Vision for Randallstown only a starting point

Years are needed to hone, realize revitalization plan

November 09, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Stan Griffin's family has been in the auto service business in Randallstown for nearly 50 years, and in that time, he's seen many efforts to spruce up the Liberty Road corridor come and go.

He would like to see the area - marked by strip malls and traffic congestion - revitalized. But when the latest plan, devised by an 11-member Urban Design Assistance Team, was unveiled recently, he couldn't help but be wary.

While some might dream about wandering through the pedestrian-friendly cluster of shops and restaurants in the planners' pastel-colored sketches, Griffin, owner of Griffin's Service Center Inc., wondered what it would take to bring the vision to reality.

"How are we going to accomplish this without taking three or four little businesses and making one big box?" he asked.

The plan, drawn up by a visiting team of urban planners, architects and landscape designers from around the country, includes a town center, nature trails and a community museum. It sparked excitement among community activists in Randallstown and is being trumpeted by County Executive James T. Smith Jr.'s administration as a key part of his effort to promote the "renaissance" of older communities in a way that relies heavily on community input.

But those who have been involved in realizing urban design plans caution that people shouldn't get carried away - no matter how real the artists' renderings look, the plans tend to take years to implement and may never come to pass.

"It's a lot more difficult" than just putting pictures on paper, said Horton Hobbs IV, executive director of the Center City Association of Springfield, Ohio, a group that is trying to implement its own redesign plan. "It's just like any other land-use plan. A lot of it won't be implemented, and a lot can't be implemented for various reasons. But what you can do is build on a couple of the things that have been suggested and make those things work."

The Randallstown team, organized by the American Institute of Architects, was the second to visit Baltimore County. Two years ago, another team spent a week in Dundalk and crafted a plan that emphasized links to Baltimore and the harbor, capitalized on the area's industrial history and sought to refurbish the community's traditional commercial center.

That plan, like Randallstown's, met with widespread acclaim from the community and was strongly endorsed by the county government.

Two years later, the effort is still alive. The community formed a nonprofit organization, the Dundalk Renaissance Corp., to pursue the plan's goals. It now has a full-time executive director and is actively working on several projects.

However, Jane Willebordse, the director, acknowledged that construction has not begun on any of the projects envisioned by the plan. Some design work is under way on a "heritage trail" connecting the village shopping center to the water and on a roundabout at the entrance of Turner Station.

"If all goes well and we have the full community consensus to move forward, we could potentially see construction start on that one in the fall of 2004," Willebordse said of the roundabout.

That sort of timeline is not uncommon. Community and government leaders in Austin, Texas, commissioned an urban design study in 1991, the same year the state economy went bust, sending ripples through the city's downtown.

Twice since then the city has invited the design team back to help establish priorities. Of the top five goals identified by the original team, Austin is working on No. 4, said Michael Knox, the city's principal planner.

"Having a report, like any other plan, only gets you so far," he said.

The Randallstown plan provided answers to some theoretical questions about development, such as how to create a town center alongside a commercial strip (reconfigure a few shopping centers and an apartment complex) and how to allow pedestrians to cross busy Liberty Road (sink part of the five-lane road below ground level and build a platform over it).

However, it did not answer some of the practical problems that have vexed economic development officials there.

Business groups and the county government have been successful in finding developers who are interested in Randallstown and in getting many of the property owners to spruce up their facades.

But the handful of properties that contribute most to a sense of blight are tied up in legal proceedings, complex ownership or long-term lease arrangements that have so far stymied efforts to bring them back to life.

The county can condemn property for economic development, but the Smith administration has said it will not do that. Three years ago, a revitalization effort stalled after voters rejected its centerpiece - legislation that would have expanded the county's condemnation powers.

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