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Laurel Park Station development gaining steam

Five years after Howard County planning officials approved initial plans for a major transit-oriented development next to the Laurel Park race track, the project is back on the rails.

New plans for the first phase of Laurel Park Station were recently submitted to Howard County's Department of Planning and Zoning, according to DPZ Deputy Director Raj Kudchadkar.

The whole project is slated to bring 1,000 residential units – a mix of apartments, condominiums and townhouses – as well as 127,000 square feet of retail space and 650,000 square feet of office space to a 65-acre plot of land in North Laurel, currently a parking lot adjacent to the Laurel Park MARC train station.

Construction will take place over a period of eight to 10 years, according to Aaron Greenfield, an attorney for Laurel Park. The project is divided into four phases.

"It's a transit-oriented development, so it's smart growth," Greenfield said.

Phase one will bring 220 residential units – 64 condos and 156 townhouses – according to Kudchadkar. The county is currently in the process of reviewing and signing off on the designs, and then Laurel Park engineers will apply for building permits. Phases two, three and four have not yet been submitted for county review.

Greenfield said infrastructure work for the first phase of the development could begin this fall or early next year.

There's already evidence of activity at the long-barren site: Two elegant new pump houses with red-brick facades, black tile roofs and carriage lights in the windows, sit along the entrance to the Laurel Park race track. They were recently built by the county, at a cost of $9,130,000, to support the area's water and sewer systems.

Greenfield said one reason the project has taken a while to get off the ground was because the developer, the Canadian-based Stronach Group, which also owns Laurel Park race track and Pimlico race track in Baltimore, has spent "a tremendous amount of time" working to secure environmental permits for the site.

This is not the first time plans for the project have been resubmitted. The original Laurel Park Station concept called for 765 apartment units, but the residential density was later increased to 1,000 units to meet an expected bump in demand for housing near Fort Meade military base as bases close elsewhere, an official for Walter Lynch, the architectural firm involved in designing the Laurel Park project, said in 2010.

A major focus of the development is its proximity to the MARC station at Laurel Park, which is currently a flag stop on the Camden line.

"It's a regional station," Greenfield said. "We've done parking demand and transit demand studies, which demonstrate that people would much rather have the ease of finding a parking spot, having a cup of coffee and jumping on the train to Washington or Baltimore" rather than sit in traffic during the long commute to either metropolis.

Howard County officials, he added, have made the train station a priority in letters to the state's secretary of transportation.

Laurel city officials and residents have recently expressed concern that the Laurel Park station is aiming to replace the city's MARC station, located 2,500 feet to the south on Laurel's historic Main Street. State leaders from Prince George's County have joined the effort to lobby for the current station to stay.

Greenfield said the Laurel Park station didn't have to replace the one in Laurel.

"Increased transit on the Camden line is critical for the region," he said. "There are two train stations that have co-existed in that proximity for 100 years or so."

Kudchadkar, too, said more transportation could be a "win-win" for the area.

"Having two stops is feasible," he said. "Laurel Park Station is a flag stop, so at certain times people can go on the platform at Laurel Park Station and flag a train down. Having close train stops is something that's not unprecedented – in fact, it's very common."

Kudchadkar said Howard officials were working in collaboration with the city of Laurel and MDOT to find a solution, which could also include staggered stops and increased connectivity between the two train stations, through pathways and bike paths.

Based on an internal memorandum from this spring, Howard transportation officials have kept a close eye on the project's attention to transit features.

In the memorandum, written to DPZ Land Development Division Chief Kent Sheubrooks, Office of Transportation Planner Brian Muldoon wrote that "While the fundamental layout of the plan is logical from a transportation perspective ... there is scarcely a word about transit in this 'transit'-oriented development submission. It is also noted that the community meeting held for this development was approximately 6 years ago. Many aspects of the community have changed since then."

Muldoon noted that a submitted plan showed sharrows, or shared-lane bicycle pavement markings on the road, and "Share the Road" signs rather than separated, on-street bike lanes.

"Laurel Park is a clean slate development except for the continuation of several roads. ... Sharrows are a retrofit treatment that is used as a last option when no space is available and nothing else can be done except a retrofit," he wrote.

Rob Vogel, the principal at Robert H. Vogel Engineering, the firm in charge of the project's engineering, did not return several calls for comment.

Greenfield said more transit-oriented features "will be addressed in our plan" – for example, a deceleration lane will be continued as a bike lane, which will then connect to trails around the property.

He added that the developer is hoping to obtain tax increment financing, a government subsidy for development projects that improve a local community, to pay for extra amenities for the development, including a pathway system throughout the property.

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