Randallstown revitalization will arrive via Liberty Road

October 28, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN rain-splattered Randallstown yesterday, they joined voices to trumpet a bright new day of art and culture, and bicycle paths and pedestrian bridges, and theaters and playing fields. That day will take a few years to arrive, but so what? In Randallstown, it can feel like years just crossing from one side of cluttered Liberty Road to the other.

This northwest corridor of Baltimore County is a collage of green and leafy residential neighborhoods divided by a kind of Berlin Wall of gas stations and fast-food joints, bail bond operations and liquor stores, and traffic that coughs and wheezes and sputters at its center.

On overcast days like yesterday, Liberty Road seems to leak grimy oil from its pores. It looks like Ritchie Highway. It looks like the end product of several generations of zoning boards that must have been sleepwalking through the Great Uglification. It asks the question: How did such a place, once a sweet country lane, become such an embarrassment to the people who surround it?

Yesterday, at the Randallstown branch of the Baltimore County Library, they didn't so much answer that question as attempt to turn a page of history and move on.

"This is the beginning," said County Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver, who represents the area. "It's the first step in a long journey, but I'll tell you something: I've never seen so much enthusiasm as I've seen out of this community."

"Amazing," said Barry Schleifer, executive director of the Liberty Road-Randallstown Coalition Inc. "Usually, you see this kind of energy in a community when it's something negative. This is positive, constructive energy like I've never seen."

Included in that energy: a meeting at Randallstown High School last week where 400 residents showed up to meet a team of professional planners and land-use experts - an Urban Design Assistance Team (UDAT) - and to vent their emotions. They want parks for children. They want a movie theater and a farmers' market and a skating rink. They want a performing arts center and some classy restaurants. They want things that reflect a community of high-achieving, successful families.

Now comes the tough part.

Yesterday afternoon, more than a hundred people packed the library basement as the UDAT team unveiled initial plans to revitalize Randallstown. Partly, they want to clean up Liberty Road. Partly, they want to enhance public services. And, partly, they want to give the place a new image.

It happens, among other things, to be one of the wealthier areas of Baltimore County - a median household income of $58,000, compared with $50,000 for the entire county, according to Oliver. In the suburban exodus of middle-class blacks from the city to suburbia, the largest numbers went to Liberty Road.

Over the past several decades, residential neighborhoods have retained their charms - but the commercial strip of Liberty Road that serves as the area's spine has gotten more cramped and cluttered. As the community's common ground, it is also its universal depressant.

There is one more: considerable numbers of Section 8 subsidized housing. At the library yesterday, Albert Creamer bemoaned some of its residents. Creamer said he owns about 20 commercial properties along Liberty Road.

"I've been on Liberty Road for 45 years," he said. "I go around and see people eating food from the carryouts and dumping them right on the street. Last year, I spent $7,000 on vandalism to my properties. Just little things, but they build up. We've had people from the subsidized housing come over and rob customers coming out of one of the shops that rents from me. This is what tears a community down."

In parts of Baltimore County, this is not an uncommon lament. It's what prompted former County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger to focus attention on some of the older county neighborhoods, such as Dundalk and Essex and Middle River, and County Executive James T. Smith to hold that focus.

But there is also this: At the library yesterday, there was Fernando Magallanes, professor of landscape architecture and urban design at North Carolina State University. He headed the UDAT team that just completed a whirlwind study of Randallstown.

"What we found," said Magallanes, "is that people here love where they live. They love their homes. But the house is part of a street, and ..." And the street ultimately leads to Liberty Road.

"This is an area with very high demographics," said David Stein of the Weinberg Foundation, part-sponsor of the UDAT study. "Very stable neighborhoods, people with solid jobs. But there's been no one out there from the business community."

In other words, for all those families who made the trek to suburbia, the American dream seems to disconnect at Liberty Road. It's the heart of Randallstown, and it looks like a commercial slum. Maybe now they begin to clean it up. Maybe now, residents start feeling better about calling Randallstown home.

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