Old ideas, new hope in Owings Mills

Years after plans for creating a community out of farmland were formed, Metro Centre might jump-start a stalled vision

November 26, 2007|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN REPORTER

A big investment firm announces an expansion that includes two new office buildings and 1,400 jobs. Management at the mall, which has seen its ups and downs, promises a revamped shopping center. And developers are poised to build a "Main Street" surrounded by more restaurants, offices and homes - a true town center, they say, for a community more than a quarter-century in the making.

Owings Mills, the government-prescribed nucleus for commercial and residential development in northwest Baltimore County, has been transformed from farmland into a home for thousands and, increasingly, into a workplace.

Now, hundreds of millions of dollars are set to be invested in what many describe as the biggest boost to the area since the growth plan was hatched.

"It has been a bedroom community," said Jack Dillon, a former county planner involved with the original concept and design for Owings Mills. "It's on the verge of becoming something else."

Some residents add that the stakes are now so high for the area that close attention must be paid to each step. Traffic and the vitality of businesses old and new are some of their concerns.

"It's moving so fast," said Del. Dan K. Morhaim, who represents the area. "We need to slow down, rein in development until we can catch our breath and figure out what we want our community to look like."

The dairy and grain farms of Owings Mills were marked for development by the county in 1979. Inspired by Columbia in Howard County and Reston in Virginia, planners looked to bring in businesses that would provide office jobs. They wanted to create a centerpiece lake surrounded by a mix of apartments and houses, with a library, a mall, public transportation and tree-lined boulevards.

By 1986, the Northwest Expressway - Interstate 795, the highway connection with the Beltway - was complete. Owings Mills Mall and the nearby Metro station opened. And construction began on thousands of homes in Owings Mills' "New Town" area.

In 2004, the Ravens moved into a newer football base of operations in Owings Mills.

But the area had its setbacks: County officials unable to get federal approval to dam the Red Run stream and build the lake. New schools were overcrowded before they opened. Not all of the housing was of the type and quality expected.

And even as development was booming in White Marsh and Hunt Valley, a series of lawsuits and changing developers held up the project at the Owings Mills Metro station.

Now, operating as Owings Mills Transit LLC for the Metro development project, David S. Brown Enterprises and Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. plan a development with a 250-room hotel, shops, restaurants, offices and 495 residential units on the old Metro commuter lots. A five-story building is to house a library and community college branch, with an open area in front for concerts and other public events.

In August, the 2,900-space garage at the Metro station was opened - the first step in the town center development now called Metro Centre.

But the project is stalled as county officials renegotiate with developers over the price of the library and community college building.

When the county approved the plan for the southern portion of the 47.5-acre site, officials set aside $16.2 million for the library-college building, $500,000 to furnish it and $13.1 million for garages, said Donald I. Mohler III, a county spokesman.

Since the spring, the county and developers have been discussing the cost of adding 20,000 square feet for common areas, he said, adding that the plan might include environmentally friendly features.

The developers did not return calls for comment.

The county is also planning to extend the main street running through Metro Centre to loop around the Owings Mills Mall, said Arnold F. "Pat" Keller III, the county's planning director. The townhouse community finished in the spring at the mall faces the parking lot now, but it is oriented toward the planned main street, Keller said.

"That's really what we're looking at first - putting the town into the town center," said Keller.

The mall has lost anchor stores, including Lord & Taylor and Sears. But Kevin C. Budny, general manager of the mall, said redevelopment plans are "in the works."

"We're looking at the overall area to figure out what the mall needs to become," he said.

The area received one boost this year when CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, the largest health insurer in the Mid-Atlantic region, announced that it would keep its headquarters next to the mall for at least 12 years.

Smith Barney, the investment firm, recently opened an office in Owings Mills with about 225 employees, officials said. A software company, iMagicLab, plans to hire 100 more people in the next year, and Global Payments, a credit- and check-processing firm, plans to add 275 jobs to its 525-employee operation, officials said.

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