Former Bel Air auto auction site slated for redevelopment

The former Bel Air Auto Auction property along Route 1 could become an age-targeted residential community with a small mix of office and retail under a concept plan scheduled for a community input meeting next month.

The future 45-acre tract in the 800 block of Baltimore Pike has been the subject of considerable speculation locally since the 71-year-old auto auction decamped for a new location in Riverside a year ago.

The concept plan for the Bel Air property proposes 131 villa-style houses, a senior living apartment building with up to 100 units, a 5,500-square-foot convenience store with fuel station, a 12,000-square-foot retail/restaurant building and a 21,000-square-foot building with retail/restaurant on the ground floor and office space on the second.

The concept plan shows an interior road network serving the residences with two entrances to the community from Route 1 at Auction Way and at what had been the original entrance to the auction which hadn’t been used for many years. The proposed retail would be concentrated at the property’s Route 1 frontage, which is between Bel Air Carpet and Harford Rental.

The plan was prepared by the Abingdon engineering firm, Morris & Ritchie Associates, and is scheduled for a community input meeting at the Abingdon Library, 2510 S. Tollgate Road, on Oct. 2 at 6 p.m.

According to the Harford County government website, community input meetings are required prior to submission of a concept plan, preliminary plan or site plan for any proposed development generating 250 or more vehicle trips per day or that is determined to be a non-transient non-community water system.

“The Community Input Meeting is intended to facilitate dialogue between the developer and the community regarding the proposed development. Community Input Meetings are the sole responsibility of the property owner or developer,” the website states.

Alan Cohen, a principal in Cohen Siegel Investors, a Rockville residential and commercial development company, said Thursday that he is the contract purchaser of the auto auction property, which is owned by the Raymond Nichols family and its BSC America company that operates public vehicle, equipment and real estate auctions in Maryland and Florida.

“We have a contract to purchase the property and are doing our due diligence,” Cohen said in a telephone interview. His company, he said, is a third-generation enterprise which has done a myriad of commercial and residential projects in Washington, D.C., and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs. The Bel Air development would be the company’s first in Harford County and north of Baltimore.

According to Cohen, the auto auction site’s residential component would be targeted to people 55 and older for which he said there remains an extremely strong market.

Harford County, he said, is a place where “baby boomers want to settle [as they age]; it’s a huge market.” He gave as an example the villas in Fallston Common, behind the Walmart, which were built by a company his firm does business with and sold out rapidly.

“We will offer extremely good quality at reasonable rates; I’m not concerned about selling them,” he said.

Cohen said he does want to hear from people who live around the site.

“I want everyone in the neighborhood to be pleased with what we are doing,” he said. “The property can’t stay that way. Right now it’s 50 acres of impervious land, not good for the environment. Parts need to be green again.”

The site has public water and sewer service, and Cohen said their final plan will comply with all county stormwater management requirements.

He said they are in negotiations with three major convenience store chains for that part of the site.

The site plan shows a senior apartment building on the eastern edge of the property, close to Harford Senior housing. Cohen said, however, that they don’t have final decision on what they might do – it could be fewer units or another use.

He said they have considered using the area for a hotel, something the greater Bel Air area lacks, but the building would be off the main highway which typically wouldn’t be attractive to hotel developers.

BSC America, the site’s current owner, bought the auto auction in the 1980s and gradually expanded its footprint in Bel Air buying up properties to the south and west. Though the auction, which catered to car dealers, typically operated one day a week on Thursdays, the site was one large, full parking lot most of the time, with vehicles coming in for the sale and awaiting transit after they were sold.

The Nichols family, which owns BSC America, decided it needed more space and better access for customers, and the Bel Air site, which is bordered by residential neighborhoods to the south, the Harford Senior Housing building to the east and Lake Fanny Hill to the west, couldn’t be added to so they acquired property off Route 7 in Riverside for a new, larger facility which opened last September.

Since the auto auction left Bel Air, the Route 1 property has been a humongous empty parking lot with a high security fence around the perimeter.

Much of the speculation about what might happen to the site in redevelopment has centered around big box retail.

The site is just west of the Bel Air town limits, however, it is not contiguous to the town, as there are other commercial properties and the senior housing property between the town border.

Bel Air town officials have previously identified the former auction property and areas in between as potential annexation targets to give the town more control over future development, but that appears unlikely to happen, as Cohen said he hopes to get the project underway as quickly as possible, pending the litany of county approvals he must still negotiate.

“We are looking forward to what the community has to say” at the upcoming community input meeting, he said.

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