Twenty-two-year-old Elkridge resident Roger Buckley recalls U.S. 1 as cluttered with "lots of old, sleazy motels, liquor stores and fast-food restaurants." The main drag near his childhood home was run-down, but it had its advantages.
Buckley remembers fondly a vacant home with an empty swimming pool that he and his friends used as a skate park; it was just off the busy corridor, near his job at Neu-Valley Nurseries. The home has since been torn down and now the buzz of power tools can be heard as construction workers install windows in the new four-story townhomes at Elkridge Crossing.
Howard County has been pushing to improve the area's image — promoting its location off Interstate 95 between Washington and Baltimore, near Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and the growing Fort Meade.
A few miles down the road, where U.S. 1 hits Route 175, two projects are under construction that will provide more than 2,000 residential units and have room for several businesses. The Ashbury Courts and Patuxent Square apartments in Laurel are bringing hundreds more to live along the corridor.
But as the county begins discussion next month on a two-decade growth plan, some in the area want to rethink the plan for U.S. 1. Developers and neighborhood groups have argued that the county is overestimating the market for storefronts and offices by requiring each proposed residential project to include commercial space. Others want to slow the pace of change along the corridor.
Bonny Butler, 54, a North Laurel resident who has worked at the Bottom of the Bay seafood restaurant for five years, said the new developments are "good for the business." But, she added, "traffic is the worst."
The newer developments and added traffic "make you feel like you're living in the city. I don't like it."
"All they did was make it more congested," she said. "All they did was build more. 'Beautify' to me was leave trees. Pretty soon we aren't going to be able to breathe."
Howard County Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a Democrat whose North Laurel-Savage district includes Howard's southern stretch of U.S. 1., says she sees a lot of potential for the corridor, but she acknowledged that the county has to refine its vision.
"It hasn't moved as quickly as people hoped," she said. "People understand that, but they want focus."
North Laurel resident Steven F. Hunt said early plans for the area represented a strong vision, but residents and planners now need to focus more on what the community can realistically expect and less on "pie in the sky" plans, such as attracting a high density of commercial tenants.
Hunt was one of several members of the North Laurel Civic Association to hear a recent presentation from Royal Farms representatives about plans for a gas station in an area where zoning does not permit one. Some residents who spoke at the meeting told planners that they'd prefer to change the rules to get something built there rather than letting the site of a former auto dealership remain vacant.
At Ashbury Courts, the North Laurel mixed-use development completed in 2007, developers have been so successful leasing out apartments that they are planning a second rental building. But they've had less success with the commercial space that they were required to include under the zoning rules for U.S. 1; only four tenants have opened there.
In June, a divided County Council voted in favor of allowing developers to build more apartments building at Ashbury Courts without the additional retail space.
When plans for U.S. 1 were developed in 2001, there was consensus among residents about the future of the corridor, said Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the county's department of planning and zoning. But now, she said, it's time to create "a finer picture of how Route 1 ought to happen."
"We had a lot projects that were under way in various stages in the corridor before the economy tanked. The things that have stopped have started up again," she said. "We've learned a lot from the projects that have come forward."
During the review process, she said, the county will likely look at ways "to allow more flexibility about what mix should there be" in developments that include residential and commercial structures.
Although some developments have struggled to attract commercial tenants, Chris Murn, developer of Bluestream, a project currently under way said he considers the county's mixed-use requirements for development in the corridor as "just something you have to work with."
He said construction at the Bluestream shopping center is behind schedule, but he defended the requirements, saying it helps improve the quality of development.
Howard sees development potential along stretch of U.S. 1
Lots of new homes along the once run-down corridor, but commercial leasing lags
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