In the late 1980s, developers put up glass-walled office buildings in Owings Mills at a furious pace. Firms from downtown, Towson and out of state moved headquarters or major divisions to the new town center northwest of Baltimore. And thousands of workers drove a straight-shot expressway or rode the subway from the city.
But workers looking to cut their commutes and settle in one of Baltimore County's two major planned communities would have found few choices in the way of housing.
In a matter of three years, development has turned around in Owings Mills.
Office construction has ground to a halt, as in much of the state, and new homes have sprouted faster than nearly anywhere in the Baltimore region. And real estate consultants say the picture isn't likely to change anytime soon.
During the 1980s office-building frenzy, Baltimore County officials set aside too much land for the weakened office market of the 1990s to absorb, says Lipman Frizzell & Mitchell, a real estate consulting firm, in its fifth annual evaluation of Owings Mills.
"It just happened that the market's appetite was for commercial and retail and office uses and less so for residential," said M. Ronald Lipman, a partner in the firm.
Among others, T. Rowe Price moved a division from Boston, The Baltimore Life Insurance Co. moved corporate headquarters from Baltimore and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maryland moved its headquarters from Towson.
Now, the consultants urge the county to change its course, allowing, possibly, for more stores or for more homes than the 20,000 that already could be built.
Tom Bozzuto, builder of the nearly sold-out Silverbrook Farm condominiums in New Town, ranked Owings Mills as one of the best selling areas in the Baltimore metropolitan region.
"The county has concentrated so much of its development that we tend to have a lot of people selling [in the same area], and we're all feeding off each other," said Mr. Bozzuto, president of Bozzuto and Associates, which has begun selling condos in Silverbrook Wood, now under construction. "People tend to look at it as a place where they can have some comfort in their future. They know what's coming, they can see the plans, they can know what their neighbors' homes will look like."
Some 3,900 apartments, condos, town houses and single-family homes have been built or are in some phase of construction or planning in 22 subdivisions. Since mid-1990, 1,700 homes have sold, at an average rate of about 50 a month.
The consultants expect at least 2,500 homes to be sold by mid-1994 and 6,500 by 2000. Eventually, the planned community will house some 40,000 people, they say.
Building permit numbers have fluctuated, dipping between 1990 and 1991 and rising last year to 1,388 -- still below 1990's high of 1,421. But each year since 1991, the area has increased its share of building permits in Baltimore County.
Last year, more than a quarter of the county's new-home building permits went to developers in Owings Mills. Through April this year, the county issued 40 percent of its permits there.
Entry-level homes -- condos, town houses and some of the lower-end, single-family homes ranging from $80,000 to $140,000 have sold best, as is typical in a recession, says the Lipman Frizzell & Mitchell report. It notes that Owings Mills will become better known for medium- to high-density housing than the more traditional single-family homes.
While new home construction has picked up, commercial development has nearly stopped. During the past year, only an Exxon service station, a BJ's Shoppers Warehouse and the Baltimore Life headquarters were built or completed. Office space needs will probably continue to decline, says Lipman Frizzell & Mitchell, urging the county to consider other uses.
BTC Jack Dillon, senior planner with the county Department of Planning and Zoning, says the Owings Mills growth area already has more than enough land for homes.
And though the area might need more neighborhood-oriented stores -- for example, drugstores, restaurants, dry cleaners -- planners have discouraged a clutter of strip shopping centers that would pull business from shops on Reisterstown and Liberty roads, he said.
Besides, the county isn't ready to write off office and industrial development. That will come, Mr. Dillon said, once officials can extend Red Run Boulevard, the primary access road for a yet-to-be-created office and light industrial corridor.
"We're looking for long-term growth investments that will bring jobs and stability to the county's tax base," Mr. Dillon said.
The two-mile road extension, which would run parallel with I-795 to Franklin Boulevard, has failed to win the approval of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Natural Resources. The county also must extend sewer service.
But the county has been working out alternate road alignments and expects to get all necessary permits by early next year, when it would start construction, Mr. Dillon said. County officials also plan to create Stream Valley Park in Town Center, a 250-acre native species arboretum and a natural trout stream where people could fly-fish.
The road extension is all that stands between Owings Mills and future economic development, agreed Jim Flannery, president of Riparius Development Corp. Riparius plans to build up to 20 corporate office buildings in that corridor.