Motel reserves the right to thrive

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Suresh Patel spends most of the day and much of his night standing behind a window of 2-inch bulletproof glass, living the American dream.

Sleep does not come easily, even when he is tired. When you are the owner and operator of a decaying highway motel often frequented by drug dealers and prostitutes, it's important that someone watch from the office as much as possible. It's the only way he and his wife, Indira, can feel safe.

"People come from the street, doing all kinds of drugs and illegal activities," Patel says. "We are tired of it. They sneak in any time they want. We have no control."

In fixing up the Pin-Del Motel, Suresh Patel wants to give his family a better life. It's a dream Howard County officials say they want to make reality for businesses like Patel's along U.S. 1.

The government word for the dream is "revitalization." It means taking the seedy parts of the highway and polishing them to a shine.

But sometimes, even with government encouragement, it's not easy for businesses to resurrect themselves. Lack of money didn't stand in Patel's way. But a zoning quirk did.

Credited with popularizing travel between Washington and Baltimore during the 1920s, U.S. 1 became Maryland's forgotten highway soon after the construction of Interstate 95 in the mid-1960s.

The drug trade and prostitution began to thrive along the highway as businesses deteriorated and money went elsewhere. In recent years, debate between elected officials and residents in Howard County has focused on how to clean up U.S. 1.

Howard County Councilman Guy J. Guzzone says progress is being made, but adds that he doesn't think the government should swoop down and force the changes.

"One of the things I've always said is I don't want the government doing something to Route 1," Guzzone says. "I want the people and the government involved to work together to do something about it."

The Pin-Del Motel has been a part of the landscape on U.S. 1 near North Laurel for as long as most people can remember. No records exist, but Patel figures the oldest part of the motel was built in the 1930s. The two buildings that make up the motel, facing each other across a dimly lit parking lot, are a study in contrast.

One is clean and roomy. The two-story building is relatively new. The rooms have cable television, and a one-night stay costs $45.

The other is musty and cramped. The sinks in the 10-foot-by-10-foot rooms are prone to leaks. The radiators are rusted. On the ceilings above the beds are full-length mirrors. A night here costs $24.

"When you have a place that does not look so good, you cannot ask for the nicest people," Patel says. "You can't charge high rates for something like this. All of it must be torn down."

But Patel was to find out that a zoning line dividing his property stood in the way of his plans. On the front half of his property was the motel, and on the back half was his house. The zoning boundary made the property part residential and part commercial, and any new motel building he put up would be subject to zoning laws governing business construction near residential property.

The laws were so strict that no new motel would be built unless Patel were granted a line adjustment by the county. Last year, he put together his best proposal, pleaded with the county and hoped for the best.

"They told me no," Patel says. "They said once I touched the old building, it would need to comply. It would have to be like 30 feet from the residential line or something. No one opposed us. All my neighbors were in favor of it. They still declined the request."

It was not the America that Patel dreamed of when he was growing up in western India in the small town of Boriavi - a place where Gandhi once walked the streets, protesting British colonial laws that made it illegal for farmers to make salt.

As Patel grew older, he and his friends heard how fast things moved in the United States, how the changing face of technology made America a place of promise for everyone.

"My family was a joint family in India," Patel says. "Which meant my uncle tried to control everything for us financially. My father was a very kind man. He never raised his voice. I knew he would never listen to anyone but my uncle on financial matters. I wanted my own life. I needed to escape."

The year was 1968. America was changing rapidly, but so was Patel's life. He had married before he left India, but his wife stayed behind while he earned his master's degree in civil engineering at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

When he was not in classes he worked, stacking and delivering newspapers and cutting grass. For three years, he lived on $2.25 an hour.

"When I graduated, I tried to find a job as a civil engineer, but no one would hire me because I didn't have any experience," Patel says. "I couldn't starve, so I did anything I could to make money. I worked labor jobs, sometimes 18 hours a day."

Patel eventually found work in Baltimore as a civil engineer and his wife was able to join him in America. But after five years, he didn't feel much security in his new life.

