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News Maryland Howard County Elkridge

In Elkridge, Riverwatch would set bar for future projects

A decade after a master plan was approved for the Route 1 corridor, one of its first projects in lower Elkridge is en route to breaking ground next summer.

Riverwatch, a proposed apartment and town home development on Furnace Avenue just a few blocks from Elkridge's Main Street and Route 1, would be the first project with Corridor Activity Center zoning – a designation created for development along the Route 1 corridor – to be built in the area.

Developer Jeff Kirby, of KB Company, Inc., said the group expected to break ground on the project in summer 2014 if all goes according to plan. Construction would be finished by late spring or early summer 2015.

But first developers will have to make sure that plans for the site, which were first approved in 2009 and have changed quite a bit since then, meet all the zoning and Route 1 manual requirements.

On Wednesday, Nov. 6, Kirby and Riverwatch architect Zak Schooley met with members of the Elkridge community to present site renderings and solicit feedback.

The concept they presented is for a mixed-income apartment and townhome development overlooking the Patapsco River. Renderings show a four-story apartment complex with large windows in the lobby to showcase views of the river and several townhomes, with retail and residential units, in front along the street.

Behind the building, developers plan to clear what they say are invasive species surrounding the river so that residents can see and access it better. They're planning to build a walkway, patio and gazebo as open-space amenity areas to foster community feeling and encourage use of the outdoors.

Kirby said KB Company also wanted to tidy up an adjacent parcel of State Highway Administration-owned land backing up to the river to create an access point for all Elkridge residents.

Schooley said the architectural team had chosen to use mixed materials in the design, and particularly brick and metal, to reflect Elkridge's history as an industrial town of mills and iron works. Arches on the façade echo the town's treasured Thomas Viaduct, one of the oldest railroad bridges still in use.

"We're trying to integrate the character in the details," he said.

But the approximately 20 community members at the meeting said they weren't so sure the development was the right fit for their historic town, one of the oldest in Howard County.

The apartments would be four stories high, while the surrounding buildings are all three stories or shorter, which they said would be jarring to the local atmosphere.

Kirby said the apartment building's height wouldn't be a problem because it wasn't adjacent to any three-story buildings. "You never really get a full view of the building," he said.

Even so, those at the meeting questioned whether the site plan did enough to adhere to the goals of the Route 1 manual. Beyond concerns that the building wouldn't match the area's historical character, they also pointed to what they said was inadequate parking, minimal stormwater management and a lack of pedestrian-friendliness.

Ideas for the development have undergone some major changes since it was originally conceived in 2008 and approved by the county in 2009. The current project has retained the earlier project's approval, but developers have to submit redline requests for the county to approve every change to the original plan.

The original plans show the site as a for-sale condominium community. But the venture fell through shortly after it was proposed due to the recession, and the future of the site, currently home to an excavation company, remained undetermined until KB Company joined the project with some new ideas earlier this year.

When Kirby and his firm took over, they decided to change the project to an apartment and town home plan with retail and office space in some of the town homes to comply with Route 1 mixed-use goals.

They combined three separate buildings into one long apartment building and increased the density from 77 to 108 units. While the original development placed some parking spots underneath residential buildings, the current plans call for outdoor parking in paved lots, as well as some parallel parking along the street.

Kirby said the changes were necessary to make the project financially viable. For-sale condo projects like the original plan, he said, "are extremely difficult or impossible to finance in today's market."

Available parking at the site, which will be between 210 and 220 spaces, is "more than adequate," according to Kirby. Zoning regulations call for 2.3 parking spaces per dwelling unit, which translates to about 248 parking spots for a development with 108 units, but Kirby said other developments he's worked on show that 2.3 parking spaces per unit would be excessive.

To manage stormwater, the complex will use a sand filter that slowly releases rain water back into the ground. Kirby said the filter would be an improvement to current stormwater management on the property, although neighbors called for greater measures to prevent possible flooding and runoff into the river.

"That's always a concern, and every project I've ever done people say you're going to make the stream overflow, but we're required to treat every bit of water that falls onto our site and then slowly release it," he said.

Many community members weren't swayed by Kirby's reassurances.

Elkridge resident Drew Roth, who lives on Lawyers Hill Road, said he thought the project's added density was an attempt to maximize profit without adhering to the necessary requirements.

"What they're doing is trying to push the limit as hard as they can at the expense of our historical community," he said.

Kirby said the bottom line was that the project had to go through the county's Department of Planning and Zoning before it could move forward. "If it doesn't comply, the county's not going to approve it," he said.

One community member urged developers and the county to remember they were forging the path for future Route 1 development.

"You're setting the bar," she said. "Please do it right."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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