Three months ago, when Matt Clark went searching for a one-bedroom apartment close to his job at a Baltimore steel company, he crossed off all the chic urban neighborhoods that beckoned.
Instead, Clark, 25, headed straight for Baltimore County and settled in White Marsh, a planned community three decades in the making that real estate experts and developers describe as being on the cusp of cool.
These days, Clark grabs a beer after work with friends at pubs around town and practices martial arts at a gym around the corner.
"I go to the movies at The Avenue, I eat at many of the restaurants around here and I hang out around town often," said Clark, a former New Jersey resident. "It's spacious, easy to get around and perfect for what I was looking for. I like the newness of it all. I like that everything I need is close by.
"If I had the money, I'd buy property in this area."
Once the site of a dusty rock quarry, White Marsh Town Center has come into its own, experts say, with big-box stores, a 200-store regional mall, office complexes and 4,000 housing units, all on 2,000 acres.
Developed by Towson-based Nottingham Properties, White Marsh also has received national recognition for The Avenue, a re-creation of a traditional Main Street featuring trendy shops and restaurants, a 16-screen cinema, forest-green benches, brick sidewalks and fountains.
The numbers are testament to the project's success. During the summer, officials estimate that the Baltimore County suburb attracts 100,000 visitors a week. Since 1980, the population has doubled to about 20,000 residents, thousands of jobs have been created (the county does not keep specific figures) and more than $1 billion in private and public investment has been pumped into the area.
And two office parks, an automobile transmission plant and more housing are either planned or being built.
"Us old-timers remember what it was like before they started improving it," said Adam E. Paul Sr., 69, president of the White Marsh Civic Association. "They turned this piece of desert into a beautiful enterprise. The elderly do their walking in The Avenue, people sit and read in the Barnes & Noble coffee shop and people just generally feel safe and comfortable.
"Nottingham managed to bring a sense of community to this area."
'Not done yet'
Several critical factors played into the evolution of White Marsh: A decision by the county to designate it a growth area and to approve the appropriate zoning; a developer with the time, patience and resources to bring its vision to fruition; and a prime location, with easy access to Interstate 95 and the Baltimore Beltway.
Chris Kurz, chair of the Baltimore District Council of the Urban Land Institute, says Nottingham deserves credit for the work it has done.
"Their design taste buds were excellent. The best part is, they're not done yet."
Indeed. Nottingham is building the first of four office buildings in Corporate Place, adjacent to The Avenue. The $10 million project, which will feature three- and four-story buildings, is similar to Franklin Ridge, an office complex under construction nearby.
Nottingham estimates that it owns about 2 million square feet of office space and another 2.4 million square feet of retail -- all of which is 96 percent occupied. It expects to build more mid-rise office buildings in the next decade.
Nottingham is taking steps to ensure an adequate clientele for the shops and stores at White Marsh. Four residential projects are under construction that feature townhouses, condominiums and single-family homes.
Impressed by what they've seen happening in White Marsh, other businesses have also invested in the area. Johns Hopkins Medicine has completed an outpatient facility on Honeygo Boulevard and is planning an identical building next to it. General Motors Corp. is building an Allison Transmissions plant off Philadelphia Road. A Hilton Gardens Inn opened last year.
"We're very excited and proud of what has happened there," said County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger. "Over the last five years, we've created 38,000 jobs throughout the county. Clearly, White Marsh is one of our stand-out projects."
County officials say they hope to replicate White Marsh's success in Owings Mills, the county's other designated growth area.
Development at White Marsh Town Center has generated little criticism, which makes Jane Bickel feel like the lone voice of dissent.
Bickel, who publishes a community newsletter, has spent all of her 75 years in old White Marsh. She was there long before the mall or The Avenue. Traffic is so bad now, she says, that she fears leaving her home on Ebenezer Road to cross Route 40 and visit the town center. And she couldn't visit anyway, she says. There are no sidewalks to take her there.
"I'm isolated unless I have a car," Bickel said. "It is beautiful on paper, but it is hell crossing it. They did not build a community. They built Disney World."
On Friday nights, sidewalks along The Avenue teem with young and old. Movies are sold out. Restaurant patrons face hour-long waits for tables.
