Rezoning can revive Baltimore County

October 07, 2003|By Daniel Rosen

LIKE OTHER aging suburbs, Baltimore County faces a number of challenges: astronomical housing prices, spreading suburban sprawl, disappearing forests and farms, declining shopping centers and malls and struggling older neighborhoods.

The county's quadrennial rezoning process, now under way, could offer a solution. But only if the zoning categories and development process in the county's older communities are modernized.

The days of replacing an old strip of stores with a new strip of stores or a "big box" store are over; another raft of retail on a sea of asphalt won't rescue the county's older neighborhoods. What's needed is flexible zoning that allows dying shopping centers and malls to be replaced by an attractive mix of shops, houses, condominiums, offices, public spaces and public buildings. The mixed-use redevelopment of the county's older commercial strips would have many benefits:

Existing sites are often eyesores, so neighbors will see their redevelopment as an improvement.

Elected officials can promote popular projects and avoid battles over zoning and development.

The redeveloped sites will include more green space and produce less stormwater runoff than the existing sites.

The redevelopment will generate more tax revenue, encourage more investment and take advantage of existing infrastructure.

Reasonably priced housing will be created for service employees, public servants, singles and young married couples and senior citizens who want to sell their homes but remain in the county. With more housing being produced in the county's growth areas, pressure to develop rural areas may diminish.

Here is the process for implementing the strategy:

Interested property owners can initiate the process, or Baltimore County planners can take the lead by selecting commercial sites based on age, occupancy or economic performance, nearby crime rate, size of parking lot, or other variables, then informing the property owners of the redevelopment option.

Local planners or outside consultants lead a charrette - a brief, intense, community-based design workshop - so neighborhoods surrounding the site can design the development that they want there.

Public planners or consultants write the zoning and development regulations to implement the site plan created by the community at the charrette.

They present the finished product to elected officials, who can adopt the package whole if they wish.

State and county governments work together, if need be, on infrastructure improvements.

A good place to start is with the Neighborhood Conservation Project plans that the State Highway Administration (SHA) created in partnership with neighborhood groups and businesses. These plans, such as one for Baltimore National Pike between the Beltway and Athol Avenue in the city, recommend a number of improvements, such as landscaping the median and sidewalks to make the road more inviting to pedestrians and bicyclists, reduce speeding and generally make the strip more appealing.

These SHA plans, now suspended for lack of funding, are excellent for changing the image of older neighborhoods and leveraging private investment. Public financing may also be needed for building parking decks to replace surface parking. Perhaps an agency similar to the Maryland Stadium Authority can be created to expedite their financing and construction. The tax credits, low-interest loans and architectural services that Baltimore County offers to keep shopping areas attractive in designated areas are a good idea, but the funds could be better spent for a more thorough, thoughtful redevelopment.

Mixed-use redevelopment can even improve commercial areas that are not stagnant or in decline. Think White Marsh. When pedestrians finish strolling The Avenue and want to visit Ikea or the mall, they must drive. Further, few residents of White Marsh can walk to the stores. Why not extend the scale and atmosphere of The Avenue and create some synergy among Ikea, the mall and The Avenue by building on the parking lots and turning the empty space into a real place? The Avenue may be the latest fad in retail, but adding housing and offices to the mix would extend its economic life.

With its high population density, long tradition of planning and environmental protection and affluent population, Baltimore County should be a leader in transforming old commercial strips and shopping malls into great places. With some vision and hard work, the county can demonstrate that the future lies not in the exurbs, but within its own borders.

Daniel Rosen is an urban planner.

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