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.
The sleek new development is one of several to pop up along an 11-mile stretch of U.S. 1 in recent years, as the corridor undergoes an uneven transition from seedy throwback to growth area. For more than a decade, 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.
"You want to create a well-developed project," he said
More than 1,000 units are planned at Bluestream, north of Route 175 next to the next to the former Luskin's shopping center, where infrastructure such as sewer lines is being created and construction on the first phase of 254 apartments will begin this year, said Murn, president of Murn Development, which has completed other communities in the area, including Belmont Station, a 110-house project.
The county has sought to concentrate development around U.S. 1 rather than encourage people to build homes in the rural western county. According to a county planning document, The area around U.S. 1 makes up about 8 percent of the land in Howard, with just under 4,000 acres available for development.
Howard officials see the corridor as ripe for more compact development — projections show that residential areas will have fewer single-family homes and more apartments.
"The market for apartments and townhomes has done consistently well in Howard County" because officials in Howard have prevented overbuilding, Murn said. "They have a nice, consistent approach. It's the smart way to go," he said.
Construction is also under way at Howard Square, where more than 1,000 homes, businesses and office space, and a hotel are expected on the site of the former Aladdin mobile home park.
While zoning restraints might not deter some developers along the corridor, another big challenge has been assembling parcels large enough for development.
"Route 1 has a lot of small parcels with individual ownership," said Laura Neumann, the director and CEO of the county's economic development authority. "They need to accumulate land," which can take time.
But she said the area holds lots of promise because of its proximity to Fort Meade and National Business Park, as well as access to I-95 and Route 32.
"It's a matter of finding the right projects — what is good for the developer and good for the community," she said.
Officials hope that the proposed Troy Park Tennis and Sports Center will become a draw for new businesses and residents. The project was supposed to schedule tennis tournaments this summer, but funding did not come through as expected in December. Howard County Executive Ken Ulman has asked for a third-party review of a previous economic impact study, approved by the Maryland Stadium Authority, before pursuing other sources of financing.
Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, said she hopes the project will be completed and act as an attraction for the area, boosting area businesses.
"We have to figure out a formula for Route 1," Watson said.