October 1, 2008

Owings Mills: Transit Dis-oriented Development

Owings Mills is precisely the wrong way to conduct development planning around a transit station.
The photo above tells the story. It shows the large fence that separates the Owings Mills Metro station in the background, just to the left of the huge new 2900 car parking garage, from the Owings Mills Town Center shopping mall. The sign informs you after walking through the oceans of parking that surround the mall, that you cannot get to the Metro station. You must turn around and walk back to a bus stop in the parking lot to catch a bus instead. You must do this in spite of the fact that when you see the sign, you are about as close to the Metro station (as the crow flies) as you are to the bus stop. The bus must take an extremely circuitous path around the fence onto the wayward suburban street system which then only eventually gets you back to the Metro station.

With the way the fence and signs are set up, you'd think this was the border between East and West Berlin, circa 1963. Achtung, baby !!!!! The signs tell you to take the M-9 bus, which doesn't even exist anymore. It has been replaced by two routes, the 56 and 59, which meander around the northwest suburbs and thus cannot be assured of getting to the mall at any particular time. On Saturday, the big mall shopping day, they each run about every 35 minutes.

The young lady shown in the picture above has decided to walk instead of waiting for the bus. There are no sidewalks, so she walks along the dirt path between Red Run Boulevard and the guard rail. This is the same route the bus takes, and the only road between the mall and the transit station that is so enticingly close when seen through the weeds and fence at the "No Trespassing" sign.

The mall at Owings Mills is hurting badly. The Boscov's department store just closed up, joining a long line of tenants before it. The boarded up stores in Owings Mills strongly resemble those of the Hunt Valley and Golden Ring malls, built around the same time in the '70s and '80s, which have succumbed to the wrecking ball.

Ironically, development in Owings Mills has boomed everywhere EXCEPT near the Metro transit station. Development patterns are almost the precise inverse of what they ought to be. The prime land nearest to the transit station has been devoted exclusively to parking, while the major development has been located far in the distance. The photo above shows the transit station sandwiched between the lanes of Interstate 795. Looking north is one of the huge parking lots serving the station, and well beyond comfortable walking distance from the station is a large office building.

The location of this office building on Painters Mill Road is particularly egregious, since it required the demolition of the historic Samuel Owings House, a gracious 18th century mansion where the community's namesake lived. When knocked down, this house was no abandoned hulk - it had recently housed a very fine restaurant. Its demolition was solely a result of thoughtless planning.

The success of rail transit lines is crucially dependent on supporting top land values adjacent to its stations. If this land is not supremely valued, it is a demonstration that the transit line isn't sufficiently valued either. Free surface parking is the most conspicuous indicator of low land values. When 180 square feet of land (plus aisles, islands and driveways) is devoted to the parking of one car - often parked all day and with no revenue generated - it shows that transit is not highly valued. This is true whether or not the occupant of that car is using the transit line or not. Rail transit cannot generate sufficient ridership to justify itself from surface parking alone. Only a steady stream of walk-in and feeder bus patrons can justify a rail line. When all the development which may generate transit riders is located off in the distance, beyond the fences and seas of parking, that is an inevitable sign of failure.


James Rouse, Baltimore's favorite son of land development, is widely celebrated for his creation of Columbia, the planned city of 100,000 between Baltimore and Washington. Starting in the 1960s, Rouse's vision was of a new community which he said would nurture human development as well as land development.

But basically, Columbia was built on the same premises as his later development in Owings Mills - a large network of meandering low density suburban streets and green buffer strips with a big suburban shopping mall in the middle. Yes, Columbia was built starting about two decades earlier when '60s "Great Society" optimism allowed such utopian hyperbole, along with cringe-worthy street names like Whispering Hobbit's Garth.

Rouse's Columbia largely succeeded on its own terms, thanks partly to a sufficiently large market of house hunters who were willing to buy into the dream, but mostly just due to the sustained red-hot real estate market between two cities that were rapidly sprawling into each other anyway.

But Rouse's Columbia dream ended. We know this because the later phases of Columbia look nothing like the earlier ones, and instead closely resemble all the other suburban development which has taken place in the Baltimore-Washington area since that time. To paraphrase former Maryland governor and vice president Spiro T. Agnew, "if you've seen one suburbia, you've seen them all."

Just compare the self consciously '60s utopian original Columbia neighborhoods of Wilde Lake and Oakland Mills with what came later - the isolated low density single family mansionettes of River Hill and the sprawling big box stores along Snowden River Parkway. Then listen to the controversies about perceived low public school performance in multi-class Wilde Lake and compare it to the "fine reputation" of schools in high income River Hill.

