After decades of growing out, Bel Air appears poised to grow up.
In the span of a few days, county officials unveiled plans to build a downtown administrative building that could reach five stories, followed by a pitch from a group of developers for a five-story, mixed-use building a stone's throw away on Main Street.
Those plans follow a previous proposal for a five-story mixed-use building at the Peppi's Meats site on Thomas Street, as well as another developer's early plans for a possible multiple-story residential building where a defunct Shell gas station sits.
The four projects - all within a three-block area - could make the county seat's skyline soar, while adding fresh retail and office space. With the exception of the Mary E.W. Risteau District Court and Multi-Service Center, a state facility that is exempt from town regulations, no building in Bel Air rises higher than three stories tall because of height restrictions. The code was changed in 2003 to allow five-story structures but hasn't yet been tested.
"It's important to Bel Air's future," said Joseph F. Snee, an attorney who is associated with one of the projects. "Bel Air can't go out. They have to go vertical."
However, officials say the new buildings would hardly turn Bel Air into, say, Towson. Not only is the cap set at five stories, but the top floors must be set back from roadways so as not to tower over the quaint sidewalks.
One of the town's goals is to draw businesses back to the Main Street area without losing the prevailing charm.
"One of the biggest gripes has been that businesses are creeping into neighborhoods," said Mayor Terence O. Hanley, referring to the dozens of single-family houses currently being used by small businesses for office space.
If the projects proceed, they would come on the heels of an $8.8 million streetscape project covering a half-mile section of Main Street between Fulford Avenue and Gordon Street. The project includes resurfacing of Main Street; replacement of concrete and brick sidewalks; creation of new crosswalks, traffic signals and pedestrian lighting; and landscaping enhancements.
Officials say the mixed-use developments - featuring commercial, office and residential space - will jump-start downtown.
"It's that whole Main Street philosophy, trying to recruit restaurants, then retail, and pulling it all together with residential so people are here 24/7, taking advantage of all services," said Elizabeth Book, executive director of the Bel Air Downtown Alliance.
Last week, town officials heard plans for a five-story, 72,000- square-foot building on Main Street. The early concept: a former Christian book store, a bicycle shop and the former law offices of Michael E. Leaf would be razed, making way for a building that would have retail on the first floor - perhaps a "white tablecloth" restaurant, Snee said - topped by two stories of office space and another two stories of condos and apartments.
Snee said there have been efforts to involve developer Michael Euler, who owns the site of a former gas station at the corner of Churchville Road and Bond Street. Euler has been considering the idea of constructing an apartment building there.
"I personally think the town is ready for some residential, whether it be apartments, condos, that sort of thing," Euler said.
Joan Morrissey Ward, a town commissioner and former town planner, said she endorses the idea of mixed-use developments downtown. She participated in the creation of the new development regulations.
"I think that is the way to go in many ways," Ward said. "It helps create better communities all around. You don't have to drive for every use you do, and each sort of enhances the use of the other ones."
The new county administration building, like the Risteau building, would not be subject to the town's regulations. County officials envision a five-story office building that would consolidate functions from 12 locations spread throughout Bel Air, Forest Hill and Edgewood into one government services building.
County Executive David R. Craig's proposed capital budget, which includes the $40 million building, requires approval by the County Council.
"Bel Air is the county seat," said Harford County administration director Lorraine T. Costello. "Harford County government needs to be in Bel Air."
Increased density could exacerbate parking issues. The Board of Education's recent move to a new home just off Main Street has squeezed a parking garage on Hickory Avenue, and the county administration building would gobble up dozens of spots currently used by downtown patrons and permit parkers.
Hanley said the town has about 4,200 parking spots but will need an additional 1,800 spots in the coming years. Possible locations for a new garage could be the current site of the Harford County Health Department, or on top of the existing parking lot at the Risteau building.
The suggested height of a garage at either location: five stories.