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Troubled town's vision builds on pastoral past


Edgewood is trying to reinvent itself.

Over the years, the once pastoral community in southern Harford County has become associated with crime, drugs and low-income housing. Cleaning up the area became one of James M. Harkins' top priorities in his successful campaign for county executive two years ago.

This week, Harkins updated a series of ambitious projects to breathe life into the area. The projects, worth millions of dollars, include a new train station for commuters; expansion of the public library to provide classrooms for Harford Community College; redevelopment of abandoned military housing; and a new pavilion for the downtown farmers' market.

Harkins shared his vision with an enthusiastic crowd of about 200 residents at a town meeting Wednesday night.

"I think it's great," said Pat Spangler, who lives on Edgewood Road. "I like the idea of the MARC [train station] being improved and the Main Street improvements."

Edgewood Road, also known by the less glamorous name of Route 755, is considered the community's Main Street, particularly the stretch from the train stop to U.S. 40.

At one time, Edgewood had a busy downtown, drawing soldiers from the nearby Army base and suburbanites.

Longtime residents such as county Democratic Del. Dan Riley remember the sub shop, where a hoagie cost 50 cents; the little hardware store; and the old soda fountain, where a cherry Coke was 12 cents.

Today, many of the stores are gone or boarded up; shoppers have drifted to malls and retail centers, and new roads have rerouted traffic around downtown. The community of Edgewood grew out from Interstate 95 to Bush River.

Support for renewal

"We want to bring life back into this community," said Riley, who announced Wednesday night that the county had obtained $195,000 from the state to convert a former post office into a train station. "As a citizen of this community, isn't it about time?"

Plans for Edgewood's downtown also include a multimillion-dollar streetscape component, an effort of the county, State Highway Administration and Mass Transit Administration. The project will add sidewalks and redesign the roadway to slow traffic and accommodate bicycles.

"I love the idea of prettying up the street," said Rene Harris, who lives a few blocks from Edgewood Road. "Overall, the proposal is good. I have some hesitation about the zoning. I have to look at it closer. Why the overlay?"

Working with zoning laws

A key part of the revitalization involves aligning the county's vision for Edgewood with zoning laws. Through meetings, surveys and workshops with residents, officials devised a plan to create more of a neighborhood atmosphere bymaking stores more accessible to shoppers, establishing areas where people live and work, and allowing flexible building designs.

To implement these ideas, they proposed creating an overlay district, which would allow exceptions to such things as setback and lot-size requirements. The overlay proposal is expected to be presented to the County Council for approval in November.

"We tried coming up with a tool to allow these opportunities to happen," said Joan Morrissey Ward, the county's Edgewood revitalization manager. "It is cutting edge for planning and zoning."

Although community policing and increased patrols have kept crime from increasing in Edgewood, criminal activity and drug dealing in some neighborhoods remain a concern, police say.

Ground will be broken in the fall of 2001 for a $1.5 million Police Activities League recreation center, which is expected to help children in troubled areas and surrounding neighborhoods.

The program - a Maryland State Police and county Recreation and Parks Department effort - provides activities for more than 400 children at a temporary site in Edgewood Shopping Center on U.S. 40.

"The PAL center has helped out," said Lt. Bernard E. Spangler Jr., commander of the state police Bel Air barrack. "It keeps younger kids off the streets."

A day care center, made possible by a $600,000 donation by Silver Street Development Corp., will be built at the new PAL site. A $12,000 gift from the Route 40 Business Association will pay for a tutor.

Other projects

The Edgewood area is also expected to benefit from these efforts:

The county will spend $3.5 million to acquire a former military housing site on Washington Court that will be converted into a center for high-tech offices, training facilities and retail stores.

A Harford County Housing Agency program that helps homeowners acquire funds to repair their properties. Twenty-seven homeowners have obtained loans.

Project CARE - Clean and Revitalize Edgewood - a community endeavor that uses residents, county inspectors and police to enforce housing, zoning and health codes, and clean up neighborhoods.

The first spruce-up is scheduled for Sept. 30 at the Watergate North townhouse development on Brookside Drive - an area that Harkins, who will help pick up trash, describes as upsetting because of some of the unkempt yards.

"No one should have to live under those conditions," he said at the meeting. "We all have a stake in the success of community revitalization."

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