civic events. Residential development would surround the village green, featuring a main street framed by four-story buildings that include street-level shops and apartments on the upper floors.

Other features include:

346,000 square feet of office space, much of it in a campus setting.

A 200-room hotel.

200,000 square feet of residential space.

A 50,000-square-foot building that could be used by community colleges, Towson University, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and other institutions.

A $2 million county library.

Fifteen years ago, Baltimore County leaders designated Owings Mills a growth area where jobs, homes and businesses should be concentrated. As expected, the area has boomed. More than 40,000 people live within Owings Mills' 13,250 acres, many of whom use the Metro to commute 25 minutes to downtown Baltimore.

Development complaints

But many also complain about haphazard development, clogged streets and stagnant property values. The community suffered a major blow in the early 1990s when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers refused to allow creation of a lake that was to have been a focal point. The lake would have been near Owings Mills Town Center, a large shopping mall.

"One of the things we now realize is there is suburban development, but it really lacks an identity," said Robert L. Hannon, the county's director of economic development.

Planning began four years ago, when officials began to study the best use of the commuter lot. At the Glendening administration's request, $500,000 was added to the transportation budget to study the possible uses for the site. The county has spent the past two years working with consultants to develop specifics.

Once the state agrees to its share of funding, the county and the Mass Transit Administration -- owner of the property -- would advertise for a nationally known developer to take on the project.

Boost in revenues

Consultants estimate that the county and state's $26 million investment would yield about $180 million during the next 20 years in income and property tax revenue, attracting more subway riders and boosting property values for the MTA.

"This is the most positive thing that has happened to Owings Mills in my time," said Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a Republican whose council district includes Owings Mills. "I'm overjoyed by it. I can't wait for it to become a reality."

`Be all we can be'

With Baltimore County agreeing to split expenses and the state enjoying a $1 billion budget surplus, the plan's prospects look good, said state Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Democrat who represents the area.

"The county is very good. They don't just come begging to the state," Hollinger said. "Now it's really time to focus over here, and be all we can be."

Del. Robert A. Zirkin, an Owings Mills Democrat, said he remains concerned about crowded schools in the area but supports the project because of its limited environmental impact.

"It's on blacktop, rather than sweeping down the forest for new development," Zirkin said. "I am very excited about the library and the university center. We need that."

Sun staff writer Jay Apperson contributed to this article.

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