Middle River momentum

July 18, 2004

WHEN BALTIMORE County announced plans to tear down the Riverdale apartments in Middle River several years ago to make way for new housing, Ed Gold was glad his company's bid wasn't accepted. He didn't see how Ryland Homes could make much money in the economically depressed community. "I thought it couldn't be done," he says.

Today, Mr. Gold is kicking himself. WaterView homes sell for more than $300,000, and this part of eastern Baltimore County has become a hot real estate market. But he'll be correcting his error shortly. As president of Ryland's Maryland operations, he's spearheading the company's largest-ever redevelopment project in the state -- the conversion of the World War II-era Villa Gardens apartment complex into Miramar Landing, an 840-unit mix of townhouses and attached and stand-alone homes.

"I may have missed the initial wave, but I'm not missing the second one," Mr. Gold says.

The rebirth of Middle River is no longer a dream; it's become a reality. Each month seems to bring a new announcement or groundbreaking for eastern Baltimore County. Last week, the big news was the addition of a new Target store at the Martin Plaza Shopping Center and developer Clark Turner's plans to build "very high-end" waterfront homes near thriving Hopewell Pointe.

There are numerous lessons to be learned from this. It's taken hundreds of millions of dollars in public investment, much of it to remove blighted properties, to improve infrastructure and to build the extension of Route 43. That last $68 million investment, the 3.8-mile highway from White Marsh to Eastern Avenue, isn't expected to be completed until the spring of 2006, but it's critical to Middle River's future. The road is supposed to spawn high-paying jobs (beyond what new housing and retail can create) when it opens hundreds of acres of land for commercial development.

Another important lesson learned is the power of persuasion. Four years ago, when voters rejected County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger's plans to use condemnation powers on the region, the county had to devote more energy to wooing rather than steamrollering. It's proved a successful strategy. A lot can be accomplished by merely making life easier for private investors such as Ryland -- and by reaching out to community leaders to include them in the process, too.

Much is left to be done in Middle River. And the effort is not without problems -- the loss of low-income housing is a sore spot, and bringing touted life-science jobs to the area hasn't happened yet. But this kind of redevelopment deserves to be County Executive James T. Smith Jr.'s top priority. Such intense efforts (and government investment) are exactly what's needed to turn other depressed communities around.

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