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Town Centers without a Heart


Baltimore County officials exhibited great vision a decade ago when they decided to funnel growth into two town centers to be created in Owings Mills and White Marsh. What they failed to ensure was a "center" for the town centers.

xTC Both Owings Mills and White Marsh have modern, bountiful shopping malls and handsome corporate campuses. What they lack are a soothing focal point, a preserve for recreation and a place that beckons people.

Owings Mills, still in its infancy, suffered a blow recently when county officials announced they had exhausted efforts to create a recreational lake there. Seven years and $2 million worth of plans, maps and surveys couldn't convince the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies to grant approval to dam a trout stream. Now, the county must return to the drawing board and contemplate a possible stream valley park to take the place of the lake as the new town centerpiece.

Impressive office complexes and strong residential sales attest to the fact that Owings Mills already is desirable as a housing location. But the loss of the lake is significant. County officials must not only fill a recreational void, but must replot the extension of the main sewer line. Trouble in designing a revision could limit development to the southern half of the Owings Mills area.

The county's other town center, in White Marsh-Perry Hall, has also reached a critical juncture. After a clumsy attempt to outlaw development there, County Executive Roger B. Hayden's administration has secured a voluntary two-year building moratorium from major landholders in White Marsh's Honeygo area. The property owners realize it isn't in their best interest to build, build, build without the necessary public facilities, such as schools, roads and parks.

Baltimore County's town centers compete for buyers, especially the moderate priced sector, with growth centers in neighboring jurisdictions. Anne Arundel County is nurturing its own town center at Odenton, which will always have the advantage of location, sitting as it does near a commuter rail line and a parkway smack dab between Baltimore and Washington. In Harford County, the Rehrmann administration seems to recognize the need to provide adequate schools, recreation and an identity for that county's growing development envelope straddling Interstate 95.

The stakes in the marketplace are great for Baltimore County. During 1990-1991, it joined an exclusive Maryland club -- to which it would rather not belong. Along with Baltimore City and a few rural counties, it lost population, the state Office of Planning estimates. It was the only suburban jurisdiction to do so. In devising a replacement for the Owings Mills lake and adequate facilities for White Marsh, developers and officials must cooperate to ensure the attractive, orderly growth of these town centers. Failure to do so would set back the economic and social vibrancy of Baltimore County.

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