When Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. started looking for ways to bring a "renaissance" to older suburban communities, he headed to revitalized downtown Silver Spring. And when he unveiled his plan, he pointed to Arlington County, Va., to show that community involvement and flexible development regulations could turn an ugly strip of fast-food restaurants and mini-malls into a vibrant destination.
But Smith's proposal lacks what people involved in those efforts say are keys to their success: tax breaks, lengthy dialogues with residents and other tools to help builders to take on the more costly and contentious work of redevelopment.
Without those elements, some wonder whether Smith has crafted a plan that's long on process and short on solving the problems that prevent redevelopment in the county's older communities.
"If we're just adding red tape on top of red tape, are we accomplishing anything?" asked Donna Spicer, a Loch Raven community activist. "Why don't we focus on fixing what's broken?"
Smith's plan, targeting older communities such as Randallstown, Dundalk and Essex, would exempt developers from most zoning and other regulations if they agree to draft their plans for a site through a series of intensive community input meetings, known as "charettes." The developer would then get more flexibility and quicker project approval with less chance of community opposition; residents would get meaningful input -- including effective veto power -- over what is built.
Those involved in redevelopment in Baltimore County said the biggest hurdle they face is often not community opposition, but difficulty buying up the many small parcels they need to support a project. Prices often become inflated as property owners try to maximize their shares of the deal.
"The main problem is not addressed in the renaissance bill or any other bill, and it's the consolidation of property," said County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, who convened an advisory group to study Towson revitalization last year.
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan solved that problem in Silver Spring by using the government's condemnation powers to acquire land for a 22-acre retail, entertainment, office and residential complex.
Now downtown Silver Spring is a suburban Washington hot spot, full of new restaurants and shops, a 20-screen megaplex, the headquarters for the Discovery Channel and a revival theater run by the American Film Institute.
Bryant Foulger, whose company, Foulger-Pratt, was the lead developer, said that without the tens of millions of county and state dollars Duncan spent to assemble the land and provide infrastructure and other benefits, the deal would never have gotten off the ground.
Condemnation is generally considered a political impossibility in Baltimore County. Four years ago, then-County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger suffered a major political defeat over Senate Bill 509, a plan to use condemnation for redevelopment in Dundalk, Essex and Randallstown. Smith said he will not use condemnation.
"There are no answers to this, unfortunately," said Liberty Road Business Association Executive Director Henry Weisenberg. "I would love to just go up tofive or 10 properties on each side of the street and do something with them. It would be really neat, but you can't do it."
Smith acknowledged that assembling parcels is difficult, but he said developers are doing so in Towson and Dundalk. Smith said he is considering added economic incentives for developers who use the new process, but he wants to have the bill approved by the County Council before making any proposals.
Arlington County officials did not use condemnation or offer upfront incentives. They conducted a dialogue with residents over 3 1/2 years, enabling them to come to a broad consensus over what they wanted and where they wanted it. The result, known as "form-based codes," specify general sizes and shapes of buildings, but not their uses or architectural styles.
Critics of Smith's plan have said the charettes, which could take as little time as four days, would not give residents enough time to think through issues.
In Arlington County, developers know ahead of time what the community will accept, and if they follow the code, they can obtain approvals in as little as 30 days, said Timothy Lynch, executive director of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization. Builders who use the code also get tax breaks and commitments by the county to improve infrastructure, he said.
"You can figure out what you're doing without calling a lawyer," Lynch said.
Smith said Baltimore County has so many communities that could benefit from revitalization that a Columbia Pike approach wouldn't be practical.
"We have a very large county that's very diverse, that has communities with different characteristics and different local needs and local historic structures," he said. "This piece of legislation was designed to be usable everywhere."
Geoffrey Ferrell, a Washington architect who helped Arlington County develop its form-based codes and who spoke to the Baltimore County Planning Board on the day Smith unveiled his plan, said Baltimore County's plan to use charettes and form-based codes on a project-by-project basis is the most common approach.
But the Columbia Pike model is the "highest and best" way to do planning because it allows the community to develop a holistic yet focused vision that is easy for developers to work with, he said.