Laurel officials see frozen development starting to 'thaw'

In his office at the Laurel Municipal Center, Karl Brendle has a lot of development plans — artist renderings and sketches and proposals that, if all brought to fruition, would dramatically transform the city.

The proposed projects, many of which have been on the table for years, show more transit-oriented housing for the city, more retail opportunities, more restaurants and attractions and people. They portray ambitious streetscapes, and together evoke a grand sense of potential in Laurel.

They also depict phantoms: projects that have yet to be built, that have stalled one after another, largely because of the recent recession, which froze development plans in their tracks — in Laurel and across the country — by shaking the confidence and financial foundations of many developers and upending the market demand for anything new.

But in Laurel, that's all about to change, said Brendle, the city's director of community and business planning.

In short, the city's development freeze is finally beginning to crack, he said.

"My opinion is the thaw is definitely on. It's not a heat wave, by any stretch of the imagination, but the thaw is real," Brendle said.

In a recent interview, Laurel Mayor Craig Moe agreed.

"We're starting to see things move forward," Moe said. "Very, very slowly, but they are moving forward."

For starters, Brendle said he expects the blue office building on Route 1 near Mango's and Irene's to be demolished in the next 30 days, the first step in a process being overseen by Visconsi Cos. that will also clear the two restaurants to make way for a new Walgreens store, which Brendle expects will be open in July or August.

Next, Brendle expects developer Patriot Realty to start the first phase of its Hawthorne Place project, a large-scale row of mixed-use buildings along Staggers Road near Route 1, within 120 days.

"They want to start that first row yesterday," he said.

More news on other projects dotting the city — and specifically within its revitalization overlay areas — will likely become available in coming weeks, he said.

"A lot of stuff that was just stalled is beginning to come back to life. A great many number of things, actually," Brendle said. "This time, we think it's real."

Mall development seen as catalyst

Both Moe and Brendle said that in recent weeks, they've been meeting with more developers interested in building in the city, in part because of its growing population — a 25 percent growth in the last decade — and increasing median income..

Then there is the fact that Greenberg Gibbons Commercial is on the verge of announcing the details behind its redevelopment of the Laurel Mall, known as the Laurel Town Centre, news that developers nationwide are keeping an eye on, Brendle said.

"It's a huge catalyst," Brendle said of the mall project. "Everybody's waiting."

"As they (Greenberg Gibbons) start rolling out their project more, and it's able to become public, I think there are going to be people interested," Moe said. "The development community, they sort of feed off each other, which I think is important."

Brian Gibbons, CEO of Greenberg Gibbons, said he doesn't doubt the company's announcement — which he expects to make in the next 30 days — will help growth.

"Right now, the mall is nothing but blight, and it's been like that for a significant amount of time, and it creates a negative impression for Laurel," he said.

The new project will help pull Laurel away from that impression, and "a rising tide kind of raises all ships," Gibbons said.

While waiting on the Greenberg Gibbons' news, developers for multiple other projects in or near the city have also been spending time making sure they have covered all their bases in the sometimes cumbersome zoning processes of local jurisdictions, officials said.

According to Marsha McLaughlin, Howard County's director of planning and zoning, such is the case with the Laurel Park Station project, near the Laurel Park race track.

The developer, Stronarch Group, wants to take advantage of the currently underutilized Laurel Park MARC station by building a transit-oriented development complete with retail, hotel and residential space, and is currently trying to take care of pending issues — like acquiring a sewer pump station for the project — so it can hit the ground running when the market opens up, McLaughlin said.

"You can't get financing until you can convince everybody that it's a go," McLaughlin said.

A regional approach

Regional planners are also trying to ensure they are preparing for new development in the best way, McLaughlin and others said.

For instance, along with the Laurel Park Station project in Howard, there are also two other projects being planned in the immediate vicinity of Laurel Park race track, including one being considered for property off Brock Bridge Road in Anne Arundel County and another being pitched in the city that would transform the current parking lot at the Laurel MARC station on Main Street into a mixed-use development, Brendle said.

In part because the impacts of so much development in such a small area will be more regional than local, city officials are currently working with Anne Arundel and Howard officials to determine what their role should be in either guiding or requiring enhancements to the local transportation infrastructure.

"It's no longer about just counties. It's about the corridor," said Brendle, referring to Route 1.

The city is also planning for the future, he said, by requiring potential developers to work with the city to build LEED-certified, environmentally friendly buildings and offer amenities, like wireless Internet, that are attractive to young professionals.

Moe said that while development will be good for Laurel, it can also present challenges. He's looking to avoid those challenges on the front end by taking a careful, regionally minded approach, he said.

"We not only want to serve the residents of Laurel and the businesses of Laurel, but we also want to serve the surrounding areas, and have people come in and spend money," he said. "But we don't want gridlock. We don't want our schools overcrowded."

As the broader outlook for the city takes shape in the next few months, questions on those sorts of impacts will be at the top of his mind as he talks with developers and other regional partners, Moe said.

"We're doing those things," Moe said. "We've continued to be a player at the table."

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