Land deal near for Randallstown center

It would house classes, job training, help provide focus for community

May 25, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County is close to wrapping up a deal to buy land that would be the site of a community center for Randallstown, a first step in the effort to develop a focal point for the suburb, County Executive James T. Smith Jr. announced yesterday.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who met with Smith and other community and business leaders at Urban Blend, a new Liberty Road coffee shop, said she was attempting to secure federal money to help build the center.

Randallstown followed Dundalk last year in enlisting an Urban Design Assistance Team, a group of architects, planners and landscapers who work with residents and craft a plan to capitalize on a place's history, culture and potential while reducing its problems.

Randallstown's big problem has been a sense that despite its strong neighborhoods, the community was strongly identified with the undistinguished, often vacant, strip malls lining Liberty Road.

Smith said the county is negotiating with the owners of 15.3 acres between two shopping centers near Old Court and Liberty roads, where he envisions a building housing art classes, computer instruction and job training. The UDAT plan calls for such a center, public plazas, walkways, restaurants and a community college branch.

"This is not pie in the sky," Smith said of the community center. "It's going to happen."

Smith did not have a cost estimate for the project yesterday. He said the cost of the land, between Liberty Plaza and Liberty Court Shopping Center, will depend on an environmental assessment to determine how much is usable and how much is wetlands.

Mikulski said Randallstown residents have the knowledge and passion to make their commercial corridor vibrant.

"What impressed me was the number of people involved and the talent of people involved," Mikulski said. "You can never substitute financial capital for human capital, and that seems to be what you have here."

Mikulski said she will seek economic development initiative funding, which consists of grants of less than $1 million that members of Congress can designate for projects. Later, she said, as the revitalization of Randallstown continues, she will try to steer community development block grants and other money to the area.

The community center Smith is proposing is not exactly what the UDAT planners had in mind. Their proposal shows the center on the other side of Liberty Road, where an abandoned Kmart now sits. But Mary Harvey, the county director of community conservation, said a private developer beat the county to the punch and is in talks to buy and build on that site.

Smith said the UDAT plan to realign the Liberty Plaza center on the north side of the road also might not work out because a developer is trying to buy it.

"Shucks," Smith said. "That's a sign of the vitality of the renaissance the UDAT started."

In the past few years, a soul food restaurant, an ice cream and candy shop, and a gym, all locally owned and operated, have opened in the shopping center where Smith and Mikulski met.

When Rashida Harper-Mack, who opened Urban Blend two months ago, was growing up in the area, she noticed a lack of the hip restaurants and public gathering places that she had found in the city, and she vowed to try opening one of her own.

While in the Navy, she admired the open-air cafes and coffee shops in Europe. When her tour was over, at age 26 and five weeks shy of getting married, she decided to give it a try.

She has arrayed couches and chairs around a chess board and a scattering of books by local authors, and she plans to bring in Internet kiosks and to start a story time for kids.

"This area pretty much had a void of cultural places," she said. "I wanted to bring something to this community."

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