Until April, Woodmoor Shopping Center was blighted with potholes, trash and cracked sidewalks. Its sign was more than 30 years old, the area was poorly lighted and the parking lot was a mess.
Everett Kerr, who manages the North Star Book Store there, said he knew area residents who wouldn't shop at Woodmoor, and he summed the place up in a word: "Horrid."
But after Baltimore County and the shopping center owner invested a combined $1 million, the property at Liberty and Essex roads has taken on a fresh look. It has a new oval sign, a resurfaced parking lot, and a red-and-cream facade giving its 18 businesses a uniformity and polish they didn't have before.
"I do see a newly found awareness in the neighborhood that something is going on," Mr. Kerr said.
What's going on is a "streetscape" -- in which the county government and interests from the private sector share the cost of improving the appearance of commercial areas in older communities.
The county has been busy with these neighborhood make-overs: Pikesville and Parkville each got one recently. The Liberty Road Streetscape officially will be unveiled today at Woodmoor Shopping Center and Liberty Crest Shopping Center at Liberty and Croydon roads, less than a half-mile from the Woodmoor center.
The county has set aside $1 million for a Catonsville streetscape, planned for next spring, and streetscapes in Reisterstown and Towson are expected in the next decade.
The streetscapes "give the community a sense of place," and a chance to find a distinct identity, said Carol Carpenter, the county's commercial revitalization program manager. The effect sought is for the commercial strip to "come out as a package," she said.
Politicians say streetscapes pay off because they bring tax dollars back to the county.
"More businesses will have an interest in moving in there," said County Councilman Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Democrat whose district includes the Woodmoor area.
Before a streetscape begins, 66 percent of commercial property owners must agree to invest 25 percent of what the county will spend in improvements to the facades of their shops.
The county handles the engineering and architecture, and sometimes acquires vacant property in the strip. The range of improvements a community can request include additional streetlights, miniparks, trees, benches and banners to delineate community boundaries.
Usually, the streetscape area is a four-block strip in the middle of the community's commercial hub, and the whole process -- planning, getting community consensus and construction -- can take as long as a decade.
Woodmoor was different. The two shopping centers were selected for improvement, instead of several blocks along Liberty Road, where there is little pedestrian traffic.
Mr. Kamenetz said the appearance of the two shopping plazas influences the perception of the community.
Making them look better would "help people understand what wonderful neighborhoods there are on either side" of the corridor, he said.
Honolulu Ltd., which owns the Woodmoor and Liberty Crest centers, invested $650,000 -- much more than the county required because the company was enthusiastic about the upgrade, said President Joel Winegarden.
Honolulu Ltd. primarily is owned by the estate of Harry Weinberg, who left the bulk of his near billion-dollar wealth to the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation -- the area's largest private philanthropic foundation.
Mr. Winegarden said that since April, when most of the construction was completed, he has noticed that people have been taking more pride in the commercial area and the neighborhood in general.
Shoppers seem to agree.
"I think it enhances the area," said Gwen Austin as she walked along the sidewalk between shops. "It's a much more attractive shopping center now."
But streetscapes are not without a downside. County officials say the process can be time-consuming and disruptive to the daily routine of the targeted area, and not everyone wants to be involved.
A co-owner of a Pikesville pharmacy refused to participate in that area's 1993 streetscape, along Reisterstown Road from Old Court Road to Sudbrook Lane.
"I was making a moral stand that this was not a proper thing to do for Pikesville's revitalization," said Jeffrey Levin, general manager of Fields of Pikesville in the 1400 block of Reisterstown Road. "I saw this as a horrible waste of an opportunity to really benefit a revitalization district."
He said he would have participated if the plan were better implemented. Also, he wanted the county money spent on the streetscape to be used for reopening the Pikes Theater on Reisterstown Road or putting in a parking lot, he said.
Now that the streetscape is complete, Mr. Levin still insists that it had "no beneficial aesthetic effect" and that there are vacant buildings in the improved area.
But the county says the Pikesville streetscape, which took more than 10 years, was a success: A $1.4 million investment resulted in about $16 million in private investments, said Ms. Carpenter, the commercial revitalization program manager.
Now Pikesville has a brass-lettered granite sign to mark the beginning of the business district as well as pedestrian-friendly touches such as ornate street lights, salmon-hued sidewalks, salmon- and teal-colored detailing on the new facades and 66TC minipedestrian plaza with a fountain on a once-vacant lot.
The county has set aside $750,000, available next month, with which Pikesville can extend the streetscape to the Pikes Theater or get better parking for the area, Ms. Carpenter added.
A 1987 streetscape in Essex was less successful.
Edward M. Ziegenfuss, executive director of the Essex Chamber of Commerce, said it initially brought the area's commercial occupancy rate up, but he is not sure by how much. About 70 percent of commercial property is occupied within the streetscape area, but occupancy has not increased in several years, he said.
Ms. Carpenter attributed that to the fact that the county did not ask commercial property owners to spend money improving their facades. Instead, the county taxed them, then decided what improvements to make.
With the streetscape for Catonsville, county officials said they are taking a different approach: They want to make sure residents and merchants are more involved. The county has set aside $100,000 for design and engineering and $900,000 for construction on Frederick Road between Bishops Lane and Newburg Avenue, and has formed an advisory committee of merchants, commercial property owners and Catonsville 2000, a redevelopment group that focuses on Frederick Road revitalization.
Ms. Carpenter said this is one of the trickiest streetscapes the county has worked on, because the street and sidewalks are narrow, and traffic flow is heavy. Construction will compound those factors, she said.
To get a streetscape moving, community members still must voice a consensus on whether they want one there.
Chris Brennan, a member of the Old Catonsville Community Association, called the streetscape a "no-lose proposition." She said she wants it to enhance Catonsville's historic appearance.
"I'd like it to look like Catonsville, [with] the stone that you find in the old buildings and the old walls," she said. "It's important that we don't get a cookie-cutter look."
If streetscape improvements are made in Catonsville, it will be up to the community to maintain them, Ms. Carpenter said.
"We would like to believe that the streetscape projects are only the beginning of revitalization," she said. "The streetscape only sets the stage."