Owings Mills `main street' reflects nationwide trend

Goal of the project is to revive sense of community in suburbs

January 05, 2000|By Liz Atwood and David Nitkin | Liz Atwood and David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Plans to outfit Owings Mills with a main street would be one of the most ambitious attempts in Maryland to create an old-fashioned town square, reflecting a nationwide effort to rekindle a sense of community in the suburbs.

"When you go to Owings Mills, there's no there there," said Joseph Cronyn, a real-estate economist with Lipman Frizzell & Mitchell of Columbia and a consultant on the Owings Mills project. "There seemed to be a real yearning for someplace that could visibly say, `This is Owings Mills.' "

White Marsh, the county's other planned growth area, gained a Main Street geared toward shopping and entertainment two years ago. Honeygo, a planned community near White Marsh, will feature a small center of offices and shops bordering a town square.

With Owings Mills, the plans are bigger.

"This thing is going to be so neat it's ridiculous," Cronyn said. "It's a real environment, rather than a lot of the ersatz communities you find these days."

Designed in 1984, Owings Mills' town center focuses on a regional shopping mall and nearby office buildings. The Mass Transit Administration's attempts to develop a 47-acre parcel next to the Metro station stalled in the early 1990s.

Two years ago, the MTA and Baltimore County decided to take another look at the parcel, hiring consultants to draw up a concept of a town center project. Today, County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger will ask state legislators to help obtain state money for the project.

Jack Dillon, a former county planner who helped design the Owings Mills master plan, said planners expected the planned community to evolve over several years. "There needs to be life somewhere in that center," he said. "I'm glad to see the evolution is still continuing."

Inspired by developments such as Cross Keys in Baltimore, The Kentlands in Montgomery County and Walt Disney's Celebration planned community near Orlando, Fla., the Owings Mills town center would include 300 homes, a county library branch, a center for college classes, shops and offices -- all next to the Metro station.

The proposal is more comprehensive than similar attempts to bring main street to other county growth centers. The $45 million The Avenue at White Marsh contains only shops, restaurants and a theater; homes, offices and a library are a distance away.

The Honeygo town center, being planned, would be a smaller version of Owings Mills' village green. "There is a push in this direction to open air, shopping and a main street," said Dean Schwanke, vice president of development trends and analysis with the Urban Land Institute in Washington.

The projects vary in size and style. Some, like The Avenue at White Marsh, are built from scratch. Others, such as projects in Smyrna, Ga., and Boca Raton, Fla., attempt to revive downtowns. As with Owings Mills, it is not unusual to incorporate public buildings, such as libraries and post offices, with stores and offices, in an effort to re-create an old-fashioned town. A number of projects also are centered on public transportation.

"It's a new old idea," said Michael A. Stern, a Pittsburgh landscape architect who studied Owings Mills in the early 1990s.

The MTA, which a year ago opened a day-care center next to its Metro station at Reisterstown Road Plaza in Baltimore, is looking for other chances to develop property near public transit stops, said Louis Pinkney, director of MTA's real estate office.

"The idea does appear to be a growing trend," said Charles Bohl, a University of North Carolina professor who is writing a book on new town centers. The challenge for these developments, he said, is providing adequate parking for motorists spoiled by large lots and building stores that will satisfy space-hungry retailers.

The Owings Mills project has obstacles to clear. The MTA plans to ask for proposals from developers this winter to gauge interest in the project. The county is asking the state to help pay half the $26 million needed for parking garages and other preparations.

Financing arrangements will have to be made, including decisions on whether the land would be sold or leased to a developer.

While the project is designed to encourage mass transit use, there are questions as to what impact it would have on crowded roads. And questions have arisen about whether Owings Mills can absorb the additional office space being proposed. Preliminary plans call for 96,000 square feet of office space built over 10 years, and an additional 250,000 after that.

Owings Mills is going through a cycle of office development, with four buildings under construction and 12 more proposed. The office vacancy rate is 16 percent -- significantly more than the 11.2 percent vacancy rate for the region, according to CoStar Group Real Estate Information in Bethesda.

"That's everybody's concern," said Cronyn, although he said the space in the town center would be smaller and more oriented to professional offices than larger buildings elsewhere in Owings Mills.

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