Clarksville Commons project in Howard County is stalled

The empty lot next to Kendall's Hardware in busy Clarksville belies the hopes Howard County Executive Ken Ulman expressed in January 2010 when he announced the choice of developers for what he predicted would be a "dynamic, environmentally friendly and unique" mix of stores, offices and a hotel.

There's been no groundbreaking; neither is construction under way on the 7.8-acre site of the former Gateway School on the west side of Route 108. Plans for Clarksville Commons — promoted as a model of new urban design — appear stalled over an old-fashioned dispute over access among the developers, business owners and the county. Ulman said he is frustrated.

"I'd hoped to have something under way two years ago," Ulman said.

"We've got enough strip centers, auto dealers, gas stations and fast food" in Clarksville, the county executive said in 2010 as the county was paying $259,000 to demolish the vacant brick school building.

But Clarksville residents George and Holly Stone, the principals in GreenStone Ventures and the developers chosen for what Ulman called an "exciting, visionary, inspirational" proposal, haven't yet bought the land from the county.

"It's not dead, but we've certainly run into some challenges," George Stone said. "There's nothing worse than a great vision that gets a dose of reality."

That involves a lack of access to the site, which is surrounded by car dealerships, stores, fast-food restaurants and gas stations built over the past several decades as the once-sleepy crossroads at Routes 108 and 32 was transformed into a retail hub.

Across the highway sits River Hill Village Center, the newest of Columbia's 10 village centers. The visual ambiance is not unlike that of Baltimore National Pike.

Ulman, a River Hill resident, wanted to replace the car-centric visual clutter with a pedestrian-friendly project mixing commercial, residential and perhaps cultural amenities.

The Stones want to provide primary access to the Gateway property the way it was provided before the 1930s-vintage building was torn down 17 months ago — by transforming the driveway between Kendall's store and the school into an extension of Great Star Drive, which now ends just across Route 108 and already has a traffic light. A second, rear entrance could come from Auto Drive a few yards to the west, but that too has run into problems.

Steve Kendall, who once considered combining his four-acre parcel with the school site and making a new store part of the project, has reversed course and now wants the Stones or the county to buy an easement to use his driveway at a price Stone said he can't afford. It's up to the county to provide access, Stone said. "The ball is in their court."

Kendall said, "The project is kind of dead right now. Stone doesn't like my price for the easement." He declined to say how much he's asking but said the price is not unreasonable because the new intersection the Stones propose could mess up his entrance.

Meanwhile, Robert Schulze, president of S&W Management, which owns the Pizza Hut bordering Kendall's on the opposite side, wants to develop a new 6,300-square-foot commercial building behind the restaurant, complicating plans for a rear access to the Gateway site.

"I'm not getting any answers," Schulze said, adding that after a year of trying to go forward with his building, he's getting nowhere with county approvals, and now the State Highway Administration wants him to build sidewalks along Route 108 in front of his restaurant and Kendall's store.

"As a business person, I think I'm being abused," he said. If the county wants a rear drive, it can go farther back into the farmland behind the retail area, he suggested.

If Schulze is not happy, neither is anyone else, though county officials insist that a deal can be reached.

"I'm very disappointed that it's at the stage it is," Ulman said. "We're going to get the project done and move forward."

Ulman noted that the county had access to the publicly owned site for decades without problems. He said the Kendalls are "good people" but that he's "shocked at their negotiating tactics."

The bottom line, Ulman said, is that "the county has to protect its interest in full access to this property. What I'm hoping happens next is that people have to work together and provide access."

Because the land is along the highway, the county could use an existing right-in, right-out driveway on the Gateway property, but Mark DeLuca, the deputy county public works director, said that would be no better than the myriad driveways along that stretch of Route 108 now. The county wants to provide something better.

County Public Works Director James M. Irvin said that if Schulze's proposed building were turned sideways, a rear access drive to the Gateway site could be built from Auto Drive, next to the Clarksville post office through a Win Kelly auto dealership lot, across the rear of the Pizza Hut site and Kendall's.

"We are at a very tough stage, said DeLuca, who is working on the issue, "but people haven't walked away from the table."

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