Design team to meet with Balto. County community

Effort is meant to shape east-side revitalization

October 18, 2004|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

An effort to shape a vision for the eastern Baltimore County enclaves of Essex and Middle River will move this week to a supermarket-turned-church on a boulevard that one area resident calls "a place time forgot."

In what could be a crucial step in forming a plan to sustain the area's revitalization, a team of architects, planners and preservationists from across the country will meet merchants and residents from the county's east side Thursday at Essex Church of God on Eastern Boulevard.

The Urban Design Assistance Team will use the ideas and suggestions that come out of the meeting for guidance in an intense, weeklong study of the area's infrastructure - and its culture.

While focusing on the Essex downtown, a business core dating to the early 1900s, UDAT members will also look for areas where improvements can be made along the swath of waterfront from Chase to the Back River Bridge.

"Essex has a center that needs to be developed. Middle River appears to be a series of suburbs that needs a center," said Steven Gaddis, a Durham, N.C., architect who is leading the team.

Gaddis, who has worked on UDAT projects in North Carolina, said he is aware that those who live in the area felt ignored for many years. "We want to repair the community fabric, make it more whole," he said.

In April last year, community leaders asked county officials to invite the group to help with the revitalization.

Since the late 1960s, the design teams have worked with cities and suburban communities to help create blueprints for former industrial centers or older communities blighted by time and neglect. Two other UDAT teams were invited last year to Dundalk and Reisterstown, where they proposed a series of improvements that are being implemented.

Ambitious work

The team visiting Essex and Middle River steps into an area that has been undergoing an ambitious redevelopment for several years, most of it along the county's 175 miles of shoreline. Housing developments, from affordable single-family dwellings to $1 million mansions, have been or will be built.

County officials have said they have spent, since the late 1990s, more than $800 million repairing schools and streets. The government has also been aggressive in demolishing dilapidated apartment complexes that became havens for crime and violence. A $60 million highway project is designed to connect Interstate 95 with Eastern Boulevard, and bring business growth and jobs.

The area's transformation has brought young families into new east-side housing developments. Shawn Meyer, 31, his wife, Linda, and their 4-year-old son, Thomas, moved into a home last year in WaterView, on the headwaters of Middle River.

"I grew up in Dundalk, and after serving in the Navy and graduating from college, I wanted to come back to the east side," said Shawn Meyer, who works in Linthicum for a federal government contractor. "There was lots of promise in the air."

But Meyer, who is the co-chairman of Essex Renaissance Corp., a private group backing the area's redevelopment, said attempts to promote revitalization must overcome some residents' apathy - not to mention a long-simmering feeling that the area had been used as a dumping ground for projects not wanted elsewhere.

"One of the things we hope to accomplish with UDAT's work is a renewed sense of community spirit," Meyer said. "Let them see possibilities they have never seen before, and let them understand UDAT comes in here clean, no preconceived notions about us or the communities."

One cautious optimist is Al Clasing, 80, a resident of Holly Neck for 46 years. To him, the renaissance was a long time coming.

"After decades, the government is finally hearing us that the waterfront was our strength," Clasing said. "The funny thing is they are acting like they have just discovered the rivers and Chesapeake Bay."

UDAT members will tour the area by air, by boat and on foot. They will visit Martin State Airport and a nearby sprawling federal depot.

The team members will each receive a $1,000 honorarium, and local businesses will pay for their accommodations, food and transportation. Gaddis, the team leader and principal in his firm, will receive about $30,000 for his previous visit and forthcoming work.

The Thursday forum will be at 7 p.m. at Essex Church of God - formerly A&P supermarket - in the 500 block of Eastern Blvd. On Friday, the UDAT group will meet separately with six steering committees on issues such as transportation, safety, education and business.

UDAT members will hear representatives from communities such as Hawthorne, Middlesex and Wilson Point on Friday and Saturday. An open meeting will be held at 1:30 p.m. Saturday to discuss the Kingsley Park apartments, which are targeted for demolition.

A preliminary presentation is scheduled at 1 p.m. Sunday. After that, the team will be assisted by architecture students from Morgan State University to prepare for the final presentation, scheduled for 1 p.m. Oct. 26 at the church.

Except for the opening forum and final presentation, all UDAT events will be in the Essex Library, 1110 Eastern Blvd.

Downtown Essex

One area that will receive a lot of attention, Gaddis said, will be downtown Essex.

Eastern Boulevard from Mace to Marlyn avenues served as the business center of old Essex, not far from the city line. That area was devastated by a 10-alarm fire in 1957. Today, a chain pharmacy, bank, some small businesses and bars remain, while a couple of vacant storefronts face the streets.

"Essex was demoralized after the fire," said Jack Dillon, a former county planner. "And what really sucked the lifeblood out of Essex around that time were two new shopping malls: Eastpoint and Golden Ring."

Longtime Essex resident Donald Crockett is taking a wait-and-see attitude.

"This could work out," Crockett said. "But either you do a quality job refurbishing downtown Essex, or it's just an exercise with a place time forgot."

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