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Trustees of long-vacant site on U.S. 1 may soon develop it

A vacant, overgrown property on U.S. 1 in Howard County that has contributed for years to the old boulevard's worn-out appearance may be on the verge of a transformation - a possible foreshadowing of the community renaissance that local leaders are trying to engineer.

Trustees for the 17 acres in Elkridge - once a drive-in theater - want to build restaurants, offices, a five-story hotel and nearly 370 apartments for senior citizens. Barry and Charu Mehta of Columbia, who bought the land in 1985 and later put it in a trust, have done little with the property beyond using it for a short-lived flea market.

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County planners do not have the proposal in hand, but they are hopeful the outcome is in line with their vision of a more attractive and intensely developed area with midrise offices and apartments instead of junkyards and sagging motels.

"It would be very nice if this piece of property would finally come into its own," said Marsha McLaughlin, Howard's planning director. "It would certainly be nice to have some pioneer projects to get started with the revitalization of [U.S. 1], and this one could be a good project, if the design is right."

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Elkridge residents have misgivings about the development plan, in part because their experiences with the owners have not been pleasant.

The property looks merely forlorn now - long grass growing from cracks in the pavement, an empty snowball stand near the highway - but for a while it was a magnet for illegal dumping. Trash, broken glass and old trailers piled up, infuriating neighbors. It was cleaned up about two years ago, Barry Mehta said.

"We were the victims and had to pay for the cleanup," he added.

Despite its unkempt history, the land could be prime real estate. State tax assessors value it at nearly $2 million.

From its perch on the west side of the highway, north of Montgomery Road, it is a stroll from Interstate 95 and less than five miles from Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The Mehtas are expecting to draw business travelers to the hotel, proposed to have 132 rooms.

Barry Mehta, who said he is negotiating with Days Inn and several other franchises, assured residents at a recent community meeting that the result would not be reminiscent of the motels on U.S. 1 that charge by the hour.

"We hope to be in an entirely different class," he said.

The development proposal appears to be the first major revitalization-minded project on U.S. 1 since a citizens committee issued recommendations in 2001 and last year.

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Local planners - trying to jump-start changes - are proposing three new zoning districts on and around U.S. 1 to encourage the building of offices, apartments and some retail, but the Mehtas do not have to wait. Their property is split between two zones that permit the uses they have in mind.

It is a rarity along U.S. 1: "There's just not a lot of vacant land," said Dace Blaumanis, project manager for the revitalization effort.

Some Elkridge residents are not sure what to think of the plan. A nice development would be a relief after the dumping, but they are worried about increased traffic on U.S. 1. They are also immediately wary of anything proposed by the owners, in part because it took multiple county citations before the Mehtas cleaned up the trash and erected barriers to stop people from dumping.

"Mr. Mehta's made a lot of promises to the Elkridge community that he hasn't lived up to before," said Dave Grabowski, president of the Greater Elkridge Community Association. He added: "Something's better than what's there now. What that something is, I'm not sure."

The development proposal, which the Mehtas expect to file with the county this month, calls for seven buildings with:

294 condo-style apartments for "active adults" ages 55 and older, which the owners expect to sell for at least $150,000 each.

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72 assisted-living apartments.

Recreational amenities for the seniors, including a swimming pool, a dance floor and a community hall.

A fast-food restaurant, a sit-down restaurant for families and a fine-dining restaurant.

About 6,000 square feet of other retail operations, likely six shops.

A pharmacy and offices, many of them for medical use.

At a meeting with a handful of neighbors two weeks ago, Barry Mehta asked if anyone had suggestions about businesses to fill the retail space. They threw out ideas - a shoe store, a Starbucks, a diner.

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"My hope is one of these shops in the retail [section] will be a diner," he said.

"This over here could be the new hot spot in Elkridge," responded Rita Chelton, 57, an Elkridge activist who is "adamantly" against another fast-food restaurant on the highway but is pleased with the overall concept for the 17 acres.

"I know Route 1 needs to be revitalized," she added.

Barry Mehta is optimistic that his property will serve as a good example.

"This time," he said, "we hope we have a really good, good plan."

To ask questions about the development: 410-799-7514.


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