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Old ideas, new hope in Owings Mills

The Baltimore Sun

A big investment firm announces an expansion that includes two new office buildings and 1,400 jobs. Management at the mall, which has seen its ups and downs, promises a revamped shopping center. And developers are poised to build a "Main Street" surrounded by more restaurants, offices and homes - a true town center, they say, for a community more than a quarter-century in the making.

Owings Mills, the government-prescribed nucleus for commercial and residential development in northwest Baltimore County, has been transformed from farmland into a home for thousands and, increasingly, into a workplace.

Now, hundreds of millions of dollars are set to be invested in what many describe as the biggest boost to the area since the growth plan was hatched.

"It has been a bedroom community," said Jack Dillon, a former county planner involved with the original concept and design for Owings Mills. "It's on the verge of becoming something else."

Some residents add that the stakes are now so high for the area that close attention must be paid to each step. Traffic and the vitality of businesses old and new are some of their concerns.

"It's moving so fast," said Del. Dan K. Morhaim, who represents the area. "We need to slow down, rein in development until we can catch our breath and figure out what we want our community to look like."

The dairy and grain farms of Owings Mills were marked for development by the county in 1979. Inspired by Columbia in Howard County and Reston in Virginia, planners looked to bring in businesses that would provide office jobs. They wanted to create a centerpiece lake surrounded by a mix of apartments and houses, with a library, a mall, public transportation and tree-lined boulevards.

By 1986, the Northwest Expressway - Interstate 795, the highway connection with the Beltway - was complete. Owings Mills Mall and the nearby Metro station opened. And construction began on thousands of homes in Owings Mills' "New Town" area.

In 2004, the Ravens moved into a newer football base of operations in Owings Mills.

But the area had its setbacks: County officials unable to get federal approval to dam the Red Run stream and build the lake. New schools were overcrowded before they opened. Not all of the housing was of the type and quality expected.

And even as development was booming in White Marsh and Hunt Valley, a series of lawsuits and changing developers held up the project at the Owings Mills Metro station.

Now, operating as Owings Mills Transit LLC for the Metro development project, David S. Brown Enterprises and Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. plan a development with a 250-room hotel, shops, restaurants, offices and 495 residential units on the old Metro commuter lots. A five-story building is to house a library and community college branch, with an open area in front for concerts and other public events.

In August, the 2,900-space garage at the Metro station was opened - the first step in the town center development now called Metro Centre.

But the project is stalled as county officials renegotiate with developers over the price of the library and community college building.

When the county approved the plan for the southern portion of the 47.5-acre site, officials set aside $16.2 million for the library-college building, $500,000 to furnish it and $13.1 million for garages, said Donald I. Mohler III, a county spokesman.

Since the spring, the county and developers have been discussing the cost of adding 20,000 square feet for common areas, he said, adding that the plan might include environmentally friendly features.

The developers did not return calls for comment.

The county is also planning to extend the main street running through Metro Centre to loop around the Owings Mills Mall, said Arnold F. "Pat" Keller III, the county's planning director. The townhouse community finished in the spring at the mall faces the parking lot now, but it is oriented toward the planned main street, Keller said.

"That's really what we're looking at first - putting the town into the town center," said Keller.

The mall has lost anchor stores, including Lord & Taylor and Sears. But Kevin C. Budny, general manager of the mall, said redevelopment plans are "in the works."

"We're looking at the overall area to figure out what the mall needs to become," he said.

The area received one boost this year when CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, the largest health insurer in the Mid-Atlantic region, announced that it would keep its headquarters next to the mall for at least 12 years.

Smith Barney, the investment firm, recently opened an office in Owings Mills with about 225 employees, officials said. A software company, iMagicLab, plans to hire 100 more people in the next year, and Global Payments, a credit- and check-processing firm, plans to add 275 jobs to its 525-employee operation, officials said.

More than 8,400 jobs in the Owings Mills area are in the financial services or the insurance sector, said Fronda J. Cohen, a spokeswoman for the county's Department of Economic Development. Many of the companies are in high-rise office buildings, such as the Riparius Center, along Red Run Boulevard.

