The heart of Dundalk

Editorial Notebook

March 26, 2005|By Peter Jensen

THE ECONOMY was booming and so a whole new town was planned for suburban Baltimore. Hundreds of new homes were built. And so was a central business district with a mix of retail stores, offices and apartments. Land nearby was preserved as open space for all to enjoy. Big shade trees and sidewalks, lush green lawns and friendly storefronts. It was a city "made to order," a newspaper writer marveled at the time.

But it wasn't Columbia. This was Dundalk, the "Garden City" that was planned in 1917 when Bethlehem Steel and the other manufacturers of eastern Baltimore County employed tens of thousands and helped forge the nation's military might. World Wars I and II were Dundalk's salad days. But you probably know what happened next. The industrial economy headed south. The steel mill at Sparrows Point that once employed 35,000 now accounts for 2,500 jobs. Dundalk no longer prospered. It aged. It stagnated.

Nothing better symbolizes this shifting fortune than the Dundalk Village Shopping Center, the 3 1/2 blocks that form Dundalk's downtown business district. Once, its three-story red-brick Colonial Revival buildings housed a movie theater, grocery stores, clothiers and a mom-and-pop drug store with a soda fountain. Those were the days before regional shopping malls and strip development. Today, the village houses an adult day care center and a day-labor office. Such enterprises have their places, of course, but usually not in storefronts, not in a community's commercial heart.

Now, that may change. Last month, the shopping center was purchased by a Pikesville developer, Jack S. Jacob of JMJ Dundalk Properties, in a deal sweetened by $2 million in financing from Baltimore County to help pay for renovations. The plan is relatively simple: Renovate, restore, revive. Apartments that haven't been updated in decades will be turned into 62 luxury units with open floor plans. Storefronts will be returned to retail.

Government-sponsored campaigns to revive Dundalk have been tried before, of course. The sidewalks are literally paved with good intentions - concrete pavers and old-fashioned street lights from an earlier effort to kick-start the local economy. But times have changed - again. Now, the economy looks to be on Dundalk's side. And it's not hard to see why.

Just a few miles away (on the next peninsula over), the Middle River and Essex real estate markets have gotten hot. Faced with the same issues as Dundalk - job losses and an aging housing stock - Middle River became the focus of a redevelopment crusade by County Executive James T. Smith Jr. and by C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger before him. Thanks to some prudent government investing and incentives, it's now becoming known for its $300,000 townhouses.

Dundalk's waterfront is likely to see similar redevelopment soon. But the downtown district has its own appeal. Look at The Avenue at White Marsh. The cutting edge in retail is to re-create what Dundalk already has, a human-scale outdoor shopping district. What's better than a faux village? How about the real thing? Dundalk doesn't need a Starbucks, it needs to be the next Hampden, authentic and creative.

Builders talk about well-made homes having good bones. That's Dundalk. Homes there are still affordable. They are small by modern standards, but they are solid. Just ask H. Edward Parker. He was raised in such a home. The community is lucky, he says, that it's all still here - the downtown, the parks, the shade trees and the pleasant walks - to be rediscovered.

"You can't go back, I know," says Mr. Parker, 67, a retired high school principal, grandfather of 10 and community volunteer. "But we're lucky the bulldozers never came. We're lucky we can bring back a semblance of what we had."

- Peter Jensen

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