Rouse tried to do the same things in Owings Mills as he did in Columbia, but without the "Great Society" hype or the super high powered suburban proximity to Washington DC, it just hasn't turned out the same. The mall in Owings Mills is dieing, and the houses are merely a "product", not sellable as a lifestyle or a profound shaper of human growth.

Downtown Columbia was built around a man-made lake, giving it a waterfront focal point near the mall. Owings Mills was originally intended to be built around a lake too. They even named the main residential spine Lakeside Boulevard. But Owings Mills was built too late for a man-made lake. Environmental regulations, which had grown up during the time between Columbia and Owings Mills, prevented the land from being flooded out to build the lake. Owings Mills therefore lacks the kind of waterfront focal point associated with Columbia's identity.

But it is little known that Owings Mills has a man-made lake anyway. Just a few feet away from where that young lady in the previous picture was walking along Red Run Boulevard, and probably unbeknownst to her, sits the lake shown above. Ironically, while the environmental regulations that grew up after Columbia prevented a lake from being built from a flooded stream in Owings Mills, the regulations mandated that the polluted run-off from its vast the parking lots be detained. The resultant lake is virtually invisible from anywhere people are likely to be, and is merely a biproduct of the low densities that caused the vast surface parking lots to be built in the first place. And moreover, it is the low densities that allow this lake to be so ignored rather than used. The lake is allowed to stagnate, along with the transit station and the mall.


Fortunately, the first steps have been taken to repair the sprawled splintered fragmentation of Owings Mills. Ironically, the State has done what is does best - it has built a new 2900 car parking garage serving the transit station, shown behind the lake in the above photo.

Yes, the last thing the transit station needed was more free parking, giving people yet another excuse not to walk or ride the bus lines. But the parking garage was part of a larger plan to replace the huge surface parking lots surrounding the station with higher density people-oriented uses that would end the isolation of the station.

This plan was controversial among the residents of the surrounding areas who already consider themselves strangled by suburban growth and see all development as only lead to yet more traffic, more congestion and more sprawl. This kind of opposition demonstrates how the suburban residents have already given up on the dream of a calmer transit-oriented lifestyle, despite the huge billion dollar plus investment in transit. MTA credibility is low. At best, they see the lovely architects renderings of future buildings and shiny happy people as a kind of movie-set, unrelated to how Owings Mills really functions.

In any event, the MTA has found it much easier to build the new parking garage than the new development. It started with legal problems, where the MTA discovered that it had put language into its original contracts whereby the land was supposed to be returned to its original owners if it was no longer used for transit. The MTA folks who drew up the original contracts just didn't see that land surrounding a transit station always had everything to do with transit itself.

Then of course, there is the economy. Parking in the new garage is free, so it inherently defies the laws of economics that put a price on everything. But new development must be subject to those same laws of economics, which have restrained the kind of exuberant real estate development that occurred until recently.

The shopping mall, now run by General Growth Properties which bought out the Rouse Company, has been somewhat more successful at filling the land density gap. They have developed new medium density people-scaled housing around part of the periphery of the shopping mall parking lot, just beyond the ring road. As shown above, the bus stop for the mall now relates more to the new housing than to the mall itself, barely shown in the upper left corner of the photo beyond the parking lot.

The bus stop and the rail station are as isolated from the mall as ever, but the new housing shows that at least the first step in the integration process has been made.


The MTA plan to eventually redevelop the surface parking lots around the rail transit station is nice, but it is not the key to fixing the problem. The crucial task is to make the transit station the activity focal point for all of Owings Mills.

The first step in such a repair job is to extend the small two lane street which now runs along the front of the new housing in the mall parking lot, shown in the photo above. The defunct Boscov's department store is seen in the background just beyond the north end of this street. This photo was taken at exactly the same location as the "No Trespassing" sign shown in the first photo of this article.

This street needs to be extended precisely through that "No Trespassing" sign, down the hill, through the steel fence and then through the MTA parking lot to the rail transit station. It's a straight shot from the mall, past the houses, to the transit station. The boundaries between these uses needs to be obliterated.

This photo shows this path in an aerial view from the top of the new transit station parking garage, through the parking lot to the new housing, with the mall and several high rise office buildings in the background. Again, this illustrates how the development patterns emanating away from the transit station have been totally backwards from the way they should be, with asphalt wastelands in the foreground and actual development farther away.

