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Then and Now: Odenton

Sep 10, 2014 12:50PM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Mark R. Smith

It was founded as a railroad town, grown from vast farmland and the might of adjacent Fort Meade. When the railway eventually faltered, it did, too; but then a new suitor brought it new life, this time pointing the path toward its future, and offering a few lessons on long-range planning.

As the region’s road networks developed, its location turned out to be almost unwittingly convenient. Odenton became a railroad town again, the second time due to thousands of commuters’ reliance on the busiest MARC station in the state, with Baltimore and Washington as its bookends

Odenton’s location, location, location eventually was noticed by the development community, with plans for the town’s expansion dating back more than five decades. Those plans have resulted in such projects as Piney Orchard, a model planned community that’s coming up on its 25th anniversary; the Seven Oaks community; and Odenton Town Center, sections of which have risen in recent years, with many more square feet, residential units, and an ample retail component in the pipeline.

Earliest Days

Odenton, named for former Gov. Oden Bowie (yes, he had two towns named for him), was founded around the mid-1800s when the steam-powered Annapolis & Elkridge Railroad, one of the first in the nation and second in Maryland (only to the Baltimore & Ohio), was constructed through the farmland.

At the beginning of the Civil War, Union soldiers guarded the rail line because it was the only link between the North and Washington, D.C. Rail traffic through Baltimore had been disrupted by southern sympathizers, so supplies, mail, and soldiers flowed through Annapolis and west Anne Arundel County to Washington.

Odenton received another boost in 1908, when 14 miles of track between Annapolis and Odenton were electrified and become known as the Washington, Baltimore & Annapolis (or WB&A) Electric Railway; its hub, “The Junction,” included the railroad tower and is still the site of the Midway Building at 8373 Piney Orchard (formerly 411 Telegraph Road), that today serves as home to A.J. Properties and other businesses.

Due to the Depression, the WB&A went bankrupt in 1935, marking the start of a stagnant period in Odenton’s history. While adjacent Fort Meade was thriving, there was no local business that immediately followed in the railroad’s footsteps to boost commerce and stir the spirits of the locals.

That’s when the owners of a woodworking company on Hollins Street in Baltimore, the Winer family, decided to start the new National Plastics Products Co. and “started eyeing the former WB&A car barn site on Telegraph Road,” says Jay Winer, president of A.J. Properties.

The Winers made the move and a new era in Odenton began. En route, the company pioneered lamination technologies that not only led the company to expand to 800,000 square feet, but to employ 1,500 workers; during the late ’50s, National Plastics Products was among the largest employers in Anne Arundel County and became a player in international business circles.

The Winers sold the company in 1961; it remained in operation under various names until 2004.

Remembering When

Someone who recalls those early days is Wylie Donaldson, Jr., a life-long Odenton resident, a Department of Defense retiree—and a 62-year volunteer at the Odenton Volunteer Fire Department. He recalled how he and his father built his family’s first house by the still-standing Masonic Hall, near the MARC station.

When his family needed a bigger house, they moved to Maple Ridge, a [then seemingly ultra-] modern development that rose near Arundel Junior High School. “It seemed like it was in another town to my grandfather,” he recalls, laughing. “He asked me why I was moving out of Odenton.”

Donaldson’s grandfather was a conductor on the WB&A, and his grandson recalls some good old days in town, from riding the rails to attending the Sunday baseball games between Odenton and neighboring towns to picking tomatoes and tobacco on local farms.

That could be part of why he feels that “[Odenton is] becoming more and more urbanized and we’re losing our country atmosphere.” Donaldson also recalls when the Winers bought the old WB&A car barns, which not only revitalized the local job market, but eventually resulted in the planting of the first seed for Piney Orchard.

“Odenton had become somewhat abandoned, but by the early 1950s, my family’s company was employing so many workers that they didn’t all live in the immediate area,” Winer says. “So my family bought 900 acres for potential housing in what was called ‘Pine Orchard’ on the land grant maps of Patuxent Valley.”

What the Winers paid for the land sounds almost surreal when compared to today’s prices: “It was about $200,000,” he says.

The family had plans drawn for a community by the mid-’50s, but the Winers wanted public sewer service “and the county didn’t want to make the investment in expanding its lines,” Winer says. It was hoped that construction would start by 1960, but it was not to be.

“So, they ended up waiting 30 years. It finally happened with the groundbreaking for Piney Orchard in 1990,” Winer explains. “I started working on the plan in 1971 for our own wastewater treatment, roads,” etc., “so I spent 17 years working on the development issues.”

By the late ’80s, that plan also included a deep-pocketed financial partner and eventual owner, Constellation Real Estate, and the design of Piney Orchard’s own state-of-the-art wastewater plant, “which we got approved by the state before the county had approval to expand the Patuxent Wastewater Treatment Plant,” near Crofton.

Today’s News

During that period, of course, other housing stock rose in Odenton, but some of it was built in a much less cohesive fashion than what was originally planned by the Winers.

Winer is, to this day, heavily involved in a bigger development plan than his parents ever imagined, the Odenton Town Center. About four decades after the topic was first proposed, such mixed-use projects as The Village at Odenton Station, Odenton Gateway and the Flats170 at Academy Yard have been unveiled in recent years, with many more projects slated to come in the not-too-distant future.

They include the Novus project, which broke ground in late spring in the Town Center’s core of Nevada Avenue and Hale Street. Broadstone West 32 is also scheduled to break ground this summer. Plans have been submitted as well for the second phase of Academy Yards, with more apartments and a retail element, to include a grocery store.

The next big push is to get the transit-oriented development (TOD) at the MARC station moving forward, “so the state and county have applied for a TIGER grant, which would provide the planning and design money for the new garage that is proposed for the train station,” says Claire Louder, CEO of the West Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce. “Once the garage is built, the ground parking can be redeveloped on both sides with residential and retail. That, in turn, would generate more tax money for the county.”

The increased involvement by the government entities to move the TOD forward “and the level of development activity, particularly in the core and at Academy Yard, gives me renewed hope that we will be able to realize the vision of the future of Odenton.”

Latest Update

On that note, Winer pointed to the current second revision in the past decade of the Odenton Town Center plan, which was made imperative since much of the retail element that he had hoped would locate in Odenton was built to the north at Arundel Mills and to the south in the two massive Waugh Chapel centers.

“I don’t know that Odenton ever could have been the major retail center that we hoped for,” he says, “but now the plan has to be about adapting to what has happened during the past 15 years.

However, as Louder noted, some of the planned development has been up and running, and more is on the way. And that has included “Lots of good things, lots of residential growth, with more to come,” says Winer. But he also discussed preserving Odenton’s heritage while moving ahead.

“Preserving history does not mean living in the past,” says Winer, who has spent his entire career working in Odenton. “I still see this place too much as it was during my family’s early years here than I do in the now, even with all of the recent development.

“But let me tell you this,” he says. “If my parents were here today to see this, from Piney Orchard to the earlier phases of Odenton Town Center, they’d be proud.”