Hundreds of new apartments, redesigned streetscapes and improved pedestrian and bus access are among the sweeping changes proposed for a nearly 26-acre area surrounding the Reisterstown Plaza Metro Station, according to a conceptual state plan released this week.

State planners envision transforming a large, underused parking lot into six apartment buildings, a parking garage and more than 50,000 square feet of retail space.

Final tweaks to the plan are set to go before the Baltimore Department of Planning in July. Wabash Development Partners, led by developer Dean Harrison, hopes to break ground next year, though financing is still being worked out.

State and local officials say the project checks several boxes, including: addressing a statewide shortage of housing units; getting riders back onboard a train that has struggled to rebound since the pandemic; and reducing greenhouse gas emissions through denser development. It would be one of the largest transit-oriented development sites in Maryland.

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“By working in close collaboration with community members, Baltimore City and private sector partners, MDOT aims to maximize walkability, livability, and inclusive growth for all who live and work around the Reisterstown Plaza transit station,” Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld said in an emailed release.

A man on a bike wearing a helmet waits outside of a glass shelter at an above ground train station.
A Baltimore Metro rider with a bike waits for a train at the Reisterstown Plaza station.

Transit-oriented development, or TOD, typically refers to housing, retail and other uses located within walking distance of transit hubs such as train stations. Urbanists and transit boosters see it as critical to creating vibrant communities where residents don’t have to rely on cars to run errands, go to work and visit worship sites.

Metro Centre in Owings Mills, the train line’s lone TOD outside Baltimore’s urban core, has leased the majority of its nearly 600 apartments and the bulk of its retail and office space, according to financial records. The complex is growing — planned construction would create nearly 1,000 more housing units. Baltimore is seeking to catch up with Washington, where new development has typically sprouted up near newly opened Metro stations in the suburbs.

Not everyone is sold on TODs — in Baltimore County, opponents of a proposal to build apartments next to the Lutherville light rail station argue it would tax local resources by packing too many students into schools and clogging local roads. Some residents have fought efforts to rezone the area to allow for apartments.

Two black and white yard signs, one that reads "save suburbia, no new light rail, no TOD, no apartments" and the other "no apartments, no compromise" are staked into the grass in front of a suburban street with cars and single family homes in the background.
Signs opposing plans to redevelop the area around the Lutherville light rail station are scattered throughout a nearby neighborhood. (Daniel Zawodny / The Baltimore Banner)

But the state is bullish on transit-oriented development, particularly around Baltimore Metro’s 15.5-mile, 14-station line. More than 170 acres of land surrounding Metro stops are at the disposal of state officials, and Reisterstown Plaza already has the zoning the plan requires.

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This year, state lawmakers passed an ambitious trio of bills designed to remedy Maryland’s housing deficit, which it estimates to be as large as 96,000 units. One component of the package allows developers to add more units than current zoning allows if they are built near transit stations.

Jake Day, the state’s secretary of housing and community development, said in a written statement that his agency “supports MDOT’s commitment to advancing Transit Oriented Development.”

“The vision for Reisterstown’s Plaza Metro Subway station aligns with our ongoing discussions to encourage development in areas where we want it, such as near transit, to address our state’s housing shortage,” he said. “By focusing development near transit hubs, the state can not only expand housing options but also foster vibrant communities that enhance economic growth and accessibility for all Marylanders.”

Day said previously he considers the bill package “incredibly meaningful” for the future of housing in Maryland and was surprised at the reception that it received from lawmakers.

“I expected the density bonuses to be the most contentious part and not, perhaps, to survive, and certainly not to survive as strong as it did,” he said, referring to the provision allowing additional units near transit stops.

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On a typical weekday, the area surrounding the Reisterstown Plaza Metro station sees little foot traffic; cars bake in a sun-drenched, half-filled park-and-ride lot, separated from a Social Security Administration building by trees and a small creek.

The development plan calls for consolidating parking into a multilevel garage and using the land for six apartment buildings and 65 townhomes with a mix of rentals, for-sale homes and senior living opportunities. A minimum of 250 apartments would be “workforce rental units,” designated for households making 60-80% of the area median income.

Baltimore will redesign Wabash Avenue, which separates the Metro station and the site of the future apartments, to make it more pedestrian friendly. Preliminary design concepts from a 2023 study of Wabash Avenue from Reisterstown Plaza to the West Coldspring Metro show a new pedestrian crosswalk, the removal of a westbound travel lane and the addition of a separated, two-way bike lane.

Two escalators inside a small structure that says "METRO" at the top with a black and red vertical sign out front indicating it is located at Reisterstown Plaza.
The pedestrian bridge connecting the Reisterstown Plaza Metro station and the park-and-ride lot lacks an elevator. (Daniel Zawodny / The Baltimore Banner)

A nearly $5 million federal grant from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure package would propel some of that work, U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen said this week.

One other notable change: The pedestrian bridge over Wabash Avenue may come down. Lacking an elevator, it is not wheelchair accessible. And the elevator at the only other station entrance, across Wabash Avenue, is inoperable and awaiting maintenance.

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The community surrounding the station is increasingly diverse, and the development plan would connect more people to community assets, said Tony Bridges, assistant state secretary for transportation equity and engagement. A library, gym, grocery store and multiple government services buildings are within walking distance of the Metro station.

The development is “in line with what the community’s priorities are,” and developers will continue to collaborate with neighbors, said Bridges, a former state delegate.

Baltimore has trailed other cities, including Washington, in building transit-oriented development because the city lacks the comprehensive rapid transit network to make living near a transit station attractive, said Klaus Philipsen, an architect and urban planner who worked on the design and engineering of the region’s light rail line. Making Reisterstown Plaza work would require a “new market paradigm,” he said — in other words, build enough stuff and reverse the trend of population loss.

“You have to break out of this cycle … on both ends. We have to improve on the transit system, and we have to improve on TOD and land-use policies at the same time,” Philipsen said. He thinks the state finally has the right vision, but doing it successfully will be a heavy lift.

Baltimore’s Metro and its younger cousin, the light rail, were designed with commuters in mind — that meant parking lots, not stores, stops, destinations. “It’s just indicative of the thought process to what transit was back in the ’70s and ’80s, and now there’s a rethinking that … in order for transit to be successful, you have to develop around it to give people the opportunities to live and work and access it,” said David Zaidain, chief of real estate and transit-oriented development for the Maryland Department of Transportation.

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Big investments are coming for the Metro and light rail lines. With federal help, the state is replacing the aging fleet of both rail lines’ train cars over the next decade. Maryland needs those investments to “work harder for us,” Zaidain said, both to entice riders and to help with the state’s climate goals.

Transportation, driven mostly by emissions from personal vehicles, is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas pollution in Maryland. People hopping on trains and living closer to stuff means less driving, which translates to cleaner air.

Ridership across Maryland Transit Administration vehicles has slowly climbed back to pre-pandemic levels since taking a nosedive in March and April 2020; the system had nearly 5 million riders in April, the most recent month for which data was available.

Baltimore’s Metro has averaged about 424,000 riders per month this year. It saw record-low ridership in July 2023, after an electrical fire caused a multiday shutdown.

Convincing those who have left the Metro behind and hopped into cars could be tough. Some longtime Metro riders have been dismayed by service cuts like last year’s shutdown; some have felt less safe, reporting an increase over time of people smoking or using drugs on the train and other adverse experiences.

Hallie Miller contributed to this story