Driving by the deserted Pikesville Armory on the 600 block of Reisterstown Road, most people might see an eyesore. But community activists Howard Needle and Mel Mintz see untapped potential that could spark much-needed economic growth.
“We think this can be the gem of Pikesville, something that restores what we feel the area has been losing,” Needle said, as Mintz nodded in agreement.
The two longtime Pikesville residents believe the armory, which hasn’t been used for several years, is symbolic of what has seemed to be a downward shift for the town in recent years.
This area, in the heart of what is known as the Pikesville Commercial Revitalization District, is the first step to remake a community that is at a crossroads.
With vacant storefronts, an aging population and formidable competition from neighboring towns, some say Pikesville has taken a hit. While several mainstays have navigated an uncertain economic climate, the area has looked more like a revolving door, as a collection of locally owned independent businesses have come and gone.
“Without a successful commercial core, if that is allowed to decline, then the surrounding residential neighborhoods will likely decline as well,” Mintz said matter-of-factly as he sat down with Needle to share their vision. “I have seen the change in a lot of neighborhoods that have recognized that this is a link worth enhancing.”
Needle and Mintz point to the closure of Fields of Pikesville in 2012, after 120 years at 1401 Reisterstown Road, as “the turning point.” Gone was the cafe and makeup counter that had long been a draw for patrons of the community staple, replaced by an Advance Auto Parts and other small shops and businesses.
“That was key,” Needle said of Fields’ unfortunate fate.
Since then, Needle and Mintz have joined forces to stem the tide. They felt they could no longer stand by and watch other Pikesville institutions suffer a similar fate after their gathering place and sense of community had been lost.
Needle, 82, and Mintz, 70, have called Pikesville home for 54 and 42 years, respectively, cracking a joke and a smile that they are merely “drifters.” They remember a bustling commercial strip lined with an abundance of dining options and mom-and-pop shops rather than corporate entities.
They both know the area intimately. Mintz pulled out a thick manila folder with typed pages of notes, maps, blueprints and other documents he has complied over the years in an effort to build stronger community ties. He was the first to admit that tackling Pikesville anew with Needle was a task much greater than themselves.
So Needle, a lawyer and former member of the state House of Delegates, and Mintz, a physical therapist and former Baltimore County councilman, devised a plan.
Instead of spending their golden years golfing, fishing on a lake or puttering around their homes, they decided to get back to their political roots and organized.
In 2014, they formed the nonprofit 1000 Friends of Pikesville at the urging of the late Nick Attias, a longtime staunch Pikesville advocate.
“I remember Nick said to me, ‘No one else is doing it, so why don’t you? You’ve done it before,’” Mintz recalled, referring to the 1989 revitalization plan he oversaw as a county councilman. That plan led to the construction of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg House at 16 Old Court Road and a $1 million streetscape beautification along Reisterstown Road, among other amenities.
Now, Mintz said, the stakes are higher.
1000 Friends’ two initial main goals were to attract at least 1,000 members and to pressure Baltimore County officials to come up with a new plan for the commercial revitalization district. Needle and Mintz pounded the pavement, just like their campaign days, and conducted more than 100 meetings with Pikesville stakeholders, through which they gathered input about what residents, families, investors and business owners wanted to see in Pikesville.
Their efforts paid off in May, when 1000 Friends exceeded the 1,000-member plateau and county officials commissioned a three-phase, 18-month study of the area.
“Lot of hard work,” Mintz said with a sense of pride. “All worth it. This is what Pikesville is all about.”
Revitalizing Pikesville will be an uphill battle, but stakeholders contend a little help from the county could put the area on the map.
Whether Pikesville succeeds or fails is closely connected to the armory, Maryland’s second-oldest armory building that opened in 1903 as part of the National Guard’s expansion and reorganization.
Baltimore County Councilwoman Vicki Almond (D-District 2), who represents Pikesville, said she is committed to making sure there are facilities created that serve the needs of the area. She said she was hopeful about the future but urged the public to remain patient as things unfold.
“There is a lot involved in the process, and this is not going to happen overnight,” said Almond, who is considering a run for county executive.
But there’s mounting pressure to move swiftly. Had it not been for 1000 Friends, Needle and Mintz firmly believe a revitalization effort would not have been created.
Needle and Mintz exude unbridled optimism, talking about the area’s future excitedly.
Their hopes for the armory, which is owned by the state, “are big-time.” They envision the horse stall-converted-garages being rehabbed to accommodate an arts and entertainment district and the relocation of Pikesville’s library and senior center to buildings on the site. They also see room for ballfields, a deli and more. The possibilities are endless, they said.
They will both serve on a commission announced last month by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. The commission will study future uses of the 14-acre armory, allowing them an opportunity to provide valuable feedback.
“I don’t want a failure,” Needle said.
Neither does Almond, who holds the authority to determine zoning for the land. In addition to what Needle and Mintz have proposed, Almond said she has also thought about housing for veterans, a restaurant and more green space and parking.
“I think if we get enough people involved and interested in seeing what I see there and how that can be such an anchor for all of Pikesville, I think that’s real crucial,” Almond said. “I think this is a great work in progress.”
