Owings Mills is coming of age, in a growth spurt unrivaled since the planned community's birth 14 years ago.
Six new office buildings are going up, and Sears and Lord & Taylor stores are being added to the mall. Scheduled to open are an 18-screen movie theater by the end of the year and a five-restaurant park next spring.
Consultants are also drawing up development plans for a crucial 45-acre parcel near the Metro station in the community's center.
Together, the projects are likely to create thousands of jobs in this northwest Baltimore County community. But while fast-growing Owings Mills is home to more than 40,000 residents and some of the area's most prominent companies, in some respects the community is a gangly teen-ager still searching for its identity.
"We wanted to create an area where people would live and
work," said Jack Dillon, a former county planner who helped create Owings Mills in 1984. Instead, he said, "we achieved another bedroom community."
Owings Mills was born of efforts in the 1970s to control sprawl by directing growth to a wedge of sparsely populated land between Reisterstown and Liberty roads. Inspired by Columbia and Reston, Va., planners envisioned a community of homes and offices built around a regional mall and linked to Baltimore by Metro. At the center of the new community would be an 80-acre lake.
But regulatory agencies balked at creating a lake that would have destroyed trout in the Red Run stream, forcing developers of Owings Mills New Town -- a residential area in the heart of Owings Mills -- to overhaul their plans.
Instead of offering high-rise, waterfront condominiums and apartments, along with single-family homes, they built mid-rise apartments, condominiums and townhouses. Most of the single-family homes were never built.
"It was a real sad day when they couldn't get the lake," said Carmen Gilmore, assistant vice president for marketing for Owings Mills New Town.
When Owings Mills New Town is completed in about five years, it will have fewer than the 5,000 homes developers expected to build. Still, disappointment over the loss of the lake is ebbing.
"I love Owings Mills," said T. Kevin Carney, president of Thomas Builders, who has been building houses there since 1993. "It looks like a village in Columbia. It has all the characteristics people want."
Carol Hirschburg moved from the city to Owings Mills five years ago in search of a more suburban atmosphere. "What caught my eye is it's a planned community. Things are put together well. For all your necessities, they're here."
Fulfilling its mission
County officials say Owings Mills has succeeded in helping control sprawl and attract jobs. "On balance, I'd give it good marks," said county Planning Director Arnold F. "Pat" Keller.
But economic reality has sometimes tarnished the planners' dreams. As the county slid into recession in the early 1990s, builders tried to entice buyers by offering less expensive homes. They made townhouses more narrow and built them back-to-back.
The County Council, worried that the quality of housing was starting to deteriorate, responded with stricter design standards. Still, concerns linger that the housing densities that helped curb sprawl may have created future troubles for Owings Mills.
"If quality of construction isn't up to snuff, we're going to have a major problem," Dillon warned.
But he believes high-profile commercial projects may keep the residential developments from deteriorating.
Owings Mills is one of the big engines in the region's job machine, attracting powerful companies such as T. Rowe Price and Blue Cross and Blue Shield.
"Owings Mills represents a major facility that attracts corporations," county Economic Development Director Robert L. Hannon said. "It's a primary offering of the county and allows us to continue to attract corporate clients."
Since the mid-1980s, more than 5.5 million square feet of commercial space has been developed in Owings Mills, and several new offices will open in the fall when the Red Run Boulevard extension is complete.
Among the developments under construction or about to be built: A 110,000-square-foot regional headquarters for Automatic Data Processing Inc. in Riparius Center.
A 90,000-square-foot office/flex building on Red Run Boulevard
A 100,000-square-foot office building in the Red Run Corporate Center.
The addition of Sears and Lord & Taylor department stores and numerous smaller shops to the Owings Mills Town Center.
An 18-screen cinema and a restaurant park.
A Hilton Inn.
A new phase of residential construction at Owings Mills New Town.
Striving for focus
Planners expect construction in Owings Mills to continue for another 20 years. But as the community matures, the need to have a focus becomes more important, planners say.
"There were a lot of really good ideas, but a focus of place didn't come together to make it a city," said Michael A. Stern, a Pittsburgh-based landscape architect who has studied Owings Mills.
Stern said Owings Mills has the potential to become a model suburban community. "It is equally poised to become yet another xTC example of the placeless wasteland that is rapidly becoming the normal condition of the American landscape."
A 45-acre parcel near the Metro station presents the opportunity to create a town center that Owings Mills lacks, Stern said. The County Council and Maryland Transit Administration have hired a consultant to create a plan for the site.
Dillon champions the idea of a park along the Red Run that could provide trails and recreation. That idea has been discussed since the demise of the lake, but county recreation officials say there are no active plans for such a park.
County Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a north county-Owings Mills Republican, is exploring other ideas to lend Owings Mills a sense of identity -- perhaps a monument of some sort.
"I feel the community needs something they can point to with pride as an identifying feature," he said. "We need something to say, 'This is Owings Mills.' "
While not perfect, Owings Mills has proven to be a "viable alternative to disjointed community development," said Jerome D. Smalley, vice president of commercial development for the Rouse Co.
And with Rouse's plans to expand the mall, build the theaters and open the restaurant park next year, Smalley is optimistic about the future.
"We think the best times for Owings Mills are ahead," he said.
Projects that are proposed or under constuction in Owings MIlls:
A. Riparius Center -- 115,000 sqare-foot office building under construction, another 120,000-square feet building about to begin.
B. David S. Brown Property -- 65,000 square foot office building
C. Daniel Mills Property-- 90,000 square foot flex/office building.
D. Red Run Corporate Center -- proposed 100,000-square-foot office and 60,000 square-foot Hilton Garden Inn.
E. Restaurant Park--five restaurants
F. Mall--125,000 square foot Sears, 120,000-square-foot Lord & Taylor, 25,000 square feet of new shops.
G. Cinema--18-screen theater
H. MTA Site-- study in progress to determine best use for 40-acre parcel.
I. 11445 Cronridge Drive--60,000-square foot office/flex building.
SOURCE: The Baltiomore County Department of Economic Development/SUN STAFF
Pub Date: 6/16/98