A developer is planning Howard County's third urban-style mixed-use development along the MARC rail commuter line near Elkridge, a site long expected to be used for a Coca-Cola bottling plant.

The 122-acre project, called Oxford Square, would include up to 1,400 apartments and condominiums, 1 million square feet of commercial space, retail stores, a hotel and possibly six acres for a school, mimicking similar proposals at the Savage and Laurel Park train stations farther south.

The transit station projects have all been promoted as examples of Smart Growth - absorbing new residences and commercial development in areas already served by mass transit, roads, utilities and schools. They also fit with Howard's long-standing plans for redeveloping the U.S. 1 corridor.

County planning director Marsha McLaughlin welcomed the newest project, saying county growth can't encroach on rural areas, which are approaching full development.

"What we're trying to do in the long haul is build public use of the rail service," she said. "Where are going to be the next areas of growth? Route 40, U.S. 1 and Columbia."

The Oxford Square project would be built off Coca-Cola Drive, near the Anne Arundel County line, and would include an unusual twist. The development would be situated just north of Route 100, while the Dorsey MARC station is south of the freeway. To bridge the gap, Lutherville-based developer Preston Partners Inc. has proposed a 1,400-foot-long walkway and bicycle path along the CSX railroad tracks on an existing street that goes under the highway. A transit stop inside the development would also feature shuttle service to the station.

A change to the land's industrial zoning wasn't considered during comprehensive rezoning in 2003 because Coca-Cola was still considering the bottling plant, though more than a decade had passed since it was proposed. Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Enterprises purchased the property for $15.1 million in 1992, when it planned a state-of-the-art bottling facility. The company never built a plant, in part because of shifting consumer tastes and the rising popularity of brands of water, juices and teas, a Coca-Cola spokesman said.

"We just never even looked at it, because it was on the other side of the tracks," McLaughlin said. "It wasn't high on the radar."

David P. Scheffenacker Jr., president of Preston Partners, said he had had an eye on the property for years when it finally came on the market. His firm competed with other big developers to buy it and now has the property under contract for $17 million with plans to settle by the end of the year. The project could cost $700 million to build and take two to three years to get under way if approved, he said.

"We were the only ones that were looking at the property as a transit-oriented development," while others were proposing office and industrial uses, Scheffenacker said.

Land purchase deals have slowed amid the economic downturn, but the Coca-Cola property spurred strong interest from buyers, said Jonathan M. Carpenter, a senior vice president who specializes in investment services with Colliers Pinkard in Baltimore.

"With that location and size of over 100 acres and that good of a development site, you don't see these opportunities come along," he said.

The project must be reviewed by the planning board, but first it needs county zoning board approval for a zoning change from heavy industrial to transit-oriented development, a category created in 2003 to foster urban-style developments near mass transit stations. Without the zoning change, Preston could still build a more traditional office/warehouse park on the land.

As part of their submission, the developers disclosed that Scheffenacker and various corporate incarnations of Preston have contributed $18,040 to Howard County Executive Ken Ulman's political campaigns since early 2006. Ulman said the donations have had no effect on policy, especially since he strongly supports development around transit stops. This one, he noted, promises a project under the county's Green Neighborhoods program for environmentally friendly homes, and a potential school site.

"When folks give to my campaigns they get my vision for the county and the region," he said.

But not everyone approves.

Howard Johnson, president of the Greater Elkridge Community Association, said his members are worried about traffic and school congestion, not to mention the long-proposed walkway under Route 100. His group is waiting for county planners to make their recommendations before taking a formal position.

"To me, it all goes back to 'Is this feasible? Does it make sense?' " to have such a long pathway to the train station, he said.

"If this is truly a model for Route 1 [redevelopment], we don't need 1,000 apartments," Johnson added. "We need affordable housing."

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