'The Keepers,' pending closure shadow Seton Keough's final days

As Howard County residents wait, visions for Route 1 languish

More than 15 years after the county charted ideas to revitalize Route 1, the 11-mile strip in Howard County continues to fall into lingering decay. Scattered development dots the edge of a ribbon of road that is a hodgepodge of motels, car dealerships, junkyards and rundown storefronts.

And now, as hundreds of new residences spring up in dense developments, new and longtime residents both worry the corridor that has been slated for beautification and mixed-use projects for years is reaching a breaking point and the amenities and retail options they had hoped for are nowhere in sight.

Within Howard Square, a rowhouse-like development on the intersection of Route 175 with more than 1,000 units at full build-out, residents have an open park and connected sidewalks.

But outside the development, a bus stop has no cover, sidewalks abruptly end and few options for retail exist, a concern that residents say shows evidence of scattershot development.

With a concentration of around 2,000 residents spread across several communities near Port Capital Drive, Venkat Nallamothu, a 35-year-old resident of Howard Square, said the county must aggressively look into new ways to revitalize Route 1 and encourage foot traffic.

"We are living within these great communities. We're here now, but you have to wonder, without these basics, how long are we going to stay?" he said.

New zoning in the county has emphasized mixed-use development with a focus on pedestrian walk-ability and retail. In the early 2000s, a county task force suggested ways to revitalize the down-on-its-heels corridor. A county manual also includes design guidelines for the corridor to create a consistent, interconnected look.

Instead, residents say they got more houses.

County officials say there is no quick fix for the Route 1 dilemma, which has plagued the county for years.

"We're trying to make sure everyone has a seat at the table," said Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman. "Route 1 is a tough nut to crack and it always has been."

The challenges of revitalization are as diverse as the collection of pawn shops, motels, automotive shops and rundown storefronts that line the road longtime residents call "the boulevard."

Around 5,101 residential units are under construction, approved or under county review along Route 1, with the added possibility of 3,127 estimated units based on current zoning, according to county data.

New residents' concerns echo years of frustration and neglect voiced by longtime residents: The county has been long on plans for beautification and revitalization, but short on how to execute them.

Some believe the county has made the $2 billion overhaul of Columbia's core a priority over other areas.

Drew Roth, president of the Greater Elkridge Community Association, said many residents feel Elkridge and other parts of Route 1 are a "dumping ground."

"The county made all this happy talk about how we're going to have amenities. Instead, the developers put in tons and tons of cheap condos without any promised amenities to keep up. We were sold a bill of goods and what we got was massive dense residential," Roth said.

Cathy Hudson has seen her fair share of county visions and ideas for Route 1 in her 58 years living in Elkridge. In that time, Hudson, former president of the Elkridge Association, has seen little progress.

"We were sold a walkable community that we would all want to come visit. Instead, a completely different one has been delivered. What we got was high density residential. They're not gathering places. They're walled off places," Hudson said. "This area is desperate for decent restaurants and coffee shops. But there's none of that."

Diane White, owner of Kake Korner cake shop on Route 1 in North Laurel, recently installed a $10,000 fence to shelter her shop, which she calls a "jewel amongst the desert."

The business is surrounded by car shops and service centers. Despite customer demand, White doesn't open up her shop at night when it's dark because she's concerned about prostitutes on the street and crime.

In April 2014, White was optimistic when county officials stood in her cake shop to announce the launch of tax credits to encourage property owners to improve the facade of their buildings.

Three years later, her optimism has shifted to sheer disappointment.

"I haven't seen any big changes. I haven't seen anything good. I haven't seen anything that's made me think anyone is revitalizing anything," White said. "It was all glitz and glamor. Nothing more."

Since the inception of tax credits, the county has approved $148,000 in tax credits for properties on Washington Boulevard.

The 1.92-acre Hurst property, a former antiques store on the corner of Route 1 and Whiskey Bottom Road, sits vacant as the county solicits proposal for the property it bought for $1.9 million. The county rejected a proposal that was less than the purchase price earlier this year.

At one point, White hoped to purchase the Hurst property. But she doesn't see much of a future in the area.

"Sometimes you just wonder where all the money went," White said.

Project challenges

Just under 11 percent of land is ripe for new development, leaving developers with little recourse except re-purposing existing development. Beautification projects to improve the Route 1 streetscape require cooperation with the state, which owns the road.

But property owners and landlords, some of whom have left the area and vacant storefronts, are often unwilling to sell land or set sale prices much higher than the value of the land.

Chris Nowalk, president of Gold Leaf Associates, the development manager for H&H Rock real estate company, knows these challenges first hand.

H&H Rock is behind communities like New Colony Village, a gated community in Elkridge with more than 200 single-family houses. The company is planning to develop around 320 units near Deerpath Road in Elkridge.

The company lassoed a dozen land parcels and negotiated with multiple property owners to scramble together enough land to make the project possible.

"When you have these junkyards and properties, you have multiple owners who ask for too much money [so] that it's hard to make the development affordable. Add to that the challenge of overhead utilities that are all over the place," Nowalk said.

But not all developers have the patience to pursue projects on Route 1.

"Our dilemma is that Route 1 is steeped in a lot of history and that history includes these small parcels that are owned by people and families for generations that have long since left the area. It is very difficult for anybody to get together enough land to get a project going," said Vernon Thompson, executive vice president of the Howard County Economic Development Authority. "And then everyone thinks their property is worth millions and millions of dollars, when really, that's not the case."

