Post office plan gets no stamp of approval from Pikesville businesses


This is a tale of two cities: the Pikesville that planners see on paper and the real one along Reisterstown Road, its main drag.

In the Pikesville on paper, a row of storefronts now sandwiched between the two eateries in the 1000 block of Reisterstown Road, Puffins and Jilly's, should be the site for a smorgasbord of other restaurants.

"This area could be designed and advertised as Restaurant Row," says an optimistic $39,000 revitalization plan completed in August by Hammer, Siler, George Associates of Silver Spring.

But in the real Pikesville, a Fells Point restaurateur encouraged by a civic group to open an eatery in one of the vacant shops was forced to cancel his plans because he couldn't secure a bank loan.

"I had big plans for the place," said Nicholas Wilson, who operates SouthwestPassage in the 600 block of South Broadway. "But if the money isn't there, the money isn't there."

In the Pikesville on paper, county planners envision the vacant Pikes Theater being used as a 400-seat arts center, with plays, live musicals and dance productions that would attract hundreds of cash-carrying patrons to the heart of the commercial district.

Such a use for the theater -- a landmark built in 1937 in the 1000 block of Reisterstown Road -- would add nightlife, bring crowds to Restaurant Row and foster a needed sense of civic pride among merchants, planners say.

"The project could be undertaken and operated by a group of civic-minded investors, formed to rehabilitate the property," says the same optimistic report, which has yet to be reviewed by the county Planning Board.

PD But in the real Pikesville, the Pikes' owners have angered neigh

bors by announcing that after eight years waiting for the right deal they have decided to lease the building to the U.S. government for use as a post office.

Charles Piven, an attorney whose family owns the building, said he plans to invest at least $200,000 in improvements for the new tenant, which he sees as a plus for the community.

"It just makes good sense," he said.

Merchants are hoping that before the county grants a permit for the renovations, county officials will decide to purchase the building for use as an arts center. Before granting the permit, the planning board has asked the county Economic Development Commission for recommendations on the best uses for the property. Its report is due to the Planning Commission Jan. 17.

Mr. Piven said he would expect $1 million for the property.

Merchants whose stores and shops are near the site are concerned about traffic and parking. Their customers park on the 73-space lot next to the vacant theater, but a new post office would mean they would lose that parking, said Will Reich, who owns Jilly's.

He said merchants along the 1000 block of Reisterstown will hire an attorney to fight the planned post office. He fears traffic congestion from cars turning into the post office from heavily traveled Reisterstown Road will mean backups that will encourage motorists to detour away from the area.

"It would hurt all of us, I'm sure. I'd have to go to some type of valet parking," said William F. Fritz, owner of the Mr. Fritz beauty parlor, which is next door to the Pikes.

"If that place is turned into a post office, this whole area will turn into a ghost town," predicted Donald Gorman, 50, who operates Puffins restaurant with his wife, Renee.

Evelyn Burns, executive director of the Pikesville Community Growth Corp., said her group is opposed to the post office because it will mean the loss of a possible evening attraction in a community that badly needs one. She would prefer an arts center.

"After five o'clock it's just dead out there," she said.

Underlying the problems facing Pikesville merchants is the shopping and entertainment lure of Owings Mills Mall and other modern retail centers. To help them better compete, Pikesville merchants are planning to form a management authority by early next year that will tax businesses and set up a fund for cleanup projects and advertising campaigns, Ms. Burns said.

Also approved are a series of road improvements and a $2 million streetscape project, which includes new sidewalks, planters, trees and streetlights along a four-block stretch from Old Court Road to Sudbrook Lane, Ms. Burns said.

A new 35,000-square-foot District Court building also is being planned for Pikesville by the state Department of General Services. A site has yet to be selected.

But civic leaders in Pikesville say that with the nation facing a recession and with a new county executive committed to limit spending, it will be difficult to win grants or loans for future projects.

"Nobody faults the master plan or any county plan, they're good plans," said Nancy Garfinkel, executive director of the Pikesville Chamber of Commerce. "The question is, just how do we go achieving all that's in there."

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