Smart Growth is not just a matter of revitalizing the core city of a metropolitan region like Baltimore as described in my two previous articles about urban neighborhoods, it is a regional challenge. Possibly even more difficult than reviving once flourishing inner city communities is it to re-invent the "inner ring suburbs", the first tier of the suburbanization of America, often times not so much the result of the automobile but of the preceding era of streetcars.
Catonsville, a streetcar suburb immediately west of Baltimore City, population 41,000. In this article I like to show how an older suburban community that has grown around traditional dense patterns has now a historical chance fueled by smart growth and the latest demographic shifts.(For a more in depth discussion about "Shifting Suburbs" see this ULI publication.) The "millennium generation" prefers urban, walkable and authentic over suburban, drivable and synthetic development. So do, increasingly, aging baby boomers growing too old for suburban lawn care. As we will see, this process manifests itself in many small but critical steps and begs for some big brash ideas as well. (Article continues below the photos)
|As many "Main Streets" in America do, Frederick Road, Catonsville's Main Street, has a good share of antique and nick-knack stores. For a detailed discussion about the term "main street" read this.|
|...and shoppes that are placed in old residences complete with porches and try to evoke the "good old times"|
|Essentials like the fire house and a council-manic office are also located here|
|Recently some newcomers like Atwaters Bakery brought popular services to the "village"|
|A new bike shop on Frederick Road indicates that this Main Street is not missing out on current trends. Due to the small size of the buildings the store operates out of two buildings separated by an alley|
|Like many older suburban centers, Frederick Road is also marred by huge overhead utility lines. About ten years ago a special effort by "Catonsville 2000" brought the lines underground for about one block. The photo shows the transition point.|
|A longstanding theme of Catonsville commercial area is music. Several store selling musical instruments cluster here and bring in people from near and far|
Older "inner ring" suburbs have been in danger of exhibiting many of the same ailments that plague the core city Baltimore: Shrinking populations, property values, incomes and education levels. But Catonsville is holding its own, it even grew by 4% from 2000 to 2010. (Census 2010 and 2000 comparative data). It should, in fact, have a bright future, let's see how and why.
For decades county administrations and local business leaders have been aware of the risks facing inner ring suburbs. The County declared Catonsville to be a "Commercial Revitalization District", more recently a "Community Enhancement Area" and also seeks State designation as a "sustainable community". The local Chamber of Commerce installed task forces, in 1990 "Catonsville 2000" and now "Catonsville 2020" which prepared reports how to position "the village" for the future. The problem could be the existing suburban merchants who are often quite adverse to change.
Take land assemblage: Any attempt of Catonsville 2000 to assemble some fragmented lots to achieve a larger redevelopment parcel in the heart of the village stranded on the opposition of at least one of the owners although such parcels were considered vital for economic development. Land assemblage is critically important in Catonsville with its many residences turned businesses which look cute but are too small for what retail needs today. The County, gun-shy from a bruising battle about condemnation rights in Essex over a decade ago, has ever since shied away from exerting any pressure on property owners.
Take "streetscaping": One clear outcome of Catonsville 2000 was a one third State-funded streetscape project in which the State Highway Administration applied the lessons of its publication "When Main Street is a State Highway" to Catonsville and thought "beyond the pavement". After much public discussion, Frederick Road received brick pavement on sidewalks, black painted parking meters and signal posts and historic looking lamp posts replacing the ubiquitous "cobra head" street lights and a few hundred feet of overhead power lines were buried then. But even that was too much for some and one lone hold-out still insisted on keeping his pole in front of his store.
Take the National Main Streets Program: In spite of having all the trappings to qualify for the title "Main Street" and participation in the Main Streets Program of the National Historic Trust for Historic Preservation, Catonsville is not participating and has no Main Street coordinator. Across the country many villages and neighborhoods have revived their main streets with great success by the targeted approach favored by the Main Streets Program which includes a strategy for "merchandizing" similar to how a mall would target goods and services in such a manner that there would be synergy of the offerings as well as organizing, promotion and design (see the four point program).
Private development as game changers
The dynamics that propelled Catonsville into the league of the more successful older inner ring suburbs comes from its past and from the private sector. The past comes to the rescue of those historic "villages" like Catonsville, Pikesville and Essex because they have pretty dense historic cores with streets in a grid pattern oriented towards a commercial center. The private sector has jumped on the trend towards "local food" and walkable communities with targeted investments: Some would ascribe the pivotal moment to Atwaters opening a bakery with the crusty Old World style breads en vogue among yuppies. Some would attribute it to Catonsville Gourmet starting a restaurant with built-in fish market that serves food above the home-style cooking level which was such an instant success that the same owner opened a second restaurant down the street ("Regions"). Lately a new bike shop rounds out the most visible indicators and catalysts for change. These new businesses show that attracting younger and more affluent people works not only for the core cities but also for suburban centers.
