Balto. Co. set to start revival of older areas

Essex-Middle River, Randallstown targeted in Smith's first effort

April 26, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Plans are under way for intensive, community-based revitalization projects in Randallstown and Essex-Middle River in Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr.'s first steps toward fulfilling a campaign pledge to strengthen older communities.

Modeled after a highly publicized effort in Dundalk, the communities will eventually receive assistance from urban design assistance teams, roughly the American Institute of Architects version of the Delta Force -- groups of volunteer experts in architecture and urban planning who swoop into communities for a few days of intensive study and meetings and leave with a long-term plan for revitalization.

The steering committee for the Randallstown effort will meet today at the Liberty Resource Center, and a full-fledged plan could be in place by the late fall. Essex-Middle River community groups have only recently been approached about the idea, so a plan there likely won't be in place until this time next year.

Neighborhood activists said they are pleased the county is making this effort but are mindful that the Planning Department and Office of Community Conservation have shelves full of community plans developed over the years.

The trick, they say, will be in making sure these efforts involve the whole community and seeing that the county follows through with the millions of dollars that will be necessary to implement the plans.

"I think about over the years the various kinds of projects that we thought were going to materialize and they never did," said Ella White Campbell, a community and education activist from Randallstown who is on the steering committee there.

"After they take up all of our time planning, then suddenly the county's excuse is they don't have the funding for it."

So far, the county has not committed any money to the Randallstown project.

The Office of Community Conservation obtained a $35,000 grant for it from the state last year, and the additional planning costs are expected to be paid through fund raising.

The Dundalk plan was compiled using a similar model, and the county plans to do the same thing in Essex-Middle River.

Last year's county budget included about $3 million for projects in Dundalk rising out of the design team plan.

Community Conservation Director Mary Harvey said most of it has not yet been spent. But the major projects under development are a streetscape along Dundalk Avenue and the extension of Center Street to create a "Heritage Trail," connecting the old Dundalk shopping center with the water.

County finances are tight now, but they won't be that way forever, Harvey said.

"This is the time we need to plan, the time we need to get these projects in design and ready to go," she said. "When the funding comes back, these projects will happen."

Smith said he expects these studies will result in significant investments from the county, state and federal governments, as well as the private sector in the years to come.

He said he likes the urban design assistance team model because of "the opportunity for the community to participate in an organized form to give their input as to what they see their community being."

"The ... process worked very well in Dundalk, and I anticipate it will work very well in Randallstown and Essex-Middle River," he said.

Now that the legislative session and county budget deliberations are out of the way, Smith said, his administration will begin work on other revitalization efforts, including a housing study in Woodlawn and a community plan for the North Point Peninsula.

County Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver, a Randallstown Democrat who is on the steering committee for the Randallstown project, said he envisions a dramatic rethinking of Liberty Road.

Other plans tend to work from what is already in a community, but the mixing of neighborhood input with the Urban Design Assistance Team experts offers the opportunity for bigger-picture thinking, he said.

If the project can produce a radical rethinking of Liberty Road's miles of aging strip centers, it could be an important model for revitalization, not only in Baltimore County but also in the nation, said Planning Director Arnold F. "Pat" Keller.

"You're talking about a suburban kind of strip and trying to retrofit this thing to make it live and breathe," he said.

The Essex-Middle River effort has barely begun, but officials expect that community members will build on projects already in the works there to give a cohesive new feel to the area.

Scott Holupka, the past president of the Dundalk Renaissance Corp. board, said it's important for Randallstown and Essex-Middle River residents to remember that their communities didn't get the way they are overnight, and they won't change overnight, either.

Building a broad base of support is essential, he said, because it could take time before tangible results begin to appear.

"A lot of movement has happened, but it's sort of hard to see -- just a lot of meetings and planning and drawing and things of that sort," Holupka said.

"We'd like to see more spade-in-earth types of projects, but it takes a while."

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