Plans for Lutherville-Timonium redevelopment, transit spur opposition in Baltimore County

Published on: January 03, 2023 6:00 AM EST|Updated on: January 03, 2023 2:36 PM EST

Photo collage showing crossed-out light rail train and new apartment building, plus sign protesting new apartments, with a map of proposed bus rapid transit line to Lutherville in the background.
Our nonprofit news organization is made possible by subscribers and donors who value storytelling that impacts and uplifts communities. Thank you for supporting our journalism.

Plans to redevelop an aging Lutherville-Timonium shopping center and potentially build a new mass transit connection to Baltimore are dividing the Baltimore County enclave over concerns about growth and community.

Schwaber Holdings CEO Mark Renbaum submitted an application in September for state designation as a transit-oriented development for a mixed-used redevelopment project building apartments, retail and office space dubbed Lutherville Station at the Ridgely Road shopping center with the same name. Renbaum wants to ride the headwind of local elected officials’ enthusiasm for more investment in Baltimore’s neglected transit system, using a plan floated by the Greater Baltimore Committee as a springboard.

Some of those who live in communities closest to the Lutherville railway station say they support efforts to make transit more accessible and to redevelop the area into an attractive commuter destination. But they’re worried they may be drowned out by members of the Greater Timonium Community Council, an umbrella group that represents more than 50 neighborhood associations.

The project has drawn the ire of hundreds of people who have signed petitions, written letters to elected leaders, protested at meetings with transit officials and picketed Renbaum’s proposal with signs warning “NO APARTMENTS, NO COMPROMISE.”

Baltimore-area transit advocates aim to put Maryland on strong footing to compete for a new tranche of $39.2 billion in federal funding, and Gov.-elect Wes Moore wants to restart major transit projects. State transportation officials are energized too, recently releasing seven potential north-south routes to create commuter-friendly connections by bus rapid transit or rail lines between commercial hubs in Baltimore County and Baltimore.

“I’m not gonna suggest that nothing should happen there [the shopping center site] — that would be a waste,” Greater Timonium Community Council president Eric Rockel said of Renbaum’s plan to build 400 apartments, an 800-car garage and office and retail space on the 13-acre property.

“But certainly,” he said, the hundreds of proposed apartments, 200,000 square feet of retail space, and 17,000 square feet of office buildings “is quite a lot on that piece of property,” he said.

Detractors say the scale of the project would snarl traffic where Ridgley intersects with York Road, increase school overcrowding in an area where schools are already nearing or over capacity, and spur a proliferation of rental units in the area.

“If the housing population is more transient,” Rockel said, “there’s going to be less of a sense of that development fitting in with the greater community. And it’s sort of gonna be an island in and of itself.”

Renbaum bought the property in foreclosure two years ago for $9 million.

To redevelop Lutherville Station, Renbaum needs the support of Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., who has not signaled whether he supports the project, and 3rd District Councilman Wade Kach, who is against it, to rezone the property formerly anchored by now-defunct stores like Borders and Caldor.

Sign Up for Alerts
Get notified of need-to-know
info from The Banner

Renbaum, who declined an interview through a spokesman, also needs county leaders’ endorsement of his application to the Maryland Department of Transportation for designation as a transit-oriented development, or TOD, to access state dollars reserved for designing and building new mixed-use projects within a half-mile of transit stations.

In a statement, county spokeswoman Erica Palmisano said Olszewski “is aware” of the Lutherville Station opposition “and intends on engaging relevant departments as well as the council member on this effort as more information becomes available.”

Renbaum argues that the project can capitalize on the shopping center’s proximity to the Lutherville rail line, Interstate 83 and Maryland Transit Administration routes on York Road, which the Pikesville developer estimates would create 800 jobs and infuse $228.5 million into an area that’s gone largely overlooked by commercial developers. A consultant for the project estimated it would pump $11.2 million in local and state revenues.

If Lutherville Station is granted the TOD, Rockel wrote in an email to Greater Timonium Community Council members, “it may set an important and unfortunate precedent that the county will find ways to promote all sorts of higher density housing in our midst.”

“For example,” Rockel wrote, “an affordable housing work group appointed by the county executive is already on record supporting the concept of multifamily housing being allowed by right in all shopping centers around the county.”

To Klaus Philipsen, president of architectural design firm ArchPlan Inc., those fears “are all smoke screens.”

“The arguments against transit and against apartments are completely interchangeable,” said Philipsen, an urban planner. “There is this pervasive notion that people that use transit are poor, majority-Black, and undesirable — that’s what people think.

“This is classism and racism,” he said.

Rockel said in an interview that characterization “disturbed” him.

“We have a very integrated community; we accept all people of all races and creeds. That’s not what we’re talking about here,” he said. “We’re talking about over-development — about injecting an urban element into a suburban area,” bringing dense housing and less green space, Rockel said.

Census data show about 80% of residents in the area around the proposed development are white with a similar percentage of residents owning their home. About 90% of workers drive to work or work from home, while just 1% use transit to get to jobs.

In the [Baltimore] county, there’s definitely a land shortage, because they have protected the rural areas. But anybody that deals with this question of where growth should be accommodated has to face the piper.

—   Klaus Philipsen, president of architectural design firm ArchPlan Inc.

MTA north-south light rail options

The transit and development dispute comes as regional business leaders — worried that current systems are inadequate — are urging the state to develop plans to better connect the city and county.

The Greater Baltimore Committee and Greater Washington Partnership are lobbying Maryland Department of Transportation officials to “proceed with all haste” in the coming year to secure new federal transit dollars, urging them to solidify draft proposals between Baltimore and Baltimore County, based on MTA’s North-South Transit Corridor Study.

