Breaking the tie in town center score


THE SCORE for town centers is 1-1.

The concept won in Glen Burnie two months ago, when city officials carved out a 5-acre area at Ritchie Highway and Baltimore and Annapolis Boulevard as a town center with restaurants, stores and elderly housing, finally giving that sprawling town a rather appealing geographical heart.

But the town center concept lost last week in Parole, when the Anne Arundel County Council rejected a bill that could have improved that city's chances for an attractive, urban, mixed-use design at Parole Plaza, which is bounded by Route 2, Forest Drive, Riva Road and West Street just outside Annapolis.

It's up to Odenton to break the tie.

Glen Burnie, Parole and Odenton are the three places the county selected three decades ago to become town centers. Planners did so because they wanted communities to become focal points for imaginative and functional development that would contrast the endless sprawl that Anne Arundel County knows too well.

But when the council voted 4-2 to defeat a proposal by Councilwoman Barbara Samoracjzyk to limit the size of retail stores in town centers, it kissed aesthetic development in Parole goodbye.

Ms. Samoracjzyk's bill would have meant a big box store -- Wal-Mart, to be specific -- would be able to consume no more than 80,000 square feet of space on any level at Parole Plaza, where the constantly expanding retailer plans to build another store.

Demolition of existing Parole Plaza buildings could start next month to make room for the discounter.

It's hard to imagine building an attractive urban design around a large discount store. Although the retailer plans to dress up the building with boutiques along one side of the store, the visual expectations are low.

Unfortunately, Parole Plaza owner Carl Freedman and Wal-Mart refused to compromise and limit the store's gigantic footprint. And now, most likely, Parole's town center will become another sprawl center.

So much for three decades of planning.

Odenton still has a chance.

The county owns the 26 acres of ideally located land that will probably become the core of Odenton's town center.

The land deal was controversial at the time, but that seems like ancient history now. The county should make the best possible use of the property and look toward other mixed-use developments as good examples.

For example, Columbia's village centers are working well after three decades, thanks to some fine-tuning. Owings Mills has blended housing, commerce and character to make that community desirable. And Baltimore's Cross Keys remains a model of smart urban design.

The county plans to build a regional library near Routes 175 and 170 in Odenton, which former County Executive John G. Gary bought in the last days of his term.

County Executive Janet Owens, who sent the wrong message by threatening to veto Ms. Samoracjzyk's bill, could do something right by encouraging smart growth around the library site.

The library, which will be built near a MARC train station, fits perfectly with the public transportation component of mixed use. The fast-growing community can stand out -- and it doesn't need skyscrapers to do it. All it needs is an attractive center that brings together housing and offices, government services and restaurants, shops and pedestrians.

Odenton is one of the county's fastest-growing communities and is a perfect place for smart, mixed-use growth. The western Anne Arundel town's population has more than doubled since 1980, rising from about 8,400 to 19,000. The population is projected to reach 26,000 in 10 years.

Although homes are rising fast, the town lacks many destinations that established communities take for granted.

With new homes rising fast on virgin land, large retailers -- including big boxes -- are sure to follow.

"I would like to see one or two big box stores come into the town and serve the needs of the community because people have to travel too far, to Annapolis, Glen Burnie or Columbia," said Odenton resident Sunny Patel, who serves on the town's area plan committee.

That's fine. But planners should be careful about where these stores go. Large retail outlets are better suited for the town's periphery than for its center, near the library.

The library will be the county's third regional -- and most modern -- branch. It could anchor a center that could eventually include a community college outpost and other government services. People might even live close enough to walk to the library, college, a gift shop or a bistro.

Odenton has many possibilities that have nothing to do with boxes.

Norris P. West writes editorials for The Sun from Anne Arundel County.

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