White Marsh Town Center sits on what was once a sand and gravel pit that Harry T. Campbell Sons' Corp. began quarrying in 1943. Their familiar red trucks were often seen rumbling along Old Philadelphia Road and Pulaski Highway. In the 1960s, the company became part of Flintkote Co., which later became Genstar.
However, the Campbell family retained much of the land through Nottingham Village Inc. and Nottingham Properties. It was a move that proved prescient.
By 1965, the county designated the largely undeveloped northeast corridor for growth. Nottingham Properties began planning for a new town of White Marsh that would feature residential, retail, office and industrial development.
"They had the wisdom to see that there would be growth from metropolitan Baltimore," said Crawford C. Westbrook, an urban development consultant who worked for Victor Gruen Associates, a New York-based land-planning firm that drew up the original White Marsh Town Center plans. "Once they decided what they wanted to do, they had no second thoughts."
Leading the way was Douglas Dollenberg, Nottingham's president and chief executive officer, who was instrumental in selling the town center plan.
The company went first to the county, with positive results. Politicians, anxious to have the vision become reality, fought vigorously in the early 1980s for state funding to build critical infrastructure and roadways such as White Marsh Boulevard, which linked the Baltimore Beltway and Interstate 95.
Then Nottingham called the Rouse Co., trailblazers in the planned community field. Rouse delivered the White Marsh Mall in 1981. White Marsh Business Community, the first of several office complexes, followed two years later.
"We got involved with this large, vacant tract of scarred land because we believed we could do something really smart here," said Dollenberg.
Recession in late '80s
A national recession slowed building and sapped the commercial real estate market in the late 1980s. New buildings often sat vacant.
As owner of the land in White Marsh, Nottingham could afford to wait out the bad times and readjust its vision. While the commercial market stagnated, Nottingham turned its attention to residential development, building 2,000 units on the north side of White Marsh Boulevard.
"People didn't forget about White Marsh, but just like every other place in the country, development slowed," Dollenberg said. "It got pretty serious. There were definitely some trying times. But there was no pulling back. We had already sunk a lot of time and money into this place.
"Besides, we still believed in the plan."
The country emerged from the recession in the early 1990s and Genstar closed the last of its White Marsh operations. Again, Nottingham responded.
This time it was big-box stores. Company officials saw they were more than a retail fad and began trying to lure them to White Marsh. Nottingham Square off Campbell Boulevard, featuring Target, Dick's Sporting Goods and Best Buy, was completed in 1998.
Nottingham also set aside room for a state-of-the-art police station, health centers, health clubs, grocery stores and a post office. When the county didn't have the money to build a library, Nottingham built it, then leased and later sold it to the county.
Company officials also searched for other developers willing to invest and found James T. Dresher Jr., a Bel Air businessman.
When Dresher first talked about putting a hotel in White Marsh in the early 1990s, some people laughed. Others shook their head in disbelief. The idea of opening a hotel in a suburban development seemed absurd, especially since the business district and regional mall were struggling.
Dresher's the one laughing now. He opened the 127-room Hampton Inn off of Interstate 95 in 1997. Last year, he opened the Hilton next door. Both boast an average occupancy rate of 80 percent, he says.
"It was a leap of faith that I don't regret," Dresher said. "Nottingham wasn't lucky to get me, I was lucky to get them. There's a good economy everywhere, but not everyone is doing as well as White Marsh. They've created something dynamic here."
With a reputation like that, it wasn't hard for Nottingham to convince people like Bill Blocher to take part in the company's best-known enterprise, The Avenue. Based on a small town Main Street, The Avenue includes street-side parking, wide sidewalks and buildings erected around a town hall look-alike.
Blocher's Red Brick Station Restaurant and Brew Pub is in a building made to look like the town firehouse. It attracts 1,000 diners daily.
"Most of my customers are regulars from the area," said Blocher, who invested $2 million in his business. "We've got outdoor concerts, family festivals and we're planning a block party. I think this community is only 50 percent done. In time, when White Marsh Town Center is completed, you may very well see more sidewalks. It'll all be connected.
"It's been hard damn work, but it's paid off. Should Nottingham develop another center, I'd follow them anywhere. That's how much of a believer I am."