White Marsh in full bloom

Growth: The suburb's population has doubled since 1980, and 100,000 visit weekly. Planners envision more.

July 18, 2000|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Three months ago, when Matt Clark went searching for a one-bedroom apartment close to his job at a Baltimore steel company, he crossed off all the chic urban neighborhoods that beckoned.

Instead, Clark, 25, headed straight for Baltimore County and settled in White Marsh, a planned community three decades in the making that real estate experts and developers describe as being on the cusp of cool.

These days, Clark grabs a beer after work with friends at pubs around town and practices martial arts at a gym around the corner.

"I go to the movies at The Avenue, I eat at many of the restaurants around here and I hang out around town often," said Clark, a former New Jersey resident. "It's spacious, easy to get around and perfect for what I was looking for. I like the newness of it all. I like that everything I need is close by.

"If I had the money, I'd buy property in this area."

Once the site of a dusty rock quarry, White Marsh Town Center has come into its own, experts say, with big-box stores, a 200-store regional mall, office complexes and 4,000 housing units, all on 2,000 acres.

Developed by Towson-based Nottingham Properties, White Marsh also has received national recognition for The Avenue, a re-creation of a traditional Main Street featuring trendy shops and restaurants, a 16-screen cinema, forest-green benches, brick sidewalks and fountains.

The numbers are testament to the project's success. During the summer, officials estimate that the Baltimore County suburb attracts 100,000 visitors a week. Since 1980, the population has doubled to about 20,000 residents, thousands of jobs have been created (the county does not keep specific figures) and more than $1 billion in private and public investment has been pumped into the area.

And two office parks, an automobile transmission plant and more housing are either planned or being built.

"Us old-timers remember what it was like before they started improving it," said Adam E. Paul Sr., 69, president of the White Marsh Civic Association. "They turned this piece of desert into a beautiful enterprise. The elderly do their walking in The Avenue, people sit and read in the Barnes & Noble coffee shop and people just generally feel safe and comfortable.

"Nottingham managed to bring a sense of community to this area."

'Not done yet'

Several critical factors played into the evolution of White Marsh: A decision by the county to designate it a growth area and to approve the appropriate zoning; a developer with the time, patience and resources to bring its vision to fruition; and a prime location, with easy access to Interstate 95 and the Baltimore Beltway.

Chris Kurz, chair of the Baltimore District Council of the Urban Land Institute, says Nottingham deserves credit for the work it has done.

"Their design taste buds were excellent. The best part is, they're not done yet."

Indeed. Nottingham is building the first of four office buildings in Corporate Place, adjacent to The Avenue. The $10 million project, which will feature three- and four-story buildings, is similar to Franklin Ridge, an office complex under construction nearby.

Nottingham estimates that it owns about 2 million square feet of office space and another 2.4 million square feet of retail -- all of which is 96 percent occupied. It expects to build more mid-rise office buildings in the next decade.

Nottingham is taking steps to ensure an adequate clientele for the shops and stores at White Marsh. Four residential projects are under construction that feature townhouses, condominiums and single-family homes.

Impressed by what they've seen happening in White Marsh, other businesses have also invested in the area. Johns Hopkins Medicine has completed an outpatient facility on Honeygo Boulevard and is planning an identical building next to it. General Motors Corp. is building an Allison Transmissions plant off Philadelphia Road. A Hilton Gardens Inn opened last year.

"We're very excited and proud of what has happened there," said County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger. "Over the last five years, we've created 38,000 jobs throughout the county. Clearly, White Marsh is one of our stand-out projects."

County officials say they hope to replicate White Marsh's success in Owings Mills, the county's other designated growth area.

'Disney World'

Development at White Marsh Town Center has generated little criticism, which makes Jane Bickel feel like the lone voice of dissent.

Bickel, who publishes a community newsletter, has spent all of her 75 years in old White Marsh. She was there long before the mall or The Avenue. Traffic is so bad now, she says, that she fears leaving her home on Ebenezer Road to cross Route 40 and visit the town center. And she couldn't visit anyway, she says. There are no sidewalks to take her there.

"I'm isolated unless I have a car," Bickel said. "It is beautiful on paper, but it is hell crossing it. They did not build a community. They built Disney World."

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