The new street would proceed between the new housing on the right and the cinema multi-plex just to its left. Eventually, the cinema-plex would need to be eliminated and be replaced by higher intensity development which would be an attractor instead of a barrier. The cinema-plex could be moved into the mall itself, where it would compliment the retail activity.

The objective would be to create an "organic" development pattern. The streets and the transit station itself would become the structure upon which human activity patterns would sort themselves out according to what people want.

Retail tastes come and go. Boscov's has been criticized by retail analysts as representing an obsolete business model for how a retail operation should be run - similar to other long failed local department store chains including Hutzler's, Hochschild Kohn, Hecht's, Stewart's and Brager Gutman. Boscov's was originally attracted to Owings Mills because the mall represented the same kind of outmoded retail model. While shoppers are increasingly attracted to big box stores such as Wal-Mart, Target and especially the internet, Boscov's and Owings Mills have been going down with the ship together.

Another example of this inflexible vision is the Owings Mills Restaurant Park, located just beyond the mall on Red Run Boulevard. Instead of locating these restaurants within the developments that serve many of the people who would eat there, they located the restaurants off of a single highway intersection dedicated exclusively to them. Columbia has a similar restaurant park located on a cul-de-sac off Route 108 near Snowden River Parkway.

This highlights the problem with traditional "planned" developments in places like Columbia and Owings Mills. They are planned according to a specific vision, and when that vision fails, everyone goes down with it. Great plans don't mold people and businesses to adhere to one type of activity or lifestyle. Great plans are merely a flexible framework built around broad proven concepts.

Even the sainted James Rouse was not capable of anticipating all the needs and wants of all the people all the time. Even James Rouse could not get people to conform to his enlightened vision forever.

The rail transit station must be the focal point for all of Owings Mills, instead of being just a bunch of big parking lots with big access driveways off of Painters Mill Road. The Owings Mall must not be just a mall, but must be an integrated multi-use development serving all types of activity.

Development of all types should not be isolated into pods, each with their own isolated access points. Eventually, all of Owings Mills must be integrated into a unified whole.

The map above, posted by the MTA at the Owings Mills Metro station, makes it painfully obvious what the problem is. The transit station is totally disconnected from everything.

Perhaps the most glaring indication of this is the massive size of the interchange with Interstate 795. The interchange occupies more land than the transit line and the mall combined. Such a huge interchange is not needed in order to accommodate all the traffic. As a matter of fact, modern traffic engineering has discovered that more traffic can be accommodated by tight single point interchanges than by huge sweeping ramps that create dangerous high speed merging and weaving situations.

As gigantic as this interchange is, it cannot handle all of the expressway's traffic needs. The State Highway Administration has been planning to build another new interchange to the north at Dolfield Road to accommodate even more traffic than can be handled by this one, even though the two points are connected by a service drive right along side I-795.

Eventually, the real solution will be to rebuild the Owings Mills interchange as a tight single point design, to free up a huge amount of land and ensure that the transit station is the area's true focal point - not the interchange.

Much more new development is also needed in the immeidate area, instead of sprawling ever outward into the countryside. The stormwater lake just south of the transit station and east of the mall, which isn't even shown on the map, would make a great setting for new urban development.
As with suburbs everywhere, the existing designs for roads, interchanges, parking lots, and even stormwater lakes and everything else, are based on cheap land. But a multi-billion dollar rail transit system cannot be compatible with cheap land.

It's time to begin to reinvent Owings Mills.


  1. Gerry, is this the kind of interchange you're talking about?

  2. The case you present is of amazingly neglectful "planning". It seems the model here is still "one person, one car", and get that car as close to the destination as possible...at the expense of sound land use policies or "as the crow flies" connectivity. You appear to be spot on: someone needs to take an aerial view, connect the dots, then break down the barriers and grow from (and, most important, AT) the center.

  3. Does that interchange design allow ped/bike crossing? If not, then perhaps the tight-diamond or some other design should be preferred.
    Allowing free-right turns is not compatible with ped/bike safety.
    The fallacy that people only acccess a place in a car should be eschewed in intersection design also.

  4. Yes, Drew, a single point interchange is basically the state of the art, such as you've shown and as was recently built nearby at the Beltway and Reisterstown Road.

    Single point interchanges do work better for peds and bikes crossing the ramps than any other comparable design, because all turning movements from the ramps occur during a single signal phase, so that the straight green phase can therefore be as long as possible. As long as the peds and bikes are traveling along that road, they work well.

