When Baltimore restaurateur Casey Jenkins opens the Birdland Sports Bar & Grill on Belair Road this month, it will be one of a few sit-down restaurants along the commercial strip. But he, and many others, hope it won't be the last.
City, county and neighborhood groups are coalescing around efforts to revitalize the U.S. 1 drag, a corridor once known for its car dealerships and now a hodgepodge of rim shops, takeout joints and convenience stores.
Some $5 million in city, state and federal money is being directed to street improvements, a first step to drawing new business to the area. People say the street has the potential to be a lively shopping stretch, with stores and restaurants supported by commuters from Baltimore and Harford counties and residents from the surrounding neighborhoods, which have some of the strongest median incomes and homeownership rates in the city.
"We know that's what the citizens want. They want restaurants, they want places to shop, they want something other than car-oriented business. We want to have a new, brighter and better Belair Road," City Councilman Brandon Scott said. "It's unfortunate that so many people have judged a great part of the city based on the look of the corridor, because some of the greatest parts of the city are there."
Scott encouraged Jenkins, who ran the Darker than Blue restaurant on Greenmount Avenue from 2007 to last year, to look at Belair Road's potential. At a Rosemont community meeting, Jenkins heard a clear message.
"Every single person in that room that we spoke with said we need a sit-down restaurant," Jenkins said.
Baltimore County started looking at possible improvements to the stretch of the road north of the city line in 2009. Two years later, the Baltimore Development Corp. and the county brought in the Urban Land Institute to look at the road from just south of Erdman Avenue to Interstate 695. Together, they identified as priorities three potentially pedestrian-friendly zones: Belair-Edison, Gardenville and Overlea
In October, the city's Department of Transportation presented concepts that would introduce more trees and wider sidewalks, as well as a possible median.
In Baltimore County, where Belair is maintained by the state and carries about 37,000 cars each day, the Maryland State Highway Administration has just begun a $2.2 million design planning process that could improve sidewalks and add turn lanes to help traffic flow.
Scott said public investment is critical to drawing businesses to the area. In addition to Birdland, Planet Fitness announced in September it would open a gym on Belair Road this year near Frankford Avenue in Gardenville.
"When things become a priority for the city and private investors see the investment that the city has made, that attracts people," he said.
The potential is strong, Scott said. Live Baltimore statistics from the first half of 2013 showed median home prices in some areas such as Waltherson and Lauraville up 28 percent and 46 percent, respectively, compared to 2012.
In addition, a November market study commissioned by the BDC and Baltimore County found that residents along the Belair Road corridor spend about $370 million per year outside the neighborhood, some $27 million of which could be drawn back to the corridor.
Armed in part with that study, the BDC plans to help market the area, which is located in an Enterprise Zone that offers tax incentives, by developing brand recognition among businesses and residents with signs similar to those in Mount Vernon, among other tools, said BDC senior economic development officer Kristen Mitchell.
"As a person who works in Northeast Baltimore along the commercial corridor, it has been a priority for a long time, but things are really coming together now," she said. "There's definitely an uptick in activity."
As with other commercial corridors in urban areas, planners face a host of challenges: scarce resources, aging infrastructure and the long-standing flight of retail to shopping malls and larger locations with more parking in the suburbs. In some places, crime is increasing — the Northeast district saw year-over-year increases in shootings, homicides and robberies in 2013.
"You've got a commercial corridor with a lot of challenges, but with a lot of potential, that was in some ways deteriorating," said Mike Hilliard, community services director for Harbel, an umbrella community group in the area. "If the corridor is deteriorating, sooner or later it's going to affect the entire area."
Demographics also have changed over time. In Belair-Edison and Waltherson, the African-American population tripled and quadrupled, respectively, between 1990 and 2000, while overall population remained about the same. In Cedonia, population overall shrank from 4,602 in 1990 to 3,316 in 2010.
Spence Lean, a local blogger who has written about Belair Road, said part of the disconnect between the strong surrounding neighborhoods and the street's commercial life could be because of retailer bias.
"There's been some white flight and unfortunately, regardless of income level, when there's white flight and African-American population replacing it, it's really hard to get good retailers, regardless of how well they'll be supported," he said.
Harford Road, several blocks east, offers one model for what some say they hope to see happen along the Belair Road. Safeway opened there in 1998, installation of a new median began in 2006, the Hamilton-Lauraville area became part of the city's Main Streets program in 2008, and restaurants such as Clementine and Maggie's Farm popped up, spots that planners hope will spur still more investment.
"We have found out through kind of looking at other success stories … that restaurants really do help older areas," Baltimore County community planner Laurie Hay said. "The community's certainly interested to at least some degree in duplicating what's happened in Lauraville."
The success on Harford Road was years in the making and driven primarily by community groups, Hilliard said. On Belair, he said, he hopes the process will go faster, thanks to early involvement by the BDC, the Greater Baltimore Committee and Baltimore County.
"Instead of it just being community-driven or business-driven, it's jointly driven, which I think will enable it to happen faster," Hilliard said. "Now what's fast? I don't know. Are you going to drive up Belair Road this summer and it's going to be totally different? No, but you will see changes."
Unlike Harford Road, Belair's parcels are bigger, opening the door to larger-scale redevelopment. The BDC's Mitchell declined to specify what development the city hopes to attract, but others said they want a mix of national chains and locally owned business.
"I think the ideal situation would be a mix of national tenants and mom-and-pops, for lack of a better term," said Scott Donahoo, who owns properties along the corridor and recently revamped his former Foreign Motors dealership into spaces for Dollar General, Enterprise Rent-A-Car and Rim Source.
Donahoo said he closed Donahoo Motors and Donahoo Ford along the road in 2008 amid the recession. He said he supports efforts to improve the artery but is skeptical that current plans will have an impact, saying that scarce resources have led to a piecemeal approach.
"I don't think there is a coordinated plan to encompass Belair Road from the city-county line in," he said. "They've been doing studies for years. … Plenty of study, short on action."
Frankford Improvement Association President Barbara Faltz Jackson, who has lived in the area since 1974, said she is concerned there has not been a broad enough discussion with residents about what they would like to see.
"They talked extensively about what would happen and how this would be, but they never really talked to us about how we felt about it," she said, adding that she supports the overall goals for Belair Road.
Jenkins, who will open Birdland near Glenmore Avenue in Rosemont on Jan. 24, said he hopes his restaurant will encourage others to open on the Belair corridor.
"It's starting to change," Jenkins said. "I'd like to believe that we're assisting with that change."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun