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Editorial

Will Baltimore County embrace a new generation of mixed-use town centers? | COMMENTARY

A Baltimore Light RailLink train passes over Baltimore County's Lake Roland in the early morning on its way north toward Lutherville and Hunt Valley. The county is now facing decisions over whether to allow major mixed use redevelopment projects at White Marsh and Lutherville, the latter served by light rail. File. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun).

Quick, what do the Baltimore County communities of White Marsh and Lutherville have in common? Well, they are both near the Baltimore Beltway at major interchanges (Interstate 95 for White Marsh and Interstate 83 for Lutherville). They are both classic unincorporated, relatively small suburban communities, and married couples are the leading demographic in each, with most residents living in single-family homes. And they are both dominated by fading centralized commercial centers with noticeable vacancies — White Marsh Mall for one, and the cluster of strip shopping centers around Ridgely and York roads for the other.

Yet there’s also this: Both communities have been presented with ambitious proposals to redevelop some of that shopping space into, for lack of a better description, mixed-use development. In White Marsh, there’s a plan to turn what had been a Sears store in the mall into a 516-unit apartment complex. In Lutherville, a developer has proposed building 400 apartments along with new office space at Lutherville Station, a shopping center that once hosted such popular retail outlets as Caldor and Borders, but they are long gone. And both proposals are running into vocal opposition from local communities that aren’t wild about the growth, traffic and potential school overcrowding that might be associated with each.

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Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. hasn’t committed to either, but they deserve serious consideration. First because both focus on redevelopment — recycling commercial properties that aren’t working well now — rather than facilitating more suburban sprawl, but also because they represent a positive trend in suburban development. Creating mixed-use centers, particularly those well served by transit, are better for the environment, for public health, for land use planning and for facilitating social interaction. In short, people can live and shop near where they work while being less dependent on their cars.

The region has already seen some notable efforts to venture into these mini-town centers. The Annapolis Town Center shopping mall recently opened with offices, 550 apartments and condos, and even an outdoor ice skating rink. During his successful reelection campaign, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman touted, along with now-Gov.-elect Wes Moore, a $35 million mixed-use project in Odenton featuring apartments and shops that will be convenient to the MARC train station. And even in Baltimore County, the former Hunt Valley Mall has prospered from its conversion to the “Hunt Valley Towne Centre” with a streetscape and “luxury” apartments that’s also served by Baltimore’s light rail line.

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Obviously, not every town center plan is the same. Some work, and some don’t. But one thing is certain, and that is that the traditional American malls and shopping plazas are no longer success stories. Malls, in particular, are dying. And they were struggling even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Small towns, on the other hand, can still thrive when each component supports the other. Throw in gyms and cultural attractions, health clinics and storage spaces instead of the usual retailers, along with living and working spaces in a walkable setting, and what do you have? A small town. You can have a wonderful life without moving to Bedford Falls. Baltimore County’s plan to redevelop Security Square Mall may well end up being something similar — when it’s finally unveiled, that is.

Still, community opposition may prove adamant. People living in Lutherville are not accustomed to having large apartment buildings nearby and may well be more fearful of what it will mean for their property values or public safety (if it means renters of modest means are the new neighbors) than for traffic. Yet the opportunity for transit-oriented development along the lightly used light rail line is too good to ignore. Maryland can’t afford to keep building outward and burning more fossil fuels in the process. Climate change is already happening. And the state has already made a big investment in the electric fixed-rail system from Hunt Valley to Glen Burnie. Why not take full advantage of it?

Neighbors probably ought to be a little more worried about all those empty retail spaces and the prospect that the suburban car-oriented culture is not sustainable. What happens then? Mixed-use development can work. Nearby Towson seems to be making the transition with new living spaces, entertainment and shopping (as well as a circulator bus system). Lutherville and White Marsh can as well — if developers can strike the right balance, win over neighbors and invest in the future.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.


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