Hustle, bustle welcome as signs of new vitality


Motorists cruising the Beltway past exits 20 and 21 -- Reisterstown Road and Park Heights Avenue -- may think they know what the area is about. To many, Pikesville means Jewish and wealthy.

But this image represents only part of the picture.

The Baltimore County community of 30,000 is predominantly Jewish, but more than a third of the population is not. And the community, which dates back more than 200 years, had established Catholic and Protestant congregations long before the first synagogue was built.

Although Pikesville can boast many beautiful, upscale developments, housing in the area is diverse, with low-end rental apartments to mansions all located within a few miles.

The community also has a bustling business district running through the heart of it, a district that just seven or eight years ago had fallen on such hard times that some residents doubted it would come back.

But now, almost every storefront is occupied and the Pikesville Chamber of Commerce reports there are more than 1,200 businesses along the Reisterstown Road corridor. "In a three-mile radius, we have just about everything," says David Uhlfelder, a CPA who has worked and lived in Pikesville for decades. "It's terrific. It's accessible to everything."

"There's all kinds of people living in Pikesville," says Beverly Margolis, a real estate agent with Long and Foster Real Estate Inc. and a longtime resident. "It has a little bit of everything for everyone."

Mr. Uhlfelder, who has lived in Pikesville for 35 years, says diversity is what keeps the area interesting.

The center of town is not only home to hundreds of businesses, but to state police headquarters, a Maryland National Guard Armory, two country clubs and a huge, 100-year-old cemetery, Druid Ridge.

Years ago, Pikesville was known for its shopping district. Trendy boutiques, dress shops and fur and jewelry stores lined Reisterstown Road and drew shoppers from miles around.

"This place had fabulous dress stores," says Nancy Garfinkle, executive director of the Pikesville Chamber of Commerce. "But by the mid- to late-1980s, the shopping shift had taken place."

The "shift" -- which affected American main streets and business districts across the country -- took place when regional malls lured shoppers and tenants away in droves.

Almost overnight, stores started moving to nearby Owings Mills Mall or closing, unable to compete with the malls, merchants say.

"It looked like a bomb went off in the center of Pikesville," says Gary Van Hoven, a longtime resident and co-owner of Joan and Gary's Original Bagel Co. "Vacant stores were popping up all over. It looked terrible."

In 1992 as part of a countywide revitalization project, Baltimore County pumped $1.2 million into Pikesville's Streetscape Project, repairing sidewalks, replacing benches and street lights, adding small park and sprucing up the place.

The half-mile project was a success, attracting many new businesses, but left another 1 1/2 miles along Reisterstown Road untouched.

But rather than wait for a second phase, which could take years, a core group of merchants formed the Pikesville South Project and soon raised $16,000 to replace benches and trash cans south of the Streetscape project themselves, says Gabe Rosenbush, a commercial real estate consultant and member of the committee.

The chamber says Streetscape and other improvements have attracted almost $12 million in reinvestment. Where vacant shops stood a few years ago, national and regional chains have moved in, including Boston Chicken, Blockbuster Video, Pizza Hut, Office Mart and Staples. As of February, the retail vacancy rate had dropped to less than 6 percent.

"When you see chains like Boston Chicken and Rite Aid coming in here, you know you've turned a corner," says Mr. Van Hoven.

The next big step is the renovation and expansion of the Pikes Theater, which has been closed for 11 years but is slated to become a regional arts center. Baltimore County bought the site for $800,000 and now leases it for $1 a year to the Greater Baltimore Cultural Arts Foundation, established to organize the renovation project.

Last year, the state legislature approved a matching grant of $500,000 toward the $3 million project, which will turn the 58-year-old, single-screen theater into a multipurpose arts center for live theater, dance, vintage films, art shows and concerts.

"This will be the jewel of Pikesville," says Mr. Uhlfelder, who serves as president of the arts foundation.

Area merchants think the theater will be a regional draw and further improve Pikesville's south end, which had deteriorated during the 1980s.

Ms. Garfinkle says the influx of Russian Jewish immigrants into south Pikesville also has helped stabilize the area, as the new residents have purchased smaller, older homes there. "Most buy a house within 18 months of getting here," she says. "That's been a very stabilizing force in that end of town."