Area developer Carl Verstandig, gesturing to the armory from his second-story office at 678 Reisterstown Road, disagrees. Verstandig, CEO and president of Pikesville-based America’s Realty, specializes in buying rundown, vacancy-plagued shopping centers in distressed neighborhoods and fixing them up. His company owns 326 shopping centers in 44 states and boasts a lease rate of 98 percent.
“Putting what the political climate wants at [the armory] is going to do nothing to enhance Pikesville other than make these people feel good about themselves,” said Verstandig, whose company manages 11 properties in Pikesville. “From my initial conversations with the politicians, I’ve said, ‘Look, I’m 63, and by the time you all decide what the hell to do, I’ll be 70.’”
His son, Steven, 35, senior vice president of America’s Realty, says the company is “very bullish” on Pikesville — an area with a household income of $66,342, according to census data. The countywide median is $67,095.
“I think people are really ready to see a full-blown pledge to Pikesville,” he said. “We’re ready to deliver, and if anyone knows what we have done, they can see that we are among the biggest believers in Pikesville.”
While the Verstandigs support moving the library, senior center and the Maryland State Police Pikesville Barrack to the armory, Carl argued that community officials and advocates are missing the bigger picture.
He laid out a two-year plan to transform the property — now occupied by a library, senior center and state police barracks — into an upscale shopping center anchored by a national grocery chain such as Whole Foods or Harris Teeter. His plan, he noted, would fill a community void, saying it could draw people from a five- to 10-mile radius and attract other retailers and help fill more than a dozen nearby vacancies.
“I’m willing to back up what I say today, if the politicians can get their foot out of their ass,” he said. “At the end of the day, if it wasn’t for the politics involved and it was actual people involved, my plan could be implemented and done within two years. They are playing a game of checkers when they should be playing chess.”
Inspired by a recent self-guided tour of Bethesda, which underwent one of the largest revitalization efforts in the state, Mintz and Needle yearn for a commercial core with more walkability and more efficient transportation.
“We’re lacking in that area,” Mintz said.
Realistic, Hopeful Expectations
But the benefits could take years to materialize, according to state and county officials.
State Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-District 11), who represents Pikesville, was tapped by Hogan last month to lead the armory commission. Ever the optimist, Zirkin knows there are lots of discussions and meetings that will take place before the armory’s future is decided.
For now, he said, he is taking a cautious approach until a feasibility study and environmental assessment of the property are conducted, but he fully supports Needle and Mintz.
“The vision, which is the last step in this process, has helped drive enthusiasm to make sure that we got on the ball with this process,” Zirkin said. “This is going to be a massive undertaking. It’s important the community understands that this is not a simple project and that there are major, major problems with this property.”
While the condition of the grounds, for instance, is unknown at this point, Zirkin speculated there is a strong possibility the buildings and soil are contaminated with asbestos, lead and other chemicals.
“Now knowing there is lead and asbestos in those buildings, it makes me a little upset that somebody did not let us know that,” Zirkin said, joking. “I used to go to bar mitzvah and birthday parties at the main armory building.”
That’s why Zirkin said he has pledged to work with the state, county and public and private partners to get $300,000 for a two-phase environmental study. Once the study is completed, which Zirkin guessed could occur within the next year, then a clearer timeline of redevelopment plans should take shape.
In the meantime, Zirkin said, Hogan is expected to tour the armory in November to get a better sense of the lay of the land. Then, Zirkin’s commission is expected to hold its first meeting in December.
One of the commission’s major responsibilities is to recommend who should own the property and who should pay for the renovation.
While the commission has until Oct. 1, 2018, to submit its recommendation to the governor, Zirkin said the success or failure of the project will ultimately come down to the county.
“As we start this process, I assume our report will necessitate that the county be deeply involved in this financially,” Zirkin said. “If that doesn’t happen, we may have serious issues.”
Ellen Kobler, spokeswoman for Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, said the county made an attempt to acquire the armory last fall and also offered to collaborate with the state on ways to revitalize Pikesville. The county received no response to either request.
“We were not given any advance notice of the Governor’s announcement last month by press release, but obviously will incorporate any information that his group develops into the County’s comprehensive report which is scheduled to be released this spring,” she wrote via email.
At this point, it is unclear if the county is in a position to buy the armory,
Almond said. She indicated she would explore public-private partnerships but nonetheless remains undaunted by any financial burdens.
“I truly, truly believe this is how we can build up Pikesville,” said Almond, who holds a spot on Zirkin’s commission. “This has to get done right.”
Needle and Mintz acknowledged their work is far from finished and that they remain persistent to seeing the process through despite looming elements of uncertainty.
“Anything worth doing to make people’s lives better, we just want to ensure we’re doing our part,” Needle said. “Are there issues with the area? Sure. But nothing is ever perfect. If it was, no one would do what we’re trying to do.”
1000 Friends of Pikesville and Jilly’s Restaurant will hold an outdoor arts and musical festival at 1100 Reisterstown Road on Sunday, Oct. 15 from noon to 6:30 p.m. For more information, email Mel Mintz at email@example.com.