  5. Gerry,

    I am not sure things are getting better. The parking garage looks like a big barrier between the station and the mail and Future development on the MTA surface lot. Will anyone see the station from these locations? Take a look at your photos from the mail. I can only see the parking garage. You will have to walk through the garage to get to the mall and development on the MTA surface lots.

    I always thought that the high speed interchange was for a future US 29 extended. Makes a nice outer beltway US 29 to MD 100 and connect two of Rouses properties.

  6. Thanks for doing something on development in the County. The city is extremely important, but with more people living in the County than the City right now, the county must not be ignored. I'd like to make one correction though. The TOD at the subway station is on hold not because of the MTA but because of a disagreement between Baltimore County and Howard Brown over the cost of a building for the Community College.

  7. As a shopper at Owings Mills Mall for 15 years and now an employee of the mall what is failed to be mentioned in the articial is that most consumers/vendors do not want contact with Baltimore City. The money is in the County not the City. Gangs/Crimes are being brought into the county by the transit system, dont believe me go see a movie Fri/Sat night. No one uses the MTA other than work and back or the occasional sports game. The MTA stops running before the bars close and has a feeling of danger at night. Owings Mills would be better with out the Metro station, simple.

  8. Thanks, Max. I have no reason to doubt anything you say. But the time to decide whether it is a good strategy to intentionally restrict the mobility of poor city folks should be BEFORE we spend over a billion dollars on a transit line.

    Once we decide build it, we need to make it work. You'll notice that in my blog, I greatly emphasize using transit to improve CITY mobility because transit works better in the City than in the suburbs for many reasons. Max, you give an illustration of why.

    We need to go through this same process with the Red Line. It's not enough to just say that Owings Mills is somehow different from Woodlawn. Once we decide to spend a billion dollar plus on a transit line, we need to make it work. We shouldn't build it to fail.

    Greg, thanks for the update. The MTA's problems with the original land contracts are old news and the community college issue is apparently newer.

  9. Gerald,

    I really enjoy reading your ideas on here and also have a few of my own for the blog that I hope you can go into at some point.

    1. I grew up in the area and have moved back after living and working in major cities around the country and overseas. Using this perspective it's more clear to me now than ever what an awful job of planning the City does. We all know that there are plenty of problems afflicting this area but the decisions the City Planners make strike me as often astonishingly bad, and sometimes even counterproductive to the point of making matters worse - take Howard Street and the Light Rail Corridor for instance. So basically, seeing that you have experience working with the City, I'm curious as to your take on why the planning is so bad. What are the problems here within the bureaucracy and how do you recommend fixing them? If you need to do an ongoing series of posts on this I'm sure we'll all understand.

    2. I recognize this is a hot potato, but the poster above who comments on "gangs" coming out on the Subway is very representative of white suburban fears regarding public transit. It seems these sort of sociological issues are avoided here on your blog. But they are integral to the political decisions about public transportation in Maryland. I was wondering if you could venture into this a bit more in order to enhance the discussion.

  10. Thanks, New Perspective... I try to comment on anything when I think I can say something truly constructive, but I want to stay within my expertise. I'm a transportation planner, not a government analyst or sociologist, so I don't have all the answers regarding those questions. My short answer would be that transit must be truly superior for people to use it by choice. If it is perceived as second rate (or 4th or 10th), people won't use it unless they have to, and then all those bureaucratic and sociological issues will come to the fore, as they often do in B'more. Being first rate doesn't even mean spending a lot of money - it just means making transit indispensible. The MTA, GBC, City etc. want to spend plenty of money on the Red Line, but a new subway tunnel that doesn't even connect to the existing underused subway or the Inner Harbor isn't going to cut it.

  11. If something is not done with the thwarted development, issues w/the mall, and gang problems (it's not just a racial thing - bloods and crips are alive & well in our area unfortunately), this will continue to effect our community. I hope additional solutions are created to turn things around.

  12. New Daddy in Owings MillsDecember 30, 2008 at 9:05 AM

    Boy, I want to thank the writer for highlighting the issues with Owings Mills development. I've lived here for two years now and I really feel that it's a nowhere place. When I say that I mean that there is nowhere I can easily take my daughter to walk around, meet other people, do a little shopping, get an ice cream, read a paper, etc. It's my belief that the development patterns here inherently breed suburban fears about crime and encroachment. Everything is separated by busy roads to make it more difficult for the non-car-owning lower class to have access to our own precious mini-mansions. But the upshot is that life is much more difficult for everybody, everyone is more isolated, Owings Mills is a frustrating and disorienting. Particularly, Reisterstown Road is a drag strip between big-box stores, and an especially demoralizing and dangerous place to be a pedestrian (though many people have no other choice.)