In June, the consortia of Baltimore and Washington business and nonprofit leaders, which promote economic development strategies and policies in the greater metropolitan area, released a white paper calling for state investment over a decade to expand regional transit access for the first time in a quarter-century.

Cementing plans for a new north-south transit corridor is among their recommendations, as well as expanding rapid-bus services, fostering transit-oriented development, and reinvesting in an east-west line through Baltimore.

Building out a “high-quality” transit corridor between the city and central Baltimore County “will improve the economic vitality of the Baltimore region’s businesses, create jobs, and bolster career and educational opportunities for our region’s residents,” according to Greater Baltimore.

The existing light rail line has stops at the Maryland state fairgrounds and on Warren and Gilroy roads and Hunt Valley — stops not well-connected to York Road’s commercial artery, which Maryland transportation officials want to change.

Droves of Baltimore County residents have protested three of the ideas floated by the Maryland Transit Administration in September — particularly the prospect of connecting either Lutherville or Towson to University of Maryland Medical Center by way of a line connecting to the Lutherville light rail station or rapid bus service along York Road and Greenmount Avenue. Another option is to connect Lutherville to Otterbein via rail line running through Goucher and Loch Raven boulevards.

The Maryland Transit Administration, which has not committed funding for the draft proposals, estimates it could foot a bill between $1.3 billion and $4 billion to build one of the new Lutherville rail lines, or pay up to $600 million for bus rapid transit.

Decades of underinvestment have led to the Baltimore area transit system’s deterioration, according to the white paper. Rockel believes its decline has been driven by poor ridership that’s brought in less-than-expected fare money, which funds system maintenance. He doubts state estimations that another connection to the Lutherville light rail station would be used by some 4,000 riders.

But some Lutherville-Timonium transit supporters, like Valley Garth Association president Emily Brown, say that transit opponents’ concerns seem mired in fear that a new north-south transit route would “bring people into our community that they didn’t want to see,” Brown said.

“It’s not as though a development like this wouldn’t affect us to some extent,” Brown, who lives in a neighborhood near the shopping center, said.

“But you can’t look at the short term discomfort of seeing growth occur and have that change your mind on what — or what not — or when to do something.”

Baltimore regional planners have to ‘face the piper’

As metropolitan areas across the U.S. pivot from the decades-long practice of building out single-family home subdivisions across undeveloped land, Philipsen, a prominent Baltimore urban planner, said Baltimore County is still struggling to move away from an outdated growth model that’s eaten up green space and perpetuated socioeconomic and racial disparities between those who live in Baltimore and its suburban counterpart.

“The big picture is really that we have not enough land and we don’t have enough housing,” according to Philipsen, who was the project manager for the architectural firm that designed the central light rail line in the early 1990s.

“Anybody that deals with this question of ‘where growth should be accommodated’ has to face the piper,” Philipsen said.

Just one-third of the county is served by public utility, and suburban sprawl has reached the fringes of the urban-rural demarcation line, or URDL, which delineates most of the rural 3rd District, which includes Lutherville-Timonium, from areas targeted for development. The line preserves the northern county’s natural resources by hemming development into the central, western and eastern districts, where about 90% of county residents live.

Olszewski’s administration has shown an appetite to improve public transportation, but the Central Maryland Transit Alliance said the county’s focus on building out locally operated micro transit systems — such as the Towson Loop buses — runs the risk of creating “a confusing patchwork of transit services in the region that are not fully integrated.”

But building political will to turn the tide on suburban sprawl — and inequities that such land use practices have foisted upon low-income and Black residents — is proving difficult in Baltimore County, where the council’s heavy hand in approving large-scale development, often opposed by constituents, has politicized growth management.

Kach, a Republican who represents Lutherville-Timonium, and first-term Democratic Councilman Mike Ertel have told constituents they’re opposed to the north-south service options.

State Sen. Chris West, who represents Towson and Lutherville-Timonium, has pledged to “do everything I can to deter” the construction of a new York Road rail line, which he said would turn “our suburban neighborhood streets into traffic arteries.”

“Building a second light rail line a short stroll from the existing line will just double-down on failure,” West wrote in a Dec. 21 letter emailed to constituents.

Instead, West said, he’ll work with transportation officials “to modernize the existing bus service” along York Road, where existing MTA service often carries the most commuters in the entire system each year.

But some Lutherville-Timonium residents, like Brown of the Valley Garth Association, say pains are necessary for growth. Supporters of proposals to improve transit access agree with Philipsen and see transit-oriented development as a new — and inevitable — guiding principle for jurisdictions where growth outmatches available land.

And they place a high value on the need for a robust Baltimore regional transit system to undo the effects of land use decisions that historically have constrained low-income city residents, particularly those who are Black, from finding work opportunities and housing beyond Baltimore’s borders.

“If we want to have businesses in our community, we need to create an environment where people who work in those businesses can live here, too — and who don’t need to be reliant upon cars and vehicles to get places,” Brown said.

“What they’re [opponents] saying is that public transit makes a suburban community into a city,” Brown said. “And all my experience says it doesn’t make it into a city. It makes it into a thriving community.”

Philipsen said he’s hopeful that Olszewski, who has signaled that transit is a priority for his administration, will honor his pledge to build on those initiatives in his second term.

In July, Olszewski spoke about the need to collaborate with partners in Baltimore City and neighboring counties to build the “world-class transit system” residents deserve, he said.

“As a region, we need to align behind the few key initiatives that together, we can make substantial progress [on],” Olszewski said in a video produced by the Greater Baltimore Committee, a business advocacy organization dedicated to spurring broader economic growth.

“Now is the time for better transit in the greater Baltimore area,” he declared.