Over the last few years, Juliana Figueireido has worriedly watched several tire shops close down and property owners sell off their land. Other businesses and properties, she notes, have been abandoned for years.

As she helps run her family's tire shop, JM Tire Depot Express in Elkridge, she hopes the county recognizes the value of family-run businesses in the area.

"Small businesses need to stand their ground and continue to grow. We used to tell our customers to go to the tire shop up the street for parts we didn't have, but it's closed now," she said. "When that happens, it's concerning. This isn't just a business for us. It's a family business and we're doing what we can do to grow in this economy."

Developers call some parts of Route 1 retail ghost towns. Along the strip, retail sits vacant or is overtaken by nail salons and dry cleaners.

At Howard Square, county requirements called for around 75,000 square feet of retail on the first floor of residential buildings. Now, residents will get just a fraction: 21,000 square feet as part of a new 299-unit apartment building.

Last year, Atapco Properties successfully sought the county's approval for drastic reductions in retail requirements. The company, which purchased Howard Square out of foreclosure, will pay $1.25 million to build less retail.

The reduction drew opposition from Kittleman and Councilman Greg Fox. Residents also sounded off against the change, which they said contradicted early plans that included a mix of retail and residential with the possibility of grocery store.

But developers say the county's requirement for first-floor retail were too ambitious and unrealistic.

"The county was well-intentioned, but retail needs a more residential market before a grocer will come to the market. We had to build residential to get retail and retail wouldn't come without residential," said David Polonsky, Atapco's development director.

As a CVS pharmacy is built opposite Howard Square and plans for a Royal Farms are under consideration, developers are waiting to reach critical mass. Once there are enough residential rooftops, retail will naturally follow, they say.

At Blue Stream, a townhouse community in Elkridge, the developer is waiting for the relocation of traffic lights before beginning plans to court commercial space, said Wayne Bill, a new home consultant with Lennar, the building company.

"The plans originally called for a grocery store and another 32,000 square feet of shops, retail and a bank. That was five to six years ago. … We're still trying to attract a grocery store," Bill said.

In the interim, developers and residents are playing a waiting game.

"Landowners in our section have contributed to a county fund for improvements like a median in the area, beautification and widening and that has been slow to happen, but our little piece of the word is beginning to come together," Polonsky said. "We're really proud that we've created a nice, entry-level community."

How long it'll take for that world to come together is unclear for residents who frequently drive to Columbia for groceries.

Other challenges have also surfaced in the dense development. Recently, the county's fire marshall replaced designated parking along the tight corners of the community with fire lanes to create space for fire and rescue vehicles to respond to emergencies.

Getting around

Route 1 is central to the county's job market. Major employers like Coastal Sunbelt Produce moved into new headquarters in Laurel, illustrating what Thompson calls a thriving economic center. About 60 percent of activity is centered around Route 1 and cyber companies are interesting in expanding to the area.

But employers in industrial parks have long complained the missing link is public transportation. Labor workers depend on public transportation to get to work, but few options exist.

"Everybody is very interested in trying to be a part of the solution, but it's been slow-moving. Everybody kind of grabs their chest what you talk about Route 1. We've been working on the components for so long," Thompson said.

Using land owned by the state, the county is considering plans for a new fire station on Montevideo, along with a new indoor pool for the North Laurel Community Center, he said.

Without sidewalks, navigating Route 1 is challenging for all pedestrians, Hudson said.

"People try and die to cross the road. I'll never forget the day I saw a motorized wheelchair going down the center line of Route 1 trying to negotiat across the street," Hudson said. "I've seen moms with baby carriages walking in places where there are no sidewalks. Sidewalks alone for connectivity would be huge."

Pedestrian deaths along the corridor are especially concerning, said Kittleman. So far this year, at least six people have died in pedestrian accidents.

The county's Department of Planning and Zoning plans a major Route 1 study that, unlike previous studies, will focus on implementation from the standpoint of economic development and multi-modal transportation, according to Val Lazdins, the department's director.

The study, originally planned for this year, was set back by the Ellicott City flood.

"There will be some vision, but we will focus on how to get it done as opposed to just another plan for the Route 1 corridor. This is really about practical implementation," Lazdins said.

Exploring options for economic incentives will be a top priority, as well as getting the formula right for how "mixed" developments should be, what retail is appropriate for where and possible partnerships between the public and private sectors, he said.

"These junkyards and other uses that may not be desirable still generate income for that property owner. So what is the incentive to tear the building down, wait multiple years to go through the development review process, the construction process and then wait to answer the question: 'What will the market be when we're ready to develop?'' Lazdins said.

Like the development of downtown Columbia, Lazdins cautions revitalization will take several years, especially as Route 1 success fluctuates with market conditions.

"Columbia is celebrating its 50th anniversary and just now are we actually creating a real downtown," Lazdins said. "A corridor like this is long, it's complicated and it's going to take some time to implement a strategy."

But some residents say they're skeptical of what seems like another vision similar to previous ones suggested almost two decades ago.

"There's no easy solution to Route 1. Unless the county buys parcels outright, I'm not sure what else they can do," Hudson said. "They've tried the zoning, but it seems that's all they've been able to do."

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