Catonsville merchants trying to preserve shopping district


Malls and strip shopping centers have drawn some of the big stores away from Catonsville's business district, but the village has kept enough of its bustle for community leaders to draft their own plan to preserve its local character.

A group of 15 village merchants and community leaders calling itself Catonsville 2000 is submitting a village master plan proposal to the Baltimore County Planning Board.

It proposes guidelines for tasteful signs and architecture and a median strip to mark the village entrance and to lend a continuity to the appearance of the commercial strip in the southwest Baltimore County community. It also proposes more traffic signals and more parking to relieve traffic snarls.

Some of the tin-roofed, brick buildings date to Catonsville's 19th century beginnings as a summer suburb along what was a main artery from Baltimore to Maryland's rural west.

Large stores, such as an A&P;, a Woolworth's and a big drug store left for the malls and shopping centers that sprung up along U.S. 40 over the last few decades. What remains is an odd but vibrant assortment -- a lumber and hardware store, a wallpaper business, a music store, churches and a restaurant rendered in horse-racing decor.

"At one time we hated the malls. Now we don't hate them," said Tom Booth, a gas station owner, landlord and developer who is chairman of the committee. Instead, he and others in Catonsville came to "the realization we couldn't compete against them and there were some things we could do better."

According to a shopper survey, most residents no longer see the village as their primary shopping area. For example, a shopper might go to one of the malls along U.S. 40 to buy a new wardrobe, Booth said, but he might park along Frederick Road to buy a shirt at a village clothing store, walk up the street for a haircut, then pick up a quart of milk before heading home.

Besides convenience, the village offers "the personal touch," said Fran Medicus, a florist in the village for 30 years, who is also a member of the Catonsville 2000 group. "You know somebody that comes in. They think you're going to give them a little better service because you know them."

Over the last decade, Catonsville has filled with more people to get to know. The original settlement is fully developed, but new ++ subdivisions, such as Patapsco Woods and College Hills, have attracted new residents to single-family homes that were starting at $200,000 or more last year.

The village business strip has traffic to show for it. And village merchants are concerned that this deters shoppers.

"See they don't like this back-up," said Booth, pointing a brief standstill on Frederick Road. "When people stop to parallel park, they can jam the whole street up."

As a remedy, Catonsville 2000 proposes raising the parking meter rates along Frederick Road from 10 cents to 25 cents an hour, eliminating some of the many driveways and curb cuts to consolidate parking lots, adding traffic lights at busy intersections and improving the road network.

The proposal calls for county capital funding to extend Mellor Avenue across Frederick Road to connect directly with Egges Lane. That way, cars passing through the village via Mellor Lane would no longer have to turn once onto Frederick Road and again onto Egges, twice interrupting the flow of traffic along Frederick.

A centerpiece of future development would be the property around the lot of a former Hardee's restaurant. There, Catonsville 2000 envisions a "convenience specialty" marketplace of fresh meat and produce stands, health food stores and fast food booths, similar to the tony Belvedere Square in Govans in Baltimore City.

The Catonsville 2000 group hired consultants, the Legg Mason Realty Group, to draft the report, but the group includes a running commentary of the results in the margins.

The plan applies mostly to the business strip consisting of a block on either side of Frederick Road from the Beltway to Beaumont Avenue. But it also emphasizes the need for recreational open spaces in future development of large properties nearby, including the German Orphan Home, the Spring Grove Hospital Center, the Childrens Home site and a Baltimore Gas and Electric property.

The Catonsville proposal was completed last December. It is to be formally introduced to the county planning board Feb. 21. Public hearings will follow as the board decides whether to turn the proposal into law.

If passed in its present form, the plan is likely to prompt a general sprucing up of the district, through the peer pressure of a stronger merchants association and new sign and architecture standards that would have to be met as buildings are renovated.

"We want these kind of signs," Booth said, pointing to an understated sign of hewn wood. "And get rid of this," he added, indicating an illuminated soda pop sign dominating the sidewalk outside a local grill.

Even if the plan brings changes, plenty of the village's distinctive touches would remain -- the rows of wooden telephone poles, for instance. Booth wanted to get rid of them at first, but it turned out the cost of burying the lines would be too much and the work would disrupt customer access to many stores.

Medicus said she is just as happy to keep the poles, because "it just looks like Catonsville."

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