"It has become a mecca for health care, insurance and financial institutions," said Brenda L. Crabbs, executive director of the Owings Mills Corporate Roundtable. "I think it's progressing, just as it was envisioned."

Perhaps the biggest recent news was last month's announcement by T. Rowe Price that it would add 1,400 employees in the next two years and spend $185 million to construct two large office buildings and two parking garages on its sprawling Owings Mills campus - a project that would enable the company to become the county's largest private employer.

"I think people are excited about what's happening and are looking forward to what's next," said Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. "There's a quiet buzz in the community."

Keller, the planning director, said the county is also poised to begin work in the spring on a trail system through the Red Run stream valley. The county owns or has easements on more than 250 acres along the stream, he said.

The trail and park system, designed after the lake plan fell through, should help link housing developments, Keller said.

Infrastructure improvements are important to residents, said George Harman, president of the Reisterstown, Owings Mills, Glyndon Coordinating Council.

"We need a coordinated plan for this corridor," said Harman. "We think the concept of a planned town center more in line with Columbia is a good one, where the needs of businesses, schools and residents are all considered up front."

He said that while residents hope that the Metro Centre project provides a boost for the mall, there are also concerns about the health of businesses along Reisterstown Road.

But traffic is probably the biggest complaint, said David Simonetti, an Owings Mills-area resident for about 15 years and the first vice president of the ROG Coordinating Council.

An interchange to connect Dolfield Boulevard to the Northwest Expressway, which could ease traffic problems, is to be finished by 2015, if funded by the state.

Work on extending Dolfield Boulevard to Reisterstown Road, a longtime priority, should begin in the next several years, officials say.

And final design on a plan to extend Owings Mill Boulevard south to Liberty Road, in the works for more than 15 years, is also expected in a couple of years, said David Fidler, a spokesman for the county Department of Public Works.

Despite residents' objections, officials say, the road is necessary for the greater good of the community. But Smith said he could relate to the residents' plight.

His childhood home was bulldozed to make way for I-795.

"It went right through the breakfast room," he said. "I certainly appreciate what people go through."

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

THE EVOLUTION OF OWINGS MILLS

1760s: Samuel Owings, the mill owner for whom Owings Mills was named, builds his home.

1979: Baltimore County's master plan designates Owings Mills and White Marsh as areas where development would be concentrated.

1984: County officials rezone about 5,000 acres for "New Town" area.

1986: The Northwest Expressway (Interstate 795) is completed. The Owings Mills Mall and the Owings Mills Metro station open.

1996: Nearly 1,200 condominiums, apartments, townhouses and detached dwellings have been built in villages.

1997: County officials begin working with consultants on a plan for a town center at the Metro station.

2000: Maryland Transit Administration and Baltimore County start seeking developers for a town square with shops, houses and public amenities, such a library, on the parcel next to the Metro station.

2001: New Town Elementary, built to accommodate about 700 students, opens with an enrollment exceeding 900 students. Developer LCOR Inc. of Berwyn, Pa., is scheduled to start construction near the Metro station.

2002: Owings Mills Mall loses its Lord & Taylor anchor, a year after Sears closes. Development at the Metro station is a year behind schedule. LCOR pulls out of the Metro station project and selects developers Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. and David S. Brown Enterprises as its replacement.

2003: A legal dispute between the state and Painters Mill Venture, the former owners of the land where the Metro town center is to be built, stalls the project.

2004: The Ravens move into their new $31 million home at Northwest Regional Park.

2005: The state Board of Public Works approves a settlement of the lawsuit that has delayed construction on the Metro project for two years. The Baltimore County Council approves an agreement with the developers on the $220 million project.

2006: Bulldozers signal start of a nearly 50-acre town center of homes, offices, shops, restaurants, a hotel, a community college branch and a public library.

October 2007: T. Rowe Price announces it will add 1,400 jobs at its Owings Mills campus in the next two years and will spend $185 million to construct two large office buildings and two parking garages.

[ Source: Sun archives]

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