Residents oppose mixed-use community They fear proposal would worsen traffic, stall Freestate plan

September 27, 1996|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Just when North Laurel and Savage residents were foreseeing a breakthrough in their communities with new schools and an expected shopping center, they're being hit with the one thing many say they hate most -- a Columbia-style neighborhood -- right in their back yards.

"None of us like Columbia -- sorry to hurt your feelings -- and we don't want Columbia at our back doors," Savage resident Myra Phelps said at a community meeting earlier this week with officials from the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer and the developer of a large, new community proposed for the North Laurel-Savage area.

North Laurel and Savage residents fear the new development -- called a "mixed-use" community because it would include single-family homes as well multifamily units and retailers -- would worsen traffic problems in an area that has some of Howard County's most congested streets and crowded schools.

Some also fear that the proposed Rouse development -- with its Columbia-style retail center -- would hamper efforts to draw the businesses they've long wanted at the Freestate Development site -- a planned shopping center that has been little more than a large, grassy field since it closed as a harness racing track six years ago.

Last spring, Freestate gained its first commitment from a major retailer, CarMax, the used-car "super-store." CarMax is expected draw other businesses to the area, but it won't open until late 1997. There have been no other commitments announced by Freestate's developer.

"We originally expected something to happen at Freestate three or four years ago," said William Waff, president of the Savage Community Association. "Now, one of the concerns I personally have is, with the Rouse [plan], the potential retail at Freestate might end up going to the mixed-use community."

Rouse is expected to file its petition for the mixed-use development by early next month. About half the size of a typical Columbia village, it would sit south of Gorman Road and north of Route 216 on the east and west sides of Interstate 95. It would bring 1,425 new residential units to the North Laurel-Savage area and more than 3,800 new residents.

David Forester, a vice president with Rouse, told the boisterous group of Savage residents who mostly opposed the project that the county planning board had recommended a mixed-use development for that area in 1990.

The developer has been fine-tuning details of the application and has been meeting with residents in nearby communities to discuss the plans.

If all regulatory hurdles are cleared, Rouse is expecting to begin construction on the 527-acre site in about 18 months, officials said at the meeting at Carroll Baldwin Memorial Hall Monday night. Completion will take eight to 10 years.

Construction is expected to begin on the west side of I-95 and move east, with retail centers being constructed near the interstate. Included in the plans is the possible conversion into a restaurant the old Stevens farmhouse at Gorman Road and I-95, Forester said at Monday night's meeting.

He said Rouse plans to improve roads in the community to accommodate the increased traffic, but some of the burden would rest with the county.

"The county does have an obligation" to make some improvements, Forester said. But "we're proposing to take on some responsibility for road improvements. We're picking up that responsibility from the outset."

That didn't calm residents' fears. They complained of backups already along U.S. 1 and about community streets becoming overburdened, particularly Gorman Road -- one of the county's designated scenic routes.

"Why can't you just leave it alone?" asked Savage resident Joseph James Jr.

Phelps added: "I wish I had a billion dollars because I would fight you tooth and nail."

Development anxieties have been building in Savage for years -- as more residents move in and few retailers come.

The Freestate development is among residents' greatest frustrations. They want a shopping center there so they won't have to travel to Columbia or the Laurel side of Prince George's County to shop. But the only guarantee they have is that a more-than-45-acre used-car lot will be built there next year.

"We're disappointed," said Waff, the community association president. "We are anxious for retail to be in there, a major grocery store, restaurants, movie theaters."

Last spring, CarMax officials assured legislators that its big advertising campaigns and popularity would be the anchor that Freestate has needed to win other retailers. The dealer still is making the same pitch.

"I believe what was said was that after CarMax was up and running it would draw other businesses to Freestate," said John Breitenberg, a Clarksville attorney who helped lure CarMax to the county.

Already, some retailers, including Safeway, have turned deaf ears to Freestate's developer the Lincoln Property Co., saying the North Laurel-Savage area lacked the kind of residential density that they were looking for.

Lincoln Properties appears to have given up the idea of developing the rest of the site itself. The company now has several parcels up for sale -- and that worries some residents, especially with the Rouse Co. about to file the mixed-use development.

Officials at Lincoln Properties have not returned phone calls.

Howard's planners and economic development officials believe the mixed-use community would be an asset to the North Laurel-Savage area and the county. They believe that CarMax and the mixed-use development ultimately will jump start the languishing Freestate site.

"Typically, retail follows as more residential goes in," said Richard Story, director of the Howard County Economic Development Authority. "CarMax may well be the traffic generator that lures retail business to Freestate. I think the Rouse project will only compliment that."

Pub Date: 9/27/96

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