Friday, June 17, 2016

Does Catonsville need the next big thing?

Catonsville is one of the original exurban spaces. Its history as a streetcar settlement makes the not incorporated suburb a small town if not by right. Born from passenger and freight rail, Catonsville is historic, it has character and with UMBC it has a thriving university anchor nearby, but it rarely hits the news except in the local offspring of the SUN under the masthead Catonsville Times.
Catonsville: Main Street (Frederick Road)

 It's "main street ", Frederick Road has seen a notable uptick lately, besides the trademark music and swim wear shops there are now a few destination restaurants as well as well as a small Sunday farmer's market.

Still, the town isn't a thriving exurb like Philadelphia's Manayunk or Washington's Alexandria, not even a much smaller version of those bigger examples. In spite of a glut of retail along the highways strips to the north (Security Boulevard and the Baltimore National Pike) quality shopping is chancy, especially for clothes. Much of the area retail, restaurants and hotel accommodations seem outdated and not in a quaint and cozy way but  in one that communicates lack of resource, lack of attention or both. 
The Promenade: Aging graphics of a dream
There is not much debate about a long term vision neither by government nor by the local chamber of commerce. The last future plan that drew a crowd was done in the nineties under the moniker Catonsville 2000. The sequel, Catonsville 2020 is mostly a snoozer and hardly anyone can name an exciting idea in it. 
Catonsville’s Village should be a vibrant, visually stimulating focal point for the greater Catonsville
community. The Village should be a pedestrian-friendly center for entertainment, dining, shopping
and personal services. It should also offer a variety of housing opportunities from affordable to
upscale in mixed-use settings. The Village should also provide opportunities for civic and cultural
events. Finally, the Village should be a source of pride for all residents and businesses in the greater Catonsville community. (Catonsville 2020 report)
There is one idea that regularly causes excitement, but it isn't mentioned in the 2020 report, and that is the proposed dream development of local developer Steve Whalen called "The Promenade"; a big mixed use development stringing along the Westside of the Beltway originally including State owned land known as Spring Grove. Mostly the excitement is limited to vehement protest, especially against the use of any part of the Spring Grove complex. But in this year's quadrennial zoning hearings, opposition has turned to the developer's request of rezoning residential land to business so a smaller version of The Promenade could happen without State land.
Catonsville developer Whalen in front of the Professional
Center developed by him on Rolling Road
The mixed-use development would focus on office space, but could include hotels, retail, residential and other businesses to make it a "destination."
We think that a quality restaurant component is very important, and an entertainment component is also important (Whalen to the Baltimore SUN in March 2016)
Yesterday night, the final CZMP hearing in District 1 drew again opponents to testify against Whalen's rezoning request. Many Catonsville residents have long given up paying attention to the big dream project that has its roots as far back as the 1980ties. But the ingredients at play, a large State campus that Whalen hoped would be declared surplus property, a 1.4 million sq. ft. project with 250 residences, 2 hotels, 460,000 sq. ft. of retail and restaurants, 250,000 sq. ft. of office space, a national bookstore and cinema (as the Promenade was described originally), a historic community and a national debate about how suburbs can re-invent themselves to be more sustainable and livable are worth a closer look.
Spring Grove: The hidden campus
What should happen with the 190 acre Spring Grove Campus? What will a Republican Governor do with a developer that was friendly with O'Malley? What would be good for Catonsville? What is the future of the inner ring suburbs? These and other questions will be investigated in this space starting next week. 


Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

See also article on Community Architect: Smart Growth in Catonsville
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