    I agree the comparison to Columbia is a telling one. I've lived in Columbia as well, and there, the green buffer zones are covered with hiking and pedestrian paths that connect places. Columbia has town centers that really do make good focal points for community - I wouldn't belittle the utopian aspirations that motivated them.

    I agree friday and saturday nights, Owings Mills malls and movie theaters are sketchy. I never take my wife there - we drive into the city for movies at the Charles or the Landmark.

  13. I grew up in Owings Mills and remember a lot if buisnesses opening and then closing. I remember there being an abandoned miniture golf course and gas station at Rosewood lane for along time. If you look far enough back in Owings MILLS history everything just dies there. Anyone remember Franks nursery and crafts on Reisterstown road? That was a grocery store originally. Way before there was a colts training center there was a brewery on that spot. So to me everything goes there to die

  14. An interesting article. Have you ever heard of Henry George?

    Better planning is certainly a part of the puzzle, but if the Georgist solution were available (higher taxes on land value - lower taxes on improvement (bldgs) value) there would be incentives that would directly dove-tail with better planning choices you envision.

    Right now, Baltimore County and, in fact, all counties are prohibited from splitting its property tax into its components (land value tax and bldg/improvement value tax) and gradually implementing the Georgist solution notwithstanding Art. 15 of the Md. Declaration of Rights which contemplated counties having this right.

    JDK, former Bd member Henry George Foundation of America.

    PS was just at the Mall for first time in many years this weekend -- like a ghost town.

  15. You can walk around the fence on the right side (coming from the metro station).

  16. Transit safety improves when there is a large public presence. when shoppers and businesses are present less crime occurs. Also, a new idea is emerging about the cause of crime being brought to suburban areas via transit. That it isn't transit but the large swaths of vacant unwatched parking lots. Take a look at Arundel Mills mall. This development always angers me. The mall was built as a 1 story warehouse. It's not accessible unless your willing to hike a mile or two. Then, the parking resembles Owings Mills. Large swaths of blacktop. Mondawmin mall suffers this problem too. while the redevelopment is nice... they failed to make integrate the mall with the metro stop. and there's still large swaths of unused parking lots. The key is to make metro stations lively. The more people present the less likely crime is to occur.Parking lots are ok in moderation. but large vacant ones provide a perfect place for drug deals and other shady dealings.

  17. Theres nothing to do in owings mills. Reiserstown. Anywhere around here. The younger ones have nothing to do but look for trouble. We need to build spots for teens to hang out or do activities. If not, then you can keep dealing with the crime. Choice is yours

  18. Gerald, the missing link (which has been closed for over 20 years) between the Owings Mills Mall and the Metro station is an interesting story that you and your viewers may enjoy:

    In the mid 1980s, Owings Mills was developing as a new community. By the end of the decade, a highway and metro "subway" had been built to the area, to bypass the congested Liberty and Reisterstown Roads. Also, a new mall, Owings Mills Mall was constructed near the final stop of the Baltimore Metro. The mall and metro stop were just a mile apart, but the mall owner refused to have a direct stop to access the metro. Instead, a shuttle bus (the M9) ran between the destinations, operated by the Maryland MTA.

    In addition, a walking path between the two was constructed. This path was about one mile in length and made the trip via unused parking lots and a cut through some vegetation. Though lit, it was secluded, the middle invisible from either end due to elevation. On a September night in 1992, an employee of Saks Fifth Avenue was murdered on her way to the Metro from the mall. This eventually caused the path to be closed in November 1992, which is the origin of the signs and fences Gerald mentions in his article.

    The murder was eventually caught and sentenced, but the community was scared by this event and some locals would argue it would be the catalyst for the end of the mall's popularity.

    I wrote up this story on storify with links to 1992 Baltimore Sun articles, and maps showing the path in 1996. Check it out at http://storify.com/TalllGuy/owings-mills-mall-metro-path

  19. I've attempted to walk in Owings Mills. When we got an apartment here, we expected to be able to walk to the Metro--only to have no way to easily cross Owings Mills Blvd. Then my son got old enough for school, but there are no continuous sidewalks from our apartment to the elementary school. This area desperately needs to be more pedestrian-friendly.