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Historic Ellicott City improvements start to take shape

By Amanda Yeager, ayeager@tribune.com

7:15 PM EDT, October 14, 2013

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Visions for the future of downtown Ellicott City are starting to take shape, following a series of three public workshops inviting community members to share their wish lists for improvements of the historic district.

More than 50 community members and local politicians showed up to the final workshop Oct. 10 at the Roger Carter Community Center to discuss the first round of projects being considered. The county has set aside about $3 million in its budget for historic Ellicott City revitalization efforts.

The projects will come in three phases, or "tiers," according to Stu Sirota, a representative of TND Planning Group, who was hired by the county to target areas in need of work and suggest ways they can be improved.

Now, county planners will discuss the proposals and decide on the next steps. Sirota did not mention when the projects would start.

The first tier of projects will focus on short-term, visible capital improvements. The idea is to make some noticeable changes that will make a visit to historic Ellicott City safer and more enjoyable, Sirota said.

"Our overall approach here is to try to get the most bang for the buck for our capital improvements projects," Sirota told workshop participants. "And that will provide the core, or the basis for other projects going out."

He identified five projects that would increase pedestrian safety and spruce up some areas along Main Street.

Each involves installing new crosswalks or improving existing ones. Main Street has only three crosswalks for a 1,900-foot stretch of road, according to Sirota. By comparison, a similar street in downtown St. Michaels, on the Eastern Shore, had eight sidewalks over the same distance.

Crosswalks identified for improvement are at the intersection of Main Street and Ellicott Mills Drive, near Lot F and the Wine Bin, the intersection of Main Street and Old Columbia Pike and the intersection of Main Street and Maryland Avenue.

The plans also include new mid-block crosswalks between Su Casa and Ellicott Mills Brewing Company and at the bend in lower Main Street, near the Caplan's Department Store sign.

The crosswalks would be more clearly marked, and could include pavers that would raise the crosswalk above street-level.

Renderings also showed landscaping and additional public space along the sidewalk, which would allow for more benches and expanded public seating for restaurants.

But some participants objected to decreasing road space and parking spots.

"There's always been a problem with parking in Ellicott City – all of these projects seem to decrease parking, and for business owners that's just not good," said David Dempster, who owns Still Life Gallery on Main Street with his wife, Sara Arditti.

Main Street would lose between seven and 12 parking spaces based on the currently proposed plans.

But Sirota said concerns about traffic and parking were overblown.

"You're talking about some modest changes that would be the trade-off, in terms of increasing pedestrian access, safety, comfort," he said. He added that a new parking garage on the current site of Parking Lot F would increase overall parking availability in Ellicott City.

Business owners and residents of Main Street's West End, down toward Ellicott Mills Drive and beyond, also said they didn't feel their concerns were being prioritized. They said the area had long suffered from dangerous conditions for pedestrians as well as flooding.

They brought a petition to the workshop with 40 signatures asking to be included in the Tier 1 projects. In particular, they said they wanted to ensure that at least $500,000 of the budget for Ellicott City's revitalization was spent on flood control.

Sirota said that stormwater management would be a major component of the Tier 2 projects, and that there would be about $1 million in funding left to use toward that goal.

Main Street business owners Zan Wilson and Tammy Beideman said they thought the first phase of projects were a step in the right direction.

"Our feeling is that the county is really putting a lot into this street and we appreciate it profoundly," Wilson, who owns the Beatles-inspired Obladi hotel, said.

Beideman said she attended all three of the workshops and that the response had been overwhelmingly positive. "I think it's as much as you can do… with not a huge amount of money," she said.

Steve Lafferty, director of special projects for the county's Department of Planning and Zoning, said the revitalization effort had sparked healthy discussion about the historic district's future.

"There are a lot of opinions and one of the challenges is weighing them," he said. "Not everybody is going to be happy, but they can't say we haven't given them a fair chance to express themselves."