Signs of life on Liberty Road

Our view: Randallstown's commercial corridor has never matched the high-income demographics of nearby residents

that's changing, but slowly

May 23, 2010

A hard-hat-clad Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. revved up a Bobcat on Wednesday and plowed through the abandoned pharmacy counter in a long-shuttered Giant Foods on Liberty Road. Community members and county workers cheered the beginning of demolition to create the Liberty Center, a 39,000-square-foot building that will house a branch of the Community College of Baltimore County and offices of the county's workforce development and social services departments. The moment was both a reminder of progress Mr. Smith's administration has made through its commitment to improving the much-maligned Liberty Road corridor and of the challenges his successor will face.

By the time Mr. Smith took office in 2002, Randallstown residents had been complaining for years that the dingy expanse of aging strip malls and fast-food joints that lined Liberty Road almost continuously from the Beltway to the Carroll County line gave a false impression of their community. To look at things, you'd have no idea that the median household income there is higher than in Owings Mills, homeownership rates are higher than Catonsville's and about the same as Towson's, housing values are higher than in Reisterstown, and the percentage of adults with post-secondary education is higher than in Perry Hall. It's a stable community of middle-class families, most of whom happen to be African-American. Whether race has anything to do with it is unclear, but the commercial strip that is Randallstown's face to the world looked like nobody had bothered to invest a dime since the 1960s.

What residents were asking for doesn't sound like much. They wanted some big box stores and some sit-down, national chain restaurants — something like a Chili's or a TGI Friday's. It's fashionable to decry the big box stores and chain restaurants that make one suburb look like the next from one end of the nation to the other. But things have always looked a little different in Randallstown. Decry all you want the homogenizing effects of corporate America, but what if you started to feel like corporate America didn't even think you were good enough to homogenize?

Mr. Smith concentrated the earliest efforts in his plan to bring "renaissance" to the county's older communities on the east side, but Randallstown came soon after. As he had in Dundalk, Mr. Smith brought in a team of urban designers to work with community members in an intensive effort to reimagine their community. Some of the ideas they came up with were radical — say, running a granite median down Liberty Road and transforming the intersection of Liberty and Old Court roads into a high-density town center. But the urgent message from the community was more modest. Some 400 people showed up at Randallstown High School for a public meeting as part of the process, and as county Community Conservation Director Mary Harvey remembers it, about 399 of them asked for a community center.

It took nearly six years, but they got it. Tucked away behind a senior center near the intersection of Liberty Road and Brenbrook Drive is a $13 million, 58,000-square-foot community center, the largest in the county. When it comes to deciding between making something cheap or making it good, Baltimore County usually tends toward cheap, but not in this case. The community center is a spotless, modern building featuring a gym, indoor track, swimming pool, theater, computer lab and meeting rooms. It's used from morning to night.

Meanwhile, Mr. Smith and his economic development team started attending the International Shopping Center Convention in Las Vegas and aggressively pitching Randallstown. The message, Mr. Smith said, was that what people thought they knew about Randallstown didn't reflect the reality, and he had statistics to prove it. His first big coup: A Home Depot moved into an abandoned K-Mart next to the site of the new community center. Better yet, Wal-Mart has plans to build a 160,000-square-foot store on the other side of the street in the Liberty Plaza shopping center, a project that has been held up by concerns over who will be liable for some pollutants left behind on the site years ago by a dry cleaner.

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