An identity for Randallstown

Plan: A team of experts launches a mission to revitalize the Baltimore County community by pinpointing its best -- and worst -- traits.

October 23, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Standing on a traffic island where Liberty Road passes from the city into Baltimore County, Fernando Magallanes marshaled his troops yesterday morning, a team of urban planners, architects and landscapers from around the country, and explained their mission.

Members of an Urban Design Assistance Team, they have been called in by the county to learn everything there is to know about Randallstown's people, landscape and history. They must discover its identity and come up with a plan to capitalize on the community's best traits -- and fix its worst.

Community leaders, business groups and planners have been working for years to find a way to move the public perception of the area beyond the fast-food joints and strip malls that line Liberty Road, to little avail.

Now the UDAT team is charged with doing it in a little less than a week.

"We don't have a river, we don't have a bay, we don't have these kinds of natural features," said Margallanes, a landscape architect from North Carolina. "Maybe we need to think of Liberty Road as our natural feature. We've got to start thinking about some kind of identity."

With that, Margallanes and his team piled back into vans and headed for the first of many tours of Randallstown in the coming days, as the UDAT crew enters what its members say is the relatively uncharted territory of suburban revitalization.

Redevelopment in Randallstown is a sticky issue. Residents of the community, which is predominantly African-American, have complained for years that the quality of its restaurants, stores and entertainment doesn't match their education and income levels, which are among the best in the county.

When former County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger made a push for revitalization on the county's east side three years ago, he added parcels in Randallstown. His plan included legislation that would have made it easier for the county to condemn land. But the bill was defeated in a referendum, and revitalization efforts stalled.

Ruppersberger's successor, James T. Smith Jr., came into office a year ago promising to make the county more responsive to community wishes. Smith has become a major proponent of the UDAT process, which uses state funds to bring in teams of professionals from other parts of the country to listen to members of a community and give them plans for reaching their goals.

"Everybody has a piece of the truth," said Adam R. Kallish, a designer from Oak Park, Ill.

As the tour headed northwest, the vans veered off Liberty Road and into the residential neighborhoods to the north and south, past old brick homes and new ones covered with siding, and into the pastoral community of Granite.

"Once you get off Liberty Road, you're like, `Wow, that's really nice,'" said Kelly Powell, an architect from Washington, D.C. "It's amazing how much variation there is in one place. It's very easy to pass through a community like this and not realize what's going on."

As they drove through the neighborhoods and the commercial centers, the team members peppered county officials on the tour with questions about planning laws, demographics, crime, schools and the real estate market. They didn't find slums or run-down shopping centers; nor did they find much to define Randallstown as being different from any other place, nothing to make people visit and explore the community.

The team members looked at the two major vacant strip centers on Liberty Road, one that had been home to a Kmart, and the other, across the street, the former site of a grocery store.

The Kmart site is caught in a legal battle involving the building's owner, and the grocery store site is being rented by a supermarket chain that has kept the building empty to prevent a competitor from moving in.

What the planners saw in these huge buildings with their oceanic parking lots could become a focal point for the community.

"To me, it seems like these parking lots are an opportunity ... for another kind of development to happen," Powell said.

Last night at an open meeting and at smaller gatherings in the next few days, community members will get the chance to talk to team members about the problems they have seen and their ideas for fixing them. Moreover, Magallanes said, it will be useful for residents to hear from one another so they can begin to see common interests and other ideas.

The team will present a plan to the community Monday.

But yesterday afternoon, based on his observations, Magallanes said he could see the potential for open space, infill development and history to be brought to life.

"There are things that give me a sense of hope," he said.

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