Owings Mills town center proposal divides residents

Shops, offices, apartments would replace commuter lot

February 25, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Bleary-eyed commuters scurrying to catch a Metro train early yesterday gave mixed reviews to Baltimore County's proposal to transform the parking lot of the Owings Mills station into a town center.

Some said they support the plan to create an old-fashioned downtown on 47 acres of asphalt. Others worried about losing convenient parking and questioned the need for more stores and offices.

"We need a park. We need a golf course. We need biking trails," said Harwood Nichols, 58, a banker who lives in Reisterstown. "We need other things before we need another commercial center."

Nichols might be a tougher sell than Gov. Paris N. Glendening, who also stopped by the Metro station yesterday for a tour organized by County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger. Ruppersberger is looking for $2 million in state money this year, to be matched by the county, for initial planning studies.

Although he praised the proposal as an example of his Smart Growth initiative -- which seeks to curtail suburban sprawl in undeveloped areas -- Glendening would not commit himself to a specific contribution. "I think it makes absolute sense," the governor said. "I'm sending a supplemental [budget request] down today or tomorrow. This is not in it. No one should be alarmed."

Glendening said that if private developers show strong interest in the project, "we'll have some funding ready to go."

Mass Transit Administration and county officials have talked for years about how best to use the valuable state-owned land that surrounds the Metro station. The latest vision calls for a 1-acre town square and main street bounded by a public library, a community college campus and a hotel. Offices and apartments would sit above retail stores on the main street, creating a dense mix of buildings and people a 10-mile subway ride from downtown Baltimore.

As a first step, the state and county would spend $26 million on a garage to replace surface parking for commuters. The county and the MTA have asked private companies interested in developing the entire project to submit proposals within the next month.

Officials say the development is needed because Owings Mills, a designated growth area with a population of 47,620, has never had a centerpiece, as originally envisioned. A plan for a man-made lake, which was to have served that purpose, was dropped after it failed to receive Army Corps of Engineers approval.

"There is no heart no focus," said Albert M. Copp, a planning consultant retained by the MTA.

For some, that isn't a problem.

"I don't need it," said Michael Reinhartz, 26, a mutual-fund accountant heading to his train as the sun rose yesterday. The suburban feel, he said "is why a lot of people want to live here."

Larry Dodson, 50, a Baltimore Gas and Electric accountant who lives in Owings Mills, said an urban center is needed even though the plan might require the widening of a road that runs through his subdivision. "I think it will be exciting," he said. "It will make it like a mini-Columbia."

The next move is Glendening's, who offered a glimpse yesterday into the politics that lies behind such a decision. Looking at a map of Baltimore County that shows two-thirds of county land off-limits to water and sewer lines and the sprawl that accompanies them, the governor hinted that he might look more favorably upon the Owings Mills project if a bill he supports that places costly restrictions on septic tanks passes.

"I will make a final decision on this after that [septic tank] bill goes through," Glendening said.

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