York Road needs a facelift, study says

A construction warning sign is put in advance of a streetscaping project on York Road in 2011. (Photo by Nate Pesce / April 13, 2011)

People crowded around a large map of York Road on Thursday, placing color-coded stickers on sections of the corridor where they want more retail, restaurants or service-oriented businesses.

Alfred Wainwright put several stickers on spots that he would prefer be untouched.

"I'd like to see the green space and the church space left alone," said Wainwright, of Wilson Park, a former teacher turned insurance agent.

Lisa O'Reilly, of the York-Homeland neighborhood on Homeland Avenue, said she wants to see a bank on a long stretch of York Road between Belvedere Square and 33rd Street. She said there isn't one, which she thinks leads to crime and "a cash-only society."

"Where's the community bank?" she asked. "Banks forget why they're in business."

She said she would also like to see an Internet cafe, "somewhere safe, where people can hang out and get job training," she said.

The setting for the sticker exercise was a community meeting at the Junior League of Baltimore, convened by organizers of a new effort to revitalize the York Road corridor.

The meeting was sponsored by the York Road Collective, a coalition of city agencies, community leaders, area universities and business groups that is trying to improve the commercial corridor in the city, between 39th Street and the city-county line. The process was funded with a $40,000 grant from the Goldseker Foundation that was matched by Loyola and the Govanstowne Business Association, said Erin O'Keefe, director of Loyola University Maryland's York Road Initiative.

Those involved include City Councilman Bill Henry, representatives of the Baltimore City housing, transportation and planning departments, Loyola, Notre Dame of Maryland University, the York Road Partnership, the Govanstowne Business Association and the Govans Ecumenical Development Corp.

A team of consultants will produce an urban design and commercial strategies plan based on a 2013 report that depicts the corridor as aging and crime-prone.

The report, by the Urban Land Institute Baltimore, says that York Road, especially in the city, "lacks a consistently vibrant commercial corridor" that serves the needs of residents and "is generally perceived as aged, unmarketable, partially unwalkable and often unsafe, especially, between 39th Street and Northern Parkway."

The report recommends making York Road a pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use corridor with better public transit, marketing and retail. It suggests linking Belvedere Square more closely to the road.

The report says York Road is not conducive to redevelopment or adaptive reuse, but that properties like Staples and Family Dollar could be redeveloped.

The report recommends a Main Street with pronounced crosswalks, plazas, sit-down restaurants, home improvement stores, medical services, community centers and recreational opportunities. It calls for improved police presence and trash pickup, pocket parks and housing with street-level retail like coffee houses, bookstores and small supermarkets.

The Senator Theatre could be the centerpiece of an outdoor promenade with valet parking, the report says.

At Thursday's meeting, many people clamored for a Trader's Joe's grocery store, or a coffee shop like Dunkin' Donuts. A longtime Dunkin' Donuts recently closed unexpectedly on the corridor in Govans.

Keith Weaver of EDSA, a landscape architecture and urban design company, told the audience of about 75 people that consultants will work with real estate agents, brokers and the community, as well as reach out to major retailers.

Joe Cronyn, an economist with Valbridge Property Advisors, used the supermarket chain Aldi's as an example of the kind of mid-sized supermarket that might be a good fit for the corridor, which has a Giant in York Road Plaza and a Giant in Waverly, but no supermarkets in between. He said Aldi's is trying to double its number of stores. But he said a way must be found to assemble and redevelop parcels of land in the corridor to accommodate such a store.

Cronyn said the corridor has demographics that retailers like, including 10,000 households within a mile of York and Woodbourne Avenue, the heart of the corridor, and a fair amount of disposable income.

"There's a lot of money out there for a retailer to capture," Cronyn said. "It's easier to find a retailer that wants to be here. Then we can figure out ways to assemble (land)."

One problem on York Road is that it is uninviting, hard to navigate on foot and lacking in efficient mass transit, said Nick Driban of STV, a New York-based engineering and architectural consulting and design services company. He said consultants are studying the idea of turning York Road, currently a two-lane road in each direction, into a one-lane road northbound and southbound.

That would serve to slow traffic and could help bring more business to merchants in the corridor, the consultants said.

"Merchants would probably say they get no business from people driving through," said Weaver.

Beyond the question of what businesses people would like to see, Sharon Connell, of the Rosebank neighborhood near the Senator Theatre, had a bigger question.

"What I'm not hearing is a larger vision plan," said Connell, who runs an import business and is her mother's caretaker. "It's almost like you're putting the cart before the horse."

"I'm not a vision guy," Cronyn said, but added, "If I had a vision, it would be that I want a commercial property that everybody can use on both sides of York Road, something that people can walk to."

The community has long had a vision for York Road, said Karen DeCamp, a Radnor-Winston resident, former president of the York Road Partnership and director of neighborhood programs for the Greater Homewood Community Corp. She reminded the audience that the city's Strategic Neighborhood Action Plan (SNAP) process brought the community together about 10 years ago.

"There is unity on what people want to see," DeCamp said.