Ellicott City residents, county chart course for historic district housing

Joseph Hauser and Ed Lilley grew up on the same stretch of Valley Road in Ellicott City.

Though they're separated in age by about a decade, each has memories of exploring a more rugged Main Street, one that wasn't as polished as it is today.

Both made their way in adulthood to positions that promote and protect the historic district – Hauser as chair of the county's Historic District Commission and Lilley as a member of the town's newly formed Historic District Partnership and as the former Welcome Center manager.

Hauser and Lilley want what's best for their hometown, but the two differ slightly on the details.

In a transitional time of new development and big opportunities for old Ellicott City, their differences might reflect a common conversation among historic district residents interested in preserving – and improving – the little town that's been called the jewel of Howard County.

With several new housing developments planned within and around the historic district, some residents are drawing a line. Disrupt the charm of the old town, they say, and Ellicott City's appeal could suffer, too. They're starting a petition drive to ask the county not to have a stake in building and renting housing units in the historic district.

County officials, however, say they're working to revitalize the community by replacing stagnant housing with new options available to people from a range of incomes. They argue new residents in the historic district will translate to new customers for Main Street's shops and new participants invested in shaping the historic district's future for the better.

Changing landscapes

Plans for new housing in and around the historic district have been in motion for some time.

The 18-acre, 198-unit Burgess Mill Station apartment complex off of Ellicott Mills Drive recently replaced the low-income Hilltop housing community, built on that spot in the 1970s.

The complex, which also hosts the new Roger Carter Community Center and a 130-space underground parking garage, started filling units in October 2012 and now every apartment is leased, according to Housing Department Director Tom Carbo.

Burgess Mill Station is a mixed-income housing community, with 107 units rented at full market value and 91 units rented to moderate-income families and individuals at 30, 50 or 60 percent of the market rate, which ranges from $1,225 for a one-bedroom apartment to $2,200 for three bedrooms, according to the county.

Now that construction is finished and final landscaping touches are being added to the project, the county is shifting focus to two additional phases to the Burgess Mill project.

Phase II will see the demolition of the old Roger Carter Center, which still stands across the street from Burgess Mill Station. Renderings for the site show four colonial-style buildings, totaling 15 units, with navy blue siding, white trim, square columns and two brick chimneys in place of the center.

Up the road at the Ellicott Mills Terrace community, the county will raze the low-income housing currently located there and build 60 new mixed-income units with a garden-style layout of three 20-unit apartments.

Phase III is expected to bring housing down the hill to the base of Fels Lane, currently the location of parking lot F.

Carbo said plans for that site are still in their conceptual stages. The most recent plan – 76 housing units surrounding a parking lot of about 250 spaces, with potential for retail along the development's Main Street front – was presented to the community during a series of workshops last fall that focused on the revitalization of the Main Street area.

County Executive Ken Ulman said in a budget hearing last month that he had rejected that plan, and others, for being too intense for the historic district.

"I have sent back plans so many times because they need to be scaled down dramatically," Ulman said Dec. 18. "I think there is a real opportunity to create a community place [on the Lot F space]. … It's about making sure we're good stewards of that land. It's not as much the financial pressures as figuring out what the right plan is at that scale."

"It's a ways off, and we definitely want to keep moving and pursue Phase II and get that done," Carbo said of Phase III. "We're still working on developing plans and working out the costs."

Preserving historic space

Change isn't anything new to Hauser.

When he was growing up in the Dunloggin neighborhood of Ellicott City, the historic district "was a mess.

"You know, it was just a small town; it wasn't a historic district," he said. "They had alcoholics and poor sections. It wasn't a great place, but we would go down there. It was a place to shop for all of us."

Even as the town's fortunes have improved, Hauser, 58, has contributed to change in old Ellicott City, giving the green light to some controversial requests in his role as chairman of the Historic District Commission.

Among those is the board's decision to approve a Subway Cafe on Main Street, which opened in 2011 and closed this past December.

"Ninety percent of the response of people talking to me – friends, people I've known forever – was 'Are you crazy?' " Hauser recalled. "People were mad at me. I said, 'You know, I can't tell one business they can come and not another.' … We're trying to help people get projects done."

Outside his role as chairman of the commission, as a private citizen, Hauser is mounting opposition to the county's Phase II and Phase III Burgess Mill plans.

He worries projects that expand the number of rental units around the historic district, with the county's Housing Commission as owner and a management company as landlord, could damage the town's quaint feel.

"I don't think the county should be landlords," he said. "There are places for public housing, there are places not for public housing, and it's rare that you find an area or a district that's unique like this.

"I want the people who are living in the historic district to have a stake in it," Hauser said.

Hauser, who has owned a brick house on Fels Lane since 2000, plans to start a petition drive among residents of the historic district to see what his neighbors think. An initial meeting among next-door neighbors yielded enthusiasm for the project.

But some said they didn't want the focus to be on renters in the historic district.

Hauser's old friend Lilley disagrees that county-owned rentals are necessarily bad for the community.

"I'm not opposed to what the proposal is," he said of the most recent Phase III plans, though he had some issues with the project's setback from the historic Granite Manor house, perched atop the hill overlooking Lot F.

Renters bring "more eyes" and "a fresh perspective" to the community, in his view, and he thinks some retail on the lot, such as a grocery store, could be a convenience for old town residents.

Carbo said the Housing Commission's involvement with the project would, in fact, ensure any housing development remains well kept.

"I think we've developed a track record that we are developing high-quality, market rate-compatible properties," he said. "To attract market-rate renters, we have to maintain those properties."

Historic District Partnership President Andy Hall said housing in the historic district could bring more business to old Ellicott City.

"The idea of residents being able to walk to businesses is certainly appealing, given our historical issues with parking and traffic, so having that population nearby is good in that sense." But, he added, "we just hope that any development is well managed with respect to any environmental impact and maintaining the historic character of the community."

For Hauser's Fels Lane neighbor, Bill Withers, it's about maintaining a careful balance for "this tiny, pretty fragile kind of place.

"I think there's plenty of places to build and develop, and this place should be held as carefully as we would a museum," he said. "Not that everything needs to freeze in place – there's room for change and improvement – but I think it really needs to be done with great care and caution, and the trend seems to be kind of a push for speeding things through."

Hauser hopes to slow down the conversation.

"The push is always to modernize the historic district and increase the density, and somebody has to push back," Hauser said. "Otherwise, it's not going to be worth it." 

Copyright © 2018, Howard County Times, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad