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Ambitious Ellicott City flood prevention plan would tear down 19 buildings in historic downtown

The Baltimore Sun

Howard County officials are proposing razing at least 19 buildings and expanding waterways in Ellicott City during the next five years in a $50 million plan they hope will mitigate flooding and save lives if another devastating storm cascades through the historic mill town.

The plan, announced Thursday by Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman and County Councilman Jon Weinstein, comes after two fatal floods within a 22-month span left the wreckage of homes and businesses in their wake.

UPDATE: Historic preservation group criticizes plan to tear down Ellicott City buildings as part of flood plan »

Under the plan, 10 buildings would be razed on the lower end of Main Street, where structures on the south side constrict the flow of water. The proposal also calls for tearing down seven residential buildings to expand a stream channel on the west side of the historic district, as well as demolishing two more structures to expand a channel under Main Street.

The county is working to acquire the buildings it aims to remove, which represent 5 percent of the historic district, Kittleman said. Conversations with building owners are ongoing, Kittleman said, and the county plans to work with them to help them relocate.

The 10 buildings slated for demolition at the base of the historic district, from 8049 to 8125 Main St., house popular businesses including Bean Hollow, Phoenix Emporium and Portalli’s. Also torn down will be the buildings that housed Discoveries, Tea on the Tiber, Shoemaker Country and Miss Fit. Two of the buildings along the stretch have been vacant since the 2016 flooding.

The properties would be replaced with a community open space to widen and deepen the channel for the Tiber River.

What businesses are in the buildings slated to be razed? »

Kittleman said the county considered every other option before officials settled on removing the buildings, but demolition would provide the swiftest benefit with the greatest impact.

“I wish we weren’t here, but this a change that we need,” Kittleman said.

“In 2016, we were told that the flood that struck our town had a one-in-a-thousand chance of occurring, then not even two years later it happened again and it was even worse. ... Our need to adapt to this likelihood and our need to first and foremost protect life safety has changed the conversation.”

Sherry Fackler-Berkowtiz, who owns Great Panes Glass Studio in Ellicott City with husband Len Berkowitz, was glad the city offered to buy her building at the base of Main Street. They bought their building in 1986. But she said its historic character has been lost over time.

“After the 2016 flooding, gutting that entire building, it occurred to me that a lot of the history of my entire building was gone,” she said.

She rented the front of her building to Joan Eve Classics and Collectibles to help fund the rebuild. But her perspective on doing business in Ellicott City changed after another historic flood struck in May.

“Two years ago it was a thousand-year flood, and it was frightening, but I was willing to rebuild and go back,” she said. “I’m not willing now — I’m totally terrified. I do believe that any day this could happen again.”

Sally Tennant owns Discoveries, a contemporary art gallery that’s slated to be torn down.

“It’s not my ideal solution,” said Tennant. The 63-year-old lifelong resident of Ellicott City has owned the art gallery for 38 years and is planning on reopening her business elsewhere in Ellicott City.

“Ellicott City is the only place I’ve ever wanted to have a store,” Tennant said. “Ellicott City is my home, it’s the place I love … there is no place like it.”

The five-year plan was derived from a combination of studies that followed both the 2016 and 2018 floods, weather and flooding models, and feedback from residents and business owners. It also includes elements of a master plan being developed for Ellicott City.

Other flood-prevention measures in the plan include adding two 10-foot culverts beneath Maryland Avenue to connect the Tiber and Hudson tributaries to the Patapsco River further downstream, and building water retention facilities further upstream.

Eventually, if necessary, officials could look to tear down two buildings in the 8300 block of Main Street that house La Palapa Grill & Cantina and the brewery for Ellicott Mills Brewing Co.

Ellicott City resident Liz Walsh, who recently won the Democratic primary for the District 1 County Council seat, ousting Weinstein, said the “amount of destruction right now is alarming.”

She wants to study the engineering report that is the basis for tearing down the properties.

“No question things need to be done,” Walsh said, adding that safety is the first concern. “But we love this old town and we want to preserve it.”

Bill Holman, a Minneapolis, Minn.-based engineer with Stanley Consultants, said building demolition is frequently part of the calculation when trying to control flood waters. The consideration involves the amount of water that rushes into an area, how fast it flows and collects, the space available to manage it, and the cost to stop it, he said. The value of historic structures is part of the analysis, but saving old structures is not always possible.

“Sometimes the engineering behind it doesn’t give you much alternative,” Holman said. “There is a certain amount of water, and you need a certain amount of space to safely move it through the town.

“Safety is number one; that is going to trump everything else. You can’t assign a cost to that part.”

Kittleman established a four-person advisory group that will identify key historical features that can be preserved as the buildings are torn down.

The project is expected to cost $40 million to $50 million and will be funded through county, state and federal money.

Weinstein, who represents Ellicott City, said the county has “heard the urgent calls for rapid action.”

“First and foremost with this plan we are moving quickly to protect life safety; that is the number-one priority,” he said. “We do not want to lose another life due to catastrophic flooding in town.”

Kittleman likened the project’s goals to Frederick’s effort to control flooding from Carroll Creek, which he said took nearly three decades and cost $60 million. County officials also drew inspiration from flood mitigation work in the English town of Hebden Bridge.

Ellicott City’s five-year effort is expected to launch in December or January, after the County Council allocates funding, Weinstein said. The 10 buildings at the base of Main Street would be demolished within a year, he said.

“Even with these improvements, storms like the one in 2016 and this past May could still cause some flooding,” Weinstein said. “However the height of the floodwaters will be dramatically reduced.”

Lexi Milani, vice president of the Ellicott City Partnership and former owner of the Rumor Mill Fusion Bar & Restaurant, recalled the 2016 flood that forced her to march dozens of guests and employees to higher ground when the dining room filled with 8 feet of water. She said she understands why county officials recommended razing some buildings.

“I am unbelievably sad about the part of this plan that requires relocating businesses and removing buildings,” Milani said. “But as a former business owner who had a 1-year-old son and was responsible for a staff primarily of young people during the first flood, I accept that changes must be made and [the] town must be envisioned anew after this second catastrophic event.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

Full coverage: Ellicott City flooding »

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