A suburban "Main Street" doesn't have to be content with selling nick-knacks, antiques and ice cream while evoking presumably better old times with old fashioned lamp posts and the old English spelling of the word shop. Like its metropolitan counterpart, the suburban main street can have urban coffee shops selling the latest lattes. Catonsville is still missing a brew pub, the other sure-fire indicator of "gentrification". I am using this much maligned word on purpose, because there doesn't have to be anything wrong with catering to newer trends, or more affluent and educated customers. Every one of those new businesses in Catonsville is eminently more local, authentic and "idiosyncratic"than McDonald's, Friendly's or the gas stations that had replaced some of the original Catonsville businesses. They very nicely complement the traditional anchors such as Bill's Music or Jenning's Cafe.
Tom Quirk, the young and energetic new local councilman understands the need for positive change in the heart of the village. He actively sponsors bills that promote smart growth and infill development. He and the Republican Towson Councilman Marks created a "commons overlay" zone for the protection of open space, revised Planned Unit Development (PUD) rules to require community input before a PUD can be introduced to the council. Quirk supports the "complete streets" concept that makes the dense narrow street grid of the historic village an asset by bringing pedestrians and bicyclists back into planning "traffic". He has started a dialogue with the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Campus (UMBC), located just south of the Catonsville village in one of those isolated new campus settings that were popular in the sixties and seventies when many academic buildings look like fortresses.
University President Freeman Hrabowski is hugely successful in repositioning his school (he was named one of the 100 most influential leaders in the world by Time magazine). He, surely, would be all for providing additional quality of life for his students. What better way to do this than good connections to a real historically grown village center and "main street"? Here a clear "win-win" constellation offers itself up. It remains to be seen if local property and business owners will seize it. At a recent meeting atop Atwater's bakery when Catonsville 2020 members publicly discussed the report that they had funded, the suggestion to capitalize on college students was considered an interesting idea but kindled little enthusiasm.
The older Chamber of Commerce members still like to discuss two topics the most: Traffic and parking, the very forces that first fueled the suburbs and then, in a strike of equal opportunity justice, destroyed their old centers just the same as it had destroyed the city centers. (In the case of Catonsville the old "turnpike" from Baltimore to "the West" moved to US 40 that is now named the "National Pike" and then, in a third strike, to what is now I-70. US 40 presents itself today as the typical non-walkable US over-built commercial strip that Howard Kunstler describes in his book with the same title as the "Geography of Nowhere" and now even the latest incarnation of the route to the west, the I-70/beltway interchange, and its malls and shopping areas are in decline.
|Rendering of the Promenade from Whalen's website|
By far the biggest project ever discussed for Catonsville is local developer Steve Whalen's dream project, "the Promenade": 1.2 million square feet of mixed use development including movies, housing, restaurants and large scale shopping. However, this project would do little for Frederick Road or the historic village. Instead of building strong connections and recycling "grey-fields" (underutilized or vacant commercial lands), it would string along the Baltimore Beltway I-695, cutting down the wooded buffer and consume large parts of the remaining open spaces. Some 25 acres would have to come from the former Spring Grove mental hospital, State owned land that until recently seemed out of reach despite many plans and ideas how to use it. Now some of Spring Grove has been declared "surplus" by the State but most discussion revolves of the creation of a regional park. Regarding Whalen's development plans: While they could create the needed bridge between UMBC and the village, in the form they were presented to me, they don't really do that.
Maybe even less likely, but eminently more desirable from a smart growth perspective, would be a big mixed-use center on the site of the ailing Security Square Mall. This, technically isn't Catonsville but Woodlawn, the area where all the post-war development occurred that didn't fit into the old village. Here, suburban America unfolded in meandering subdivisions, shopping centers and office parks - and now falters. Here the federal government placed its eastern US Social Security and Medicare Headquarters (SSA and CMS) and provides some 12,000 jobs. And here, because of the employments centers, the Baltimore Red Line surface/subway light rail line is planned to terminate, not in Catonsville. Which is ironic, because Catonsville flourished back when streetcars ended there. But we have to see things in a bigger scale today:
Here at Security Square Mall and between SSA and CMS, a new regional town center in the scale and ambition of Clarendon in Arlington County would be needed to convert "auto-oriented suburban" into "walkable urban". A "urban" new mixed use town center would replace acres of derelict pavement and a tired mall devoid of attractive anchor stores. With the proposed Red Line it could even be a transit oriented development, in short, a real contribution towards the re-invention of the suburb. More importantly, just as this area was a growth area before, it could capture new growth from the urban centric millenials, growth that wouldn't fit in the old village core. Thus, such a new regional town center could be competitive with Howard County's Columbia and provide Southwest Baltimore County residents the kind of retail services and housing that are so often missing, the progress in old Catonsville notwithstanding.
Unfortunately, the reality is sobering: The five owners of the mall area are far from being on board with such a big plan and the County Executive seems much more interested in the revitalization of Towson, where his government resides.
Meanwhile historic Catonsville will continue to inch forward with the many small improvements that will keep it vital and attractive for coming generations. And it just may catch the historic opportunity presented to it right now.
Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
Published 02.13.13 21:00h Updates and clarifications 02.19.13 8:49
All photos copyright ArchPlan Inc.
related posts on this blog:
Reinventing the Suburb: The New Tysons. See this article for images of Security Square Mall
From Quantity to Quality: Is Retail Coming Full Circle?
Is the Titanic Turning: the Re-urbanization of America
The Mall is Dead - Long Live the Lifestyle Center
Open Space Protection Through an Urban Land Trust