New visions for Baltimore County's inner suburbs emerge at conference

Communities nationwide are beginning to abandon "infill" development models that sacrifice open space in inner suburbs as a means of relieving development pressure on outer suburbs.

These communities are embracing new models that stress increasing density within defined areas, preserving or creating open space and promoting livability by tearing out and replacing obsolete uses, like empty strip malls and vast parking lots.

That was the message delivered Thursday, Jan. 10, to about 50 developers, architects, landscape designers, engineers and community activists at a special conference held at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Timonium.

NeighborSpace of Baltimore County, a nonprofit land trust that acquires land for preservation, hosted the gathering, which was called "Retrofitting SubURDLia." The URDL is a reference to the Urban Rural Demarcation Line, a crucial border defining the county's inner suburbs.

Barbara Hopkins, executive director of NeighborSpace, said the goal was to "get people around the table talking" about new directions Baltimore County can take in redevelopment.

"Infill's not going to do it — just putting things down on open space," she said.

One of the keynote speakers, Edward McMahon, an authority on sustainable development who works for the Urban Land Institute, said an increasing part of the population has new priorities that determine where to live, work and shop.

"Quality of life is becoming more important," he said.

He wondered why a buyer would pay more than $1 million for a townhouse in Alexandria, Va., that is only 22 feet wide.

"People will pay a lot of money to live in one of the most charming neighborhoods in the world," McMahon said.

The quality of life outside the property, more and more, determines the value of that property, he noted, adding that increasing density, if carefully structured, can improve walkability and bicycle friendliness and preserve open space — increasingly, important factors in property value.

"It's not how big the lot is, it's how nice the neighborhood is," he said.

He showed examples of multi-story supermarkets and big box stores with apartments above them, all fitting into smaller spaces. The rise of e-commerce is a key reason retailers are abandoning the big boxes with acres of parking to choosing a street corner where you have to park in a garage down the block.

"Retailers are breaking all the rules to get back into urban communities," McMahon said.

In Baltimore County, the inner suburbs are sharply defined by the URDL, which was first drawn in 1967. Outside this line, which zigzags along the outside of the Beltway, water and sewer lines are not allowed, meaning development is severely roped in. This effectively crowds 90 percent of the county's population inside one-third of its land.

According to a handout from the meeting, "The communities within the URDL boundary can hardly be called idyllic, void as they are of open space, poorly planned and largely unwalkable."

Retrofitting means "redevelopment that creates places that are walkable and green."

NeighborSpace's Hopkins said the county has made some moves in this direction, including creating Community Enhancement Areas (CEAs), which aim to find new uses for land with unused impervious surfaces.

Asked if the county has any neighborhoods that currently conform to the retrofit model, she could not think of any, but said some contain "elements."

She said the county is lagging in having laws and regulations on the books that motivate or reward developers for retrofitting obsolete uses.

"We don't have the kinds of things they have in other areas," she said.

She said there is urgency to the issue, referencing a book, "Transforming Race and Class in Suburbia: Decline in Metropolitan Baltimore" by professor Thomas J. Vicino. The book, published in 2008, chronicles the decline in the inner, or "first tier," suburbs in Baltimore County as the problems usually associated with urban regions creep outward.

"We're seeing them (inner suburbs) turning into Baltimore City," Hopkins said.

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