It's no joke: Dundalk worthy of preservation

September 28, 2001|By C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger

BALTIMORE COUNTY is on a mission to preserve Dundalk.

Some local radio jock will make a joke out of that. But we're not kidding. Dundalk has a lot worth saving, and we all gain by saving it.

A few weeks ago, Baltimore County applied for a $5.2 million grant from Gov. Parris N. Glendening's new Community Legacy Program, the latest piece of his Smart Growth initiative. We want this money to revitalize the area along Dundalk Avenue. Over the longer term, we hope to restore the historic downtown and to support a housing strategy aimed at retaining and attracting middle-income homeowners.

The grant request is just one piece of a broad strategy. A team of architects, landscapers and planners will tour Dundalk later this fall and work with residents on a long-term vision.

The county has poured millions into roads, alleys, parks, recreation facilities and schools since 1995. Maryland is on the right track with Smart Growth. But it can't succeed on rural preservation alone. It must be more than deciding where houses can be built and where they can't be built.

Smart Growth must take stock of how people want to live. I'm not talking about the desire for good schools and safe streets. That goes without saying. I'm talking about what makes a neighborhood.

One thing we've learned is that simply building a bunch of houses in the same ZIP code does not necessarily produce a real neighborhood. It's true, of course, that thousands of families have flocked to housing developments since Levittown was built. It's true because, as cities and then older suburbs aged and suffered neglect, new tract developments were pretty much the only option. Good education and peace of mind meant moving to a cul de sac. Many are content there.

The trend, however, is away from the isolated residential tract and toward more traditional neighborhood living. Many new subdivisions replicate at least some of the advantages of traditional neighborhoods -- sidewalks, green spaces, variation in housing style.

In Baltimore County, two major redevelopment projects -- the planned Waterview community in Middle River and the Owings Mills Town Center -- feature traditional neighborhood design. We decided on that because we need for neighborhoods to succeed, and experience across the United States tells us this is the way a growing number of people want to live.

"More and more people want to return to the traditional main street, particularly as their lives become more mobile, more global and more computerized," the Urban Land Institute notes. "Despite all the talk about `going virtual,' people still need to feel they belong to a community."

So suburban America is rediscovering Main Street and the advantages of traditional neighborhoods -- brand-new ones, and old ones. Because land is now a finite resource, redevelopment of communities like Salisbury, Hagerstown and, yes, Dundalk is a necessity.

Dundalk isn't Shangri-La. It's a working person's town, made of smokestacks and concrete and lots of ordinary folks making an honest go of it. The shift from manufacturing has been devastating. The population has declined 27 percent since 1970. Parts of town have become blighted and infested with drug activity and random misbehavior.

And yet, Dundalk is a real neighborhood.

It has identity that reflects a history of patriotism and hard work. In 1918, renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. was charged with designing towns needed to house workers producing ships and supplies for the World War I effort. Dundalk was one of those towns. The proximity of the steel mill at Sparrows Point made it a choice location.

The 1918 design followed the same planning principles as Smart Growth. Old Dundalk (a National Register historic district) is a mixed-use town center fronting on a park. Today, despite the empty storefronts, you see charm and potential.

The 1918 plan featured a diverse housing stock, with a mixture of densities and price ranges.

Olmsted included parks and green spaces. He made walking easy, and tied the community to Dundalk Avenue, a central corridor leading to the shipyards.

The citizens of Dundalk are not amused when people poke fun. They're proud of their town. They know they have something worth saving. We believe in Smart Growth in Baltimore County. We also believe that revitalizing older neighborhoods like Dundalk may be the key to its success.

C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger is executive of Baltimore County.

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