Varied housing options in the greater Pikesville area are what allow for a diverse mix of residents, from new immigrants to well-established professionals and business owners.

Ms. Margolis says home sales in Pikesville for the last 12 months range from a low of $70,000 to a high of $700,000.

The Pikesville community is really a collection of sub-communities, many with a distinct look and architectural style. Dumbarton is filled with Tudor- and Colonial-style mansions and Anton Woods with sprawling contemporaries. Helmsley Court, off Old Court Road, has newer, mansion-sized homes that sell for $400,000 to $1 million. In the Greenspring Avenue corridor, new townhouses sell for $150,000 to $200,000.

Colonial Village, a stable community in south Pikesville built in the 1940s, offers Colonials, Cape Cods and ranchers on small lots for $80,000 to $120,000. The Sudbrook area has modest split-levels and ranchers built in the 1950s for about the same price, as well as converted summer cottages and large Victorian houses built at the turn of the century which sell for considerably more.

Ms. Margolis says people moving to Pikesville these days are looking for good schools, convenience to services and proximity to synagogues.

"Some people, if they are Jewish and need to walk to synagogue, they can," she says, adding there are a half-dozen synagogues serving Orthodox, Conservative and Reform congregations in Pikesville and several more just within the city line.

But Pikesville was not always so.

The oldest building in Pikesville, the Garrison Fort, was built in 1694 as one of three erected to protect Baltimore from Indian attacks, according to local history books. The first house, a log cabin on Old Court Road, was built in 1770.

By the early 1800s, most of the land in the center of Pikesville was owned by a Dr. James Smith, who is credited with naming the area Pikesville in honor of his friend, Brig. Gen. Zebulon Montgomery Pike, the officer and explorer who discovered Pikes Peak.

The first church in the area, the now defunct Mettam Baptist Church on Old Court Road, was built in 1834. In 1848, the second parish -- St. Charles Borromeo Roman Catholic Church on Church Lane -- was established.

Ray Bollinger, a 73-year-old deacon at St. Charles, remembers growing up in Pikesville when the area was mostly rural and the population predominantly Catholic and Protestant. "The only Jewish person in town was the man who ran the pharmacy," he says.

The real housing boom in Pikesville began after World War II. In the 1950s, increasing numbers of Jewish families started moving to the area from the city and synagogues soon followed. The largest synagogues now have congregations of 2,000 families.

At the same time, the 147-year-old St. Charles parish has dwindled from 1,200 to 800 families. In 1989, the church closed the parish school because there were no longer enough new students to support it, a move that was "traumatic" to many parishioners, Mr. Bollinger says.

Only a few new families trickle into the parish these days, he says. Yet longtime parishioners are happy in Pikesville and plan to stay.

"I think the transition in Pikesville has been peaceful and smooth," he says.


Population: 30,838 (estimate for 1994, Baltimore County Office of Planning & Zoning)

Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 20 minutes

Commuting time to Washington: 75 minutes

Public schools: Wellwood, Summit Park, Millbrook and Fort Garrison Elementary, Pikesville Middle, Pikesville High

Shopping: Pikesville Shopping Center, with Poulet Chicken, Tuesday Morning, Rite Aid Pharmacy; Festival at Woodholme, with Pier 1 Imports, the Door Store, Sutton Place Gourmet, TCBY Yogurt; Club Center, with Joan & Gary's Original Bagel Co., Blockbuster Video; Colonial Village Shopping Center, with Royal Kosher Restaurant, Colonial Pharmacy, Village Market Natural Grocer; stores along Reisterstown Road.

Nearest mall: Owings Mill Mall, 5 miles northwest

Points of interest: Pikes Theater, to be renovated into a regional arts center; Sudbrook Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted; Maryland State Police Barracks; Maryland National Guard Armory; Suburban Club of Baltimore County; Woodholme Country Club

ZIP codes: 21208, 21209

Average price of single-family home *: $113,300 (92 sales)

Average price of homes sold through the Mid-Atlantic Real Estate Information Technologies multiple listing service over the past 12 months.

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