Friday, January 7, 2011

Arbutus/UMBC TOD and Redevelopment

Despite having one of America's most "Up & Coming" Universities at its door step, Arbutus may as well be worlds away from UMBC. I give Arbutus credit for maintaining its Small Town feel in the middle of suburbia and at the City's southwestern border. Although the Small Town feel is welcoming, Arbutus seems to have gone stagnant. There hasn't been much on the development front nor has there been any population influx to speak of like that of pretty much all other "inner ring suburbs." Like the City, Arbutus has lost population during the last few decades but Arbutus has an untapped Jewel hidden behind Southwestern Boulevard that needs to be unearthed and with will come new development and population gains.
Arbutus was never meant to be a rich man's suburb. As the flight to the suburbs was in full swing the suburbs built catered to the income of where they were fleeing the City from. It's not hard to trace who went where, If you lived in SoWeBo, you went to Arbutus if you lived in Park Heights you went Pikesville or Randallstown, If you lived in Edmondson Village you went to Catonsville, and if you lived in Highlandtown you went to Dundalk. In some cases, especially in Arbutus, the housing stock mirrored that of the City everyone was fleeing. In Arbutus, it wasn't a housing upgrade, just a demographically homogenized version of the City so it's no surprise that Arbutus contains lots of row homes and small single family homes.
The opening of UMBC did little to chnage the suburban landscape of Arbutus. There are several large Apartment Complexes nearby and although Students have moved into some, it's doesn't have as high of a Student population as one would think. UMBC is almost completely a Commuter School despite the housing stock available both on and off campus. Arbutus is what I like to call a "Generations Community", which is when houses are passed down to Children and Grandchildren of long time owners and/or said Children have settled elsewhere in Arbutus. What has resulted is a close knit Community that appears closed off to change.
Most of the Retail in Arbutus has been there for quite some time. This goes along with the Close Knit "Generations Community" theory I'm using to describe Arbutus. Now since I've described the quintessential Small Town America, why is Arbutus losing population? Well like I've said before it's not a Rich Man's Suburb and some of the problems that have hurt the City have crossed the County Line into Arbutus. Another reason is the aging housing stock. With Arbutus not being very well to do, Home Owners and Landlords alike haven't invested in the housing stock like they have in other wealthier Communities. The Real Estate bubble didn't inflate the Market which allowed for home equity loans either. Arbutus today is an aging suburb with a shrinking population and limited quality housing choices.
The County has answered back by introducing a Main Street themed Retail Town Centre around the intersection of East Drive and Sulphur Spring Road. This has spruced up the landscape of Arbutus with streetscape enhancements and adequate lighting. It hasn't done much to improve the appearance of the businesses themselves.
In order for Arbutus to move forward, it must take a good hard look at what it's lacking (I just did that) and then see if there's a way it can be improved upon by either using an existing resource or bringing them in from the outside. Just like the rest of Southwestern Baltimore, Arbutus has the gift of having train tracks running right through it. No this won't be the replacement MARC Station but it will be a stop on the Purple Line which will share tracks with the MARC Penn Line and Amtrak.
Locating the Arbutus Station across from the Southwestern Boulevard intersection with Linden Avenue will be the optimal location. Linden Avenue serves as an entrance point for the Arbutus Community and the enchanced "Town Centre." With a Rail Stop Arbutus can redevelop its tired old Retail Buildings into High Density TOD Buildings. This hopefully will have a domino effect with either reinveting in or redeveloping some of the old Row Homes nearby. The sprawling Westland Gardens Apartment Complext is due for redevelopment which may bring better Retail to the Wilkens Avenue/Maiden Choice Lane Area.
The old Single Family Homes can't really be changed much because they aren't part of a Complex. It would be great to eventually redevelop the Single Family Homes to expand the TOD District all the way to UMBC but Banks could make available Low Interest Loans to residents to fix up their homes in the mean time. Speaking of UMBC the MTA would have to make a "shuttle bug" route like those found in Hampden in Mondawmin for Arbutus to allow UMBC and Westland Gardens access to the new Station.
The TOD Distrcist will extend east of Southwestern Boulevard into Lansdowne where it will undergo a radical transformation for its new Station along the Orage Line. A pedestrian bridge across Southwestern Boulevard will for now connect Arbutus to its new Station. I'm looking into long range goals to make a more Pedestrian friendly Southwestern Boulevard but that will have to wait for a different post.
Arbutus has been stagnant for too long, it's time some life was pumped into it by way of Rail Transit. Just put a Rail Station somewhere and watch the Neighborhood transform! That is, if it's done correctly.


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