Chick-fil-gridlock [Editorial]

Chick-fil-A's plan to open a restaurant and drive-through at the corner of Baltimore Pike and Kelly Avenue Extended in Bel Air can be viewed as the proverbial two sides of the coin.

On the one side, that another national fast food chain would want to come into downtown Bel Air in the same area that some previously abandoned (Burger King, Wendy's, Roy Rogers) probably augers well for the town's economy.

The site, left vacant years ago when two neighboring new car dealerships closed, is certainly ripe for redevelopment. Just a block north, the former Kunkel auto parts building is undergoing a complete makeover into retail spaces. There are few vacancies in the four shopping centers just to the west.

These are good signs, frankly, and two or three years ago we couldn't have written so positively about the Baltimore Pike/Route 1 area.

The other side of this coin is the addition of more retail – particularly fast food with drive-through – undoubtedly means more traffic to choke one of the most congested stretches of highway in Harford County.

As noted in Friday's issue, vehicles travel this area of Route 1 between Tollgate Road and Main Street at the rate of more than 32,000 on average daily, according to the State Highway Administration.

Anyone who has driven this stretch on a Saturday morning in particular can attest that it's just maddening, and Sundays after churches let out and people head out to eat and shop aren't much better. Chick-fil-A won't be part of the Sunday traffic crunch; the chain is famously closed in observance of the Sabbath.

Chick-fil-A will be plunked right down in the middle of this area of frequent gridlock, which Trish Heidenreich, Bel Air's economic development director, insists isn't necessarily a bad thing, certainly better than a vacant, one-acre lot sitting idle in the midst of a highly trafficked retail area.

"I think it's great," Heidenreich, whose job is to promote business in the Town of Bel Air, told Aegis staff member Erika Butler. "It's going to be a nice complementary use."

As for the traffic situation, well, perhaps it really can't much worse, can it?

"Even though you might interpret it as an area of congestion, sometimes it's actually a good thing in a way because it means there's a lot of activity," Heidenreich said. "It means we have a lot of services for our residents. That's also very attractive to site locators who are looking to put in restaurants and other uses in the Bel Air area. They look for high traffic areas."

That may be, but it also raises another point about Bel Air. It has the volume to attract fast food, chain restaurants, discount and mid-price retailers and big box stores like Home Depot and Target, but nothing particularly upscale on the retail front.

The town's largest shopping center, Harford Mall, is anchored by two failing national retailers, Sears and Macy's, whose Bel Air stores are, by all accounts, well supported by the local customer base, despite the so-called Amazon Effect which is laying low so many bricks and mortar retailers.

So, if traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian, is a sign of general prosperity, then welcome to Bel Air, Chick-fil-A. You've certainly picked the right place.

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