Thursday, September 21, 2017

How beer and art revitalize southwest Baltimore County

Brewpubs and artists have been bellwethers of urban revitalization for some time. The trend has now reached the suburbs. Catonsville, so far known as "music city" for its several stores selling instruments, and Arbutus, unjustifiably more object of unflattering jokes than tourist promotions, will soon benefit from the opening of the Guinness Brewery in Relay (named after the nearby railroad juncture) which will also boast a tap room and benefit from relaxed laws allowing larger beer sales right at the brewery. Art isn't far behind the beer, at least not when it comes to the supporters of the Southwest Art and Entertainment District Commission. The group certainly has the attention of State Senator Ed Kasemeyer,  Delegate Eric Ebersole and Councilmember and County Executive candidate Vicky Almond who doesn't even represent this district but the also art hungry Pikesville area. All attended a recent update about the state of the arts in the area.
Catonsville Arts and Crafts festival: Big and well attended

The State of Maryland has 24 State recognized arts and entertainment districts, three are located in Baltimore City and none in Baltimore County, another indication that under Kevin Kamenetz fiscal austerity trumped creative innovation. A countywide group called Baltimore County Arts and Entertainment Council is working on changing this by considering four potential districts in all four quadrants of the county.

The kicker: The approach is collaborative and harmonious. Since each year only one A&E district can be recognized in each municipality, and Baltimore County absent any incorporated places is only one jurisdiction, the group wants to file applications in sequence. Ideally one per year until the County has an A&E district in each of its quadrants.

Miraculously, the three other areas have agreed that the Southwest is most advanced and should go first. This is almost as impressive as Governor Hogan and his challenger Kamenetz who both agreed that Amazon's HQ2 should go to Baltimore City and shows that the bigger picture and coordination beats parochialism.

Thus the Southwest area with Catonsville and Arbutus is slated to prepare a final application by August next year with a pre-application in February. The Southwest group under Arts Guild president Marilyn Maitland is casting a pretty wide net. Owing to suburban sprawl, the potential A/E district would be quite large and include powerful but somewhat isolated players such as UMBC with its arts curricula and brandnew performing arts center, the Charlestown retirement community and its time-tested performances in the Chapel, the 4 year old Baltimore County Arts Guild with artist studios on Maiden Choice Lane,  the Lurman Woodland Theatre, and annual art and crafts festivals in Catonsville and Arbutus respectively. With distances like that, UMBC is considering transportation options with its university shuttle that already connects those points in the area but is currently barring non university riders.
Old Catonsville Elementary School

An elephant in the room is the unclear future of the former Catonsville Elementary school with its 60,000 sf that currently sit vacant after the school relocated around the corner to the renovated and enlarged Bloomsbury School. Executive Kamenetz envisioned to raze the school in favor of a much smaller modular rec facility but ran into considerable flak from the community which wants to see the stately old school preserved and be used as an arts center similar to the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, or the Chesapeake Arts Center in a former Middle and Highschool in Brooklyn Park in Anne Arundel County.

The County has yet to come to terms with the notion that this school would be re-purposed rather than torn down. Adaptive re-use of an old structure is also the issue in Pikesville, where the group 1000 Friends of Pikesville  likes to see the old armory converted to an arts center.
Hyattsville & Mt Rainier A&E district

City residents tend to think of the surrounding counties as cultural wastelands with few if any of the arts institutions the City has. Because that was historically accurate, it is even more surprising to see elaborate venues like the UMBC performing arts center springing up that are every bit as sophisticated as any venue in Baltimore. Arts and entertainment districts are no longer an urban phenomenon. Last year even Oakland in Garrett County landed a successful application. Hyattsville and Mount Rainier are small artistic outposts in the suburbs of Washington DC which together form the Gateway A&E district. Its geographic spread could be a good example for Catonsville and Arbutus.

On the matter of historic preservation and protection of cultural heritage, adaptive reuse and placemaking, though, the suburbs still have much to learn. And there is no brewpub in Catonsville, either. Beyond the reviatlization, the collaboration  which is cultivated among all A&E districts across the state though could be a model for approaching goals with an open mind without boundaries.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore SUN about a Soutwest AE District


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