Putting the urban in suburban: Developers harvest the best of city living
Baltimore Business Journal | Melody Simmons
BALTIMORE, MD (November 10, 2017) — The sign on a set of new houses for sale in White Marsh reads “urban-inspired.” To the developer, it’s one way to entice buyers with a bit of city life in the middle of what once was barren hinterlands in eastern Baltimore County.
But look closer. Homes in Greenleigh at Crossroads are even nicknamed after Baltimore landmarks: There’s the Lexington, the Federal Hill and the Mount Vernon models.
“It’s suburban living re-imagined,” said Dave Murphy, vice president of Elm Street Development, a residential builder at the 200-acre Greenleigh development.
It’s also part of a growing trend.
In Greater Baltimore, the urban-suburban vibe is evident on a map, appearing like spokes of a wheel: Greenleigh in White Marsh, Metro Centre in Owings Mills, Downtown Columbia, Maple Lawn in Howard County, and Annapolis Towne Centre in Anne Arundel County to name a few. The projects are marked by dense residential, office, retail and social hamlets and have taken on their own distinct personalities with block parties, holiday fireworks, farmer’s markets and sporting events.
The urban-suburban motif has taken root as part of a reinvention of the suburbs over the past decade. It is part of a rush to create communities in newer, safer and bucolic surroundings laden with the convenience, creativity and energy of an established urban core.
“Sometimes it’s referred to as the new urbanism,” said Stephen Walters, an economics professor at the Loyola University Sellinger School of Business whose 2014 book “Boom Towns: Restoring the Urban American Dream” detailed it.
At Greenleigh, asphalt ribbons are being carved into former open space in a grid that looks straight out of Roland Park.
“It has all the elements of the urban environment without the negatives of the urban environment,” said Neil Greenberg, chief operating officer of Somerset Construction, a partner in the $750 million development.
He ticked off a list of so-called benefits: “It’s less expensive, there’s a whole lot less crime, you don’t have to worry about parking your car, there’s not the vandalism. And everything is new.
“It looks like when Baltimore was originally built a long time ago.”
The first residents will move into Greenleigh after Thanksgiving, said Richard Williamson, senior vice president of St. John Properties, another development partner.
A year from now, Williamson added, there will be a bustling social structure centered on a town square now being created just off Route 43. Already, a Class A office building is 90 percent leased there, a new hotel is underway, and retail and restaurants are thriving. Soon, the popular restaurant and bar Michaels will expand to its second location there from Timonium.
“We’re going to have real density here,” Williamson said.
About 40 miles away, Maple Lawn is already well-established.
Developers Stewart Greenebaum and his son, Michael, were among the visionaries behind the 600-acre, $1 billion project carved into farmland in rural Fulton beginning in 2003.
Tidy townhomes and single-family houses line dozens of manicured, wide streets there today. Thousands live in the 1,400 homes and families take advantage of the development’s open space, community center, athletic fields, retail and restaurants.
Businesses including Raytheon Corp.’s 62,000-square-foot lease, Cisco Systems Inc.’s 100,000-square-foot lease and New Day Financial’s 135,000-square-foot lease have anchored the development’s Class A office space.
“We even have fireworks on the Fourth of July, and the Maryland Half Marathon,” Michael Greenebaum said of the tradition his father started as a way to help cement an urban aura. “There’s a real vibrancy to the area. We treat this like an old town. My dad was all about community. To emulate a city, you have to focus on the interaction.”
The urban-suburban development trend has been studied by academics and land use experts.
“There will always be development downtown but we believe the trend toward new urbanism [is growing],” said Adam Ducker, managing director of Bethesda-based RCL Co. and a consultant to developers and investors looking launch urban-suburban projects.
The trend, Ducker said, is solid because it defies “pricing pressures, regulatory pressures and land availability pressures” of urban projects.
“They have the land capacity and downtown can’t evolve quickly enough to capture all of it,” Ducker said.
To Walters, the Loyola professor, it’s all about updated smart growth.
“It’s good to see because ‘cities’ are really good for us in terms of environmental protection,” Walters said. “When we live in higher density areas, we consume less land.”
In Owings Mills, developer Howard Brown’s Metro Centre offers sprawling block parties in the summer months on Grand Central Avenue as a way to promote a sense of community.
Suburban offices for T. Rowe Price and CareFirst Inc. bring thousands of new workers to the ‘burbs where Brown and other developers like Greenberg Gibbons have created an urban flare with cheaper, yet classy, office and amenity space.
Brown said the benefits are plenty: Parking is abundant — and free. Restaurants and grocery stores like the new Wegmans at Foundry Row are a convenient draw for a younger and middle-age workforce and office rents are less than the average downtown rates of $22 per square foot.
Brown, the chairman of David S. Brown Enterprises Ltd., said the key to a successful urban- suburban development is high density near infrastructure. Metro Centre sits next to a Metro stop and offers a strong transportation component. T. Rowe Price and Stevenson University run regular commuter buses to their campuses from the station.
“Economically, there are more than 5,000 new employees here. It’s the richness of the employee base and the education level of the workers here that attracts workers,” he said. “In the future, you need good judgment of how your employees are going to get to work. Transportation is key.
“They want transportation, food, shopping, living, walking, biking. Everything the city would like you to do, but you can’t,” Brown said. “So why would you be in the city?”
The $2 billion Metro Centre is anchored by a branch of the Baltimore County Public Library and a campus of the Community College of Baltimore County.
It is located off of Interstate 795 and has a 5,000-space parking garage for workers, residents, students and visitors. Next door, the redevelopment of the former Owings Mills Mall is preparing to break ground by Kimco and will hold several big-box stores.
At Metro Centre, Brown is building a new seven-story apartment building with 114 units. He has plans to add another 400 more apartments in the future with millennials and empty nesters in mind.
Brown is also adding assisted living at Metro Centre because he believes seniors want to also live in an urban-suburban area with convenient amenities on a Main Street design. He showed designs for the new apartment building that has an industrial look. It’s another nod to the continuing urban theme, he said.
“The transit-oriented development is part of a learning curve locally,” said Lynn Abeshouse, who leases space for Brown at Metro Centre. That change is driven by the millennials now in the workforce, she added, who prefer TODs and easy access to public transportation.
Cara Erinle, an English professor at Howard Community College, is one example of choosing an urban-suburban lifestyle. She has found bliss living at Maple Lawn for nearly a year after moving from Laurel.
“When I needed to get my car serviced, I walked to drop it off and pick it up. I like having that option,” she said. “When I think of an urban environment, I think of New York and I think of the gorgeous Harlem or Brooklyn brownstones. And I get that sense here.”