Thursday, May 11, 2017

Revisiting Odenton

"Odenton? Where is Odenton" was what James Mitich said when he was asked for the first time whether he would consider putting a restaurant there. "I know Columbia and I know Annapolis", the Baltimore resident said at the time, "but Odenton?" Mitich isn't just small fries in the restaurant world, he is the President and CEO of Big Steaks Management which is the largest franchise of Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, the largest fine dining chain in the world.
Odenton Towncenter "Core" area

Mitich spoke at a panel presentation about Odenton as a transit oriented development. (TOD). He recalled in great detail how after the location was explained to him (near Fort Meade and the NSA) all his standard metrics for where to locate a new restaurant spoke against an Odenton location, no matter how much the place was recommended to him. The punch line: He eventually built a restaurant there anyway and today it is "the #1 in Maryland", meaning the highest grossing restaurant in the Ruth's Chris chain in the State. Asked whether the key reason would be
Town center core area: Apartments and a smattering of retail (photo: Philipsen)
Fort Meade or the presence of transit, he responded: "Its the trains" and told the story how in an early advertising campaign they planned to hand out 250 steak sliders on the platform  and how they "ran out of product" in 20 minutes instead of expected hours.

Mitich is not the only one who had a problem to see Odenton as an attractive destination. In the early 90's I worked with the County government on a strategy to upgrade "boomtown" along MD 175, the artery that bisects Odenton. Not much came of teh idea of making MD 175 into a commercial "main street" with refurbished offerings on the honky tonk side and the new Fort Meade facilities facing the street on the other. The new Fort Meade office buildings turned their back to the street and are inward looking "office park", MD 175 is currently once again being widened burying any hope of taming it for good. MD 175, Annapolis Road, crosses the Amtrak/MARC train tracks right near the train station if one could recognize it from the road for all the lanes of traffic. Odenton was the seat of Nevamar and Formica, in that it is a legacy industrial community that lost its job base after those factories closed their Odenton location. But there is still Fort Meade, the country's largest military base undergoing a $3.5 billion infrastructure overhaul. There was also BRAC the much tauted Base Realignment and Closure process which decimated military bases across the country and swept it in the form of additional military and civilian personal to Fort Meade. The little trains station for the MARC commuter trains midway between Baltimore and DC enjoys a rising ridership thanks to expanded all day service and large free surface parking lots and many nearby sprawling new residential developments.
Train hidden behind parking

The idea to locate a towncenter here has been with Anne Arundel Government since the 60s.  Just like Baltimore County had declared growth centers to protect its rural areas, AA County declared Odenton to be one as well, even though AA County never installed the protective measures for its rural south which Baltimore County has enacted for its rural north. For Odenton it meant that concentrated growth remained elusive for a long time.
The Odenton Growth Management Area, known as the “Odenton Town Center” (OTC), is an area of 1,233 acres located in the western part of Anne Arundel County. It is located within 12 miles of the City of Baltimore, 16 miles of Washington, D.C., five miles from the Baltimore Washington International
Airport, and is adjacent to Fort George G. Meade. Odenton is one of three designated “Town Centers” in Anne Arundel County, the others being Parole
to the southeast and Glen Burnie to the northeast. (Masterplan)
But Transit Oriented Development (TOD) became the magic buzzword for planners in the 90s and in a succession of masterplans for the 1200 acre town-center area teh station became increasingly the focus. The latest masterplan released in April 2016. A lot of the development was shown in what once was a fully wooded area with designated wetlands, circumscribed by the MD 32 freeway that creates a loop around old Odenton.
2016 Masterplan

Just as in Owings Mills the State helped with the town-center planning by chipping money in for a structured parking garage to replace all the surface parking but unlike there, the County came up with tax increment financing (TIF). Odenton's core development area started to sprout new apartments and the already mentioned restaurant even before the garage is even started which leads to the situation that funds that the County had already started to collect will now be used to pay TIF bonds back which makes the deal very suspect to the County's budget director at the same time when Maryland's Secretary of Transportation is turning his back on State funded TOD as well, according to his mantra that he is in the business of doing transportation, not land development. This type of silo thinking has been overcome at many other transit agencies who found that a hand in land development can be lucrative, brings more riders to transit and allows control over what happends around stations.

So this particular Odenton TOD which requires the long walk through a sea of parking before one reaches any of the new development may Maryland's last example of the old model TOD in which surface parking is replaced with structured parking at a ratio of 1:1 without a new model in sight.

According to the masterplan these developments were complete a year ago:
• Odenton Gateway, The Village at Odenton Station, and Bonaventure developments were completed,
bringing nearly 500 new apartment units and 28 new townhome units to the OTC as well as new
medical offi ce and retail space.
• Flats170 at Academy Yard was completed with approximately 370 new apartment units; Phase II of
the Academy Yard development will provide additional residential units and retail space.
• The first phase of Town Center Commons was completed; additional townhomes are underway.
The project will provide a total of 126 new townhomes.
Roads and development north of  MD 175

Problems arose along the way and on many fronts, one was a lack of water and sewer capacity. The unexpected large investment requires special levies on developers where TOD typically offers incentives, such as relief from the adequate public facilities testing typically in place for new developments.

But town-center supporters persisted all those years and against all odds. Earlier plans were overly ambitious and just not realistic according to the County's economic development CEO, but the top selling Ruth's Chris Steakhouse shows that formula based realism isn't always what is needed to achieve success.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Odenton trains station (photo: Philipsen)

Odenton train station (photo: Philipsen)

 Much of the town-center:: wooded wetlands (photo: Philipsen)

The town center subareas (Masterplan)