"I knew I could wake up some morning and someone could tell me I didn't have a job anymore," Patel says. "I had been saving as much money as I could. Together with a partner, we put together about $25,000. I quit my job and we bought this hotel in 1976."

The Pin-Del Motel has never billed itself as a luxury resort, but it wasn't a bad place to stay for the price. In the early 1980s, a room could be rented for $12.

Patel and his family lived in a house in back of the motel. The days were long, but Patel was finding his security. After a few years, Patel bought out his partner in 1983 to become the sole owner. There were no longer the huge sacrifices to be made at every turn, pennies to be pinched from each dollar. Suresh Patel would never wake one morning to be told he didn't have a job.

As U.S. 1 began to change in the 1980s, those who pulled into the Pin-Del Motel changed as well. Maids began finding drugs when they cleaned the rooms. People began to sneak prostitutes in late at night.

People without permanent homes gathered their last few dollars to rent one of Patel's rooms on a monthly basis. Sometimes they were families trying to get off the streets. But sometimes they were drug dealers, bringing the streets with them.

In 1988, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents arrested a couple in their motel room with $1 million worth of the hallucinogen PCP. Police suspected the two were part of a nationwide PCP distribution network.

Patel has a routine: If people use his motel to conduct illegal activities, he calls the police. But by the time officers show up, the criminals are usually gone. He's called police twice after someone tried to break in through the windows to steal from guests who have nothing worth stealing. During the past five years, Patel says, it's gotten worse.

"They don't care," he says. "They come back until we throw them out, and then they come back again. Most people who do prostitutes and drugs aren't going to do them at home. They're going to do it in a hotel."

After he was denied the chance to fix his property, to revitalize the area as the politicians were talking about, Patel hired a lawyer.

"It seems to me what Mr. Patel wants to do is in line with upgrading the boulevard," says Charles Wehland, the lawyer who represented Patel when he went before the County Council in July. "I think we presented a strong argument."

Neighbors came to support Patel's cause. Civil engineers hired by Patel pointed out the benefits of the adjustment. The council asked questions, and with each answer Patel tried to make it understood he was just asking for a chance to feel safe.

The argument proved strong enough. Patel was granted his zoning adjustment, more than eight months after first requesting it. When the dust settled, Patel owed more than $10,000 in lawyer fees, but he was free to build and begin again.

"I'm definitely frustrated by this," Patel says. "How can you say you want people to improve things, then tell them no? I had to spend $10,000 just to get permission to improve my property. I might be spending another $30,000 per unit when I build the new part of the hotel. But it's worth it. I'll find a way to pay for it. I'll put money down and finance the rest, I don't care. I'm tired of dealing with the kind of people this brings."

Guzzone, who voted in favor of Patel's request, understands the motel owner's frustrations. But, he says, the laws can't be overlooked - only changed.

"We want to make sure when we have a business owner, we facilitate help the best we can," Guzzone says. "If we find that rules and regulations are hampering things, we have to consider redoing those rules and regulations. Good things are happening on Route 1. I think we're moving in the right direction."

Says Patel: "When [the] county has someone come to them and say, 'I want to improve my property,' I don't think they should hesitate for a second. If everyone fixed up their places, the crime and problems would disappear. They would simply stop altogether."

Until there is sufficient time and money, Patel will continue to operate the older section of his motel as he has in the past.

His son, Ketan, graduated from University of Maryland this year, so there has been much to celebrate.

For the first time in five years, Patel and his wife were able to take a vacation. "My wife said to me, 'Suresh, our son has it so much better growing up in America than we did,'" Patel says. "And she is right."

Patel spoke of a man who asked for a cheap room. He had no valid driver's license or current address. When told he could not stay, the man began to scream. He pounded on the bulletproof glass in the office, threatening Patel.

"I told him, 'Pound harder, maybe you break your fingers!'" Patel says. "He screamed at me to go to hell."

Was he scared?

"No, I don't scare," he says.

He pauses for a moment and adds: "Not here. This is my home."

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