OWINGS MILLS DEFIES MARKET Amid housing slowdown, community prospers with midpriced homes


The Baltimore housing market may be down in the dumps, but Owings Mills is flying high.

Owings Mills New Town is a high-profile planned-unit community, with a mix of office buildings and upscale shopping that can draw people from the entire region, not just the northwest corridor. In addition, much of the development in Owings Mills in recent years has focused on moderately priced condominiums and town houses, which have weathered the recession well.

"I am bullish on Owings Mills New Town and corridor," said Bob Lefenfeld, vice president of the Legg Mason Realty Group in Baltimore. "The market is acknowledging the wisdom of that development" with better-than-average sales.

The Legg Mason Housing Market Profiles report ranks the Owings Mills area seventh most active in the Baltimore area during the first half of the year for sales of new homes in subdivisions of 20 units or more.

Not that the area is without problems. The strategy behind Owings Mills was to lure businesses and workers, then to build homes. But with a glut of office space in the metropolitan area, commercial development may soon stall, and residential development likely would suffer.

"Owings Mills was one of the first growth areas where office and employment came first," said M. Ronald Lipman, a partner in the real estate consulting firm Lipman Frizzell & Mitchel, which produces an annual analysis of the Owings Mills market.

Housing is still in demand, mostly because of employment in the area, Mr. Lipman said. But he says there may be trouble ahead, as problems in commercial real estate finally affect the Owings Mills residential market. Mr. Lipman noted that there is less home construction starting in Owings Mills. Though construction often begins long after building permits are obtained, permits for the Owings Mills area peaked in 1990 with 1,421 issued. Permits fell to 531 last year, and 367 permits were issued the first half of 1992.

The expected employment growth in Owings Mills was revised down 40 percent from last year's estimates of 85,000 people working in office and retail. And combined square footage for retail and commercial space, which increased almost 40 percent in 1990 and 1991, grew only 2.93 percent in the first half of 1992, according to the Lipman Frizzell & Mitchel report.

Plans for a 100-acre man-made lake -- which was to be the focal point for the Owings Mills area -- were killed because of environmental concerns.

Several office developments slated for Owings Mills are on hold because of the areawide surplus of office space, and there are proposals to rezone what was to be a Trammell Crow office building at Red Run and Owings Mills boulevards to allow a Sam's Club warehouse retail outlet a stone's throw from the mall at Owings Mills.

Jack Dillon, senior planner for the Baltimore County Office of Planning and Zoning, said his office did not recommend the zoning change, and would prefer to see discount retail stores located with other retail stores on the Reisterstown and Liberty Road corridors.

Some businesses in the area are concerned about converting an office development project into a discount retail store across the street from an upscale shopping mall.

The county will hold hearings on the proposed zoning change next month, and the County Council is expected to decide in October.

C. A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, the 3rd District councilman representing the Hunt Valley, Reisterstown, Owings Mills and Cockeysville areas of Baltimore County, said he does not want to overreact to slow market conditions and is awaiting results of a feasibility study of the area before he announces his recommendation for the site.

But Owings Mills is still a big draw for homeowners because it is near the Metro and the I-795 Northwest Expressway, which links Owings Mills with the Baltimore Beltway.

The Lipman Frizzell & Mitchel report notes that entry-level housing has flourished in Owings Mills because of earlier employment growth and low interest rates for mortgages.

To help put middle-income families into new homes, Baltimore County provided $150,000 in federal block grant money. The money will supplement $300,000 from Owings Mills New Town's developer, Ahmanson Developments Inc., to provide up to $15,000 per home to help middle-income families pay the down payment and closing costs on a new home in Owings Mills New Town.

The funds will be in the form of second mortgages on Federal Housing Administration first mortgages that need only be repaid when the house is sold.

Families can apply for the county portion of the funds with a maximum income of $24,350 for one person and up to $49,950 for a family of eight. The developer-sponsored money will be available for a family of any size earning up to $39,600, which is 90 percent of the median household income in Baltimore County.

Administering the funds is the Enterprise Social Investment Corp. of Columbia, a subsidiary of the Enterprise Foundation. Jesse Chancellor, the fund's loan and development officer, said the program recently received FHA approval and the program will be taking applications by the end of the month.

James K. Griffin Jr., vice president of Ahmanson Developments, said the financing assistance was a condition for county approval of the Owings Mills New Town development. "We wanted to give an extra push to help put people into their first home," he said.

The funding will help put families into the moderately priced condominiums and town houses that have been steady sellers in Owings Mills. Builders with houses costing more than $200,000 have had more trouble selling, and a few builders recently have scaled back in size and amenities to keep prices low.

Responding to the demand for moderately priced homes, Mr. Griffin said he is trying to develop more town house projects in the lower price ranges and a midrise condominium project.

But in the wake of a slow residential and commercial real estate market, the loss of the lake was a severe blow to Owings Mills. Considered central design element in the County Master Plan, the 100-acre lake was to be surrounded by nature trails and bike paths. Fishing and boating facilities were to be located on the lake. Environmental regulations blocked the permit for creation of a lake by damming the Red Run trout stream.

Some residential development in New Town and a hotel-conference center were to overlook the lake.

The lack of financing for commercial development may have halted development of the hotel-conference center even before the loss of the lake, Mr. Griffin said. Nature trails still are planned beside the stream.

"The lake could have been a drawing card and now all the recreational amenities are lost," Mr. Lipman said. "It is an unfortunate loss for Owings Mills as a growth area. Water is a magnet, and they are not going to have it."

County planners are seeking environmentally sound alternatives that would attract commercial development, Mr. Dillon, the senior planner, said.

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