Owings Mills Metro Cen­tre: the Paris of Bal­ti­more County?

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By El­iz­a­beth Bas­tos El­iz­a­beth Bas­tos is a writer based in Bal­ti­more County. Her email is el­iz­a­beth.bas­tos@gmail.com.

Port Cov­ing­ton and the re­de­vel­op­ment of the Owings Mills dead mall have the po­ten­tial be ter­rific — walk­a­ble, beau­ti­ful, pedes­trian-friendly, with vi­brant green spa­ces. It’s start­ing to hap­pen at the Owings Mills Metro Cen­tre. On a re­cent week­day af­ter­noon, the plaza in front of CCBC and the li­brary was full of peo­ple; they were hav­ing lunch out­side. I was like, “pinch me, am I in Paris? Could I be in Cam­bridge, Mass. my old home town?” I could imag­ine out­door cafes lin­ing Owings Mills Metro Cen­tre’s grand cen­tral av­enue — as­pi­ra­tionally and con­ceit­edly named “Grand Cen­tral Av­enue” — and it be­com­ing a place you’d want to be. Mag­nifique! Let it live up to its name. Let’s keep do­ing more grand cen­tral ur­ban plan­ning, Bal­ti­more.

But de­vel­op­ers in Bal­ti­more city and county need to keep read­ing their Jane Ja­cobs’ “Death and Life of Great Amer­i­can Cities” be­cause much of our de­vel­op­ment is based on an old model, one that priv­i­leges the car.

The cities that thrive now are in­ter­con­nected and built for peo­ple. They are safe and in­ter­est­ing to mul­ti­ple senses; they have ef­fec­tive pub­lic trans­porta­tion and nu­tri­tive green space, parks and play­grounds. They are places peo­ple go to see beauty and other peo­ple, to sit and be seen. Not as­phalt. Not the vast park­ing lot in front of the Foundry Row Weg­mans. That park­ing lot would make Jane Ja­cobs weep. How timely that a new doc­u­men­tary about her has just been re­leased: “Cit­i­zen Jane: Bat­tle for the City.” I would ar­gue that there should also be a bat­tle for the ’burbs.

Seven years ago, I moved to Owings Mills in Bal­ti­more County, from Cam­bridge, Mass. Cam­bridge is a city of pub­lic squares. So, nat­u­rally, the first thing I did to get my bear­ings in my new town was to try to lo­cate the town square, the cen­ter of town, where the peo­ple were.

Owings Mills did not have a town square.

It was, in ef­fect, not an ef­fec­tive place. It was dis­persed, dis­con­nected strip malls. There was no there, there. And though there was plenty of ve­hic­u­lar traf­fic, there was no foot traf­fic — pedes­tri­ans. Zero bik­ers. Around here it’s dan­ger­ous to be a pedes­trian or a biker. There are few side­walks and no bike lanes, and that’s sad be­cause there need to be di­verse ways of get­ting around town. And on the street and in city squares is where the life of a place hap­pens: the chance meet­ing, the “hey how are yas.” The square is neigh­borly and pro-so­cial. And don’t just take my word for it, take theirs: “City Squares: Eigh­teen Writ­ers on the Spirit and Sig­nif­i­cance of Squares Around the World,” a new an­thol­ogy of es­says out this year.

Owings Mills has been the ur­ban plan­ning equiv­a­lent of a sad trom­bone. It is not a stretch to say that the town got me down. En­vi­ron­men­tal psy­chol­o­gists’ re­search shows that the built en­vi­ron­ment — ar­chi­tec­ture, ur­ban de­sign — has a pro­found ef­fect on peo­ple. Pi­o­neer­ing Amer­i­can ur­ban­ist Wil­liam Whyte stud­ied hu­man be­hav­ior in ur­ban set­tings. In his 1980 book “The So­cial Life of Small Ur­ban Spa­ces,” he wrote, “a street that is open to the sky and filled with peo­ple and life is a splen­did place to be.” That is still true to­day. But, sadly, in mod­ern ur­ban de­sign some­times the ba­sics (sky, peo­ple) are hard to come by. “It is dif­fi­cult to de­sign a space that will not at­tract peo­ple. What is re­mark­able is how of­ten this has been ac­com­plished,” wrote Mr. Whyte.

Ef­fec­tive place­mak­ing is, ac­cord­ing to The Project for Pub­lic Spa­ces, “with com­mu­nity-based par­tic­i­pa­tion at its cen­ter, a process that cap­i­tal­ized on a lo­cal com­mu­nity’s as­sets, in­spi­ra­tion, and po­ten­tial and re­sults in the cre­ation of qual­ity pub­lic spa­ces that con­trib­ute to peo­ple’s health, hap­pi­ness and well be­ing.”

Owings Mills was mas­ter planned in 1984 with a rec­om­men­da­tion for “strong of­fice and in­dus­trial de­vel­op­ment,” ac­cord­ing to Bal­ti­more County Depart­ment of Plan­ning. It was an eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment zone, and it showed.

But with the new Metro Cen­tre an­chored by CCBCandthe Bal­ti­more County Pub­lic Li­brary there is a fresh­ness. A there-ness. There is be­gin­ning to be bus­tle. There’s be­gin­ning to be a square there. And I’ll be there on the plaza, peo­ple-watch­ing, eat­ing my lunch, help­ing to make it the Paris of Bal­ti­more County.

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