Proposal for shops at center criticized Seniors want building to house offices

August 19, 1998|By Nancy A. Youssef | Nancy A. Youssef,SUN STAFF

All are agreed that the old firehouse on Ellicott City's Main Street is going to become a Howard County senior center, but some seniors are objecting to county plans to that would also use the building to expand the street's commercial area.

"Imagine what it would be like to have a restaurant on the second floor of your house," said Dorothy Biller, who has been a regular at Ellicott City's senior center, in the basement of Emory United Methodist on Church Road, for four years. "This is our home away from home."

But county officials say the firehouse property is too valuable a part of the Main Street commercial district to serve only as a senior center.

"That property has a tremendous amount of commercial value," said Marsha McLaughlin, deputy director of the Department of Planning and Zoning. "No one is looking to compromise" the senior center.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker will decide by next month how to resolve the dispute over the building that was left vacant 10 months ago when the county Fire Department occupied new quarters on Montgomery Road near U.S. 29.

Not historic

Unlike many controversies over buildings on Ellicott City's Main Street, this one does not involve historic district regulations. At 59 years of age, the Depression-era Works Progress Administration firehouse is not old enough to be considered historic.

Last year, county officials promised the firehouse's 4,000-foot first floor -- half the building space -- for the senior center that would be completed next year.

But the 125 center members learned in May of the additional plans -- a 4,250-foot addition and up to eight retail shops, including a restaurant, on the second floor.

"All of a sudden we got a plan, and there was commercial space," said Velva H. Howard, a senior center member who did not think the plans are compatible with a senior center.

"Where will the Dumpster go? Where is the food delivery?" asked Howard. "I want what is best for the center."

The seniors want the second floor used for government or doctors' offices.

"Why does it have to be shops?" asked Carla Buehler, the center's director.

They also objected to plans for two-story additions to the building that would extend into what is now a parking lot, saying that would move the seniors' handicapped parking spaces from directly next to the center to several feet behind it.

But county officials say the firehouse is in a vital commercial area and could draw customers up Main Street.

"The whole idea was to stretch the commercial district," said Ellicott City developer Peter Ruff, whose preliminary plan was selected by the county's planning and zoning office. "As far as I know, there is a big parking lot that is unutilized."

Senior centers often share their buildings but usually with libraries or government offices. This building would be the first in the state to combine a retail operation with a senior center, McLaughlin said.

She said choosing tenants such as card and gift shops could appeal to seniors and the general public.

"I think it is possible the two uses could be better for both," she said. "I think you have to have a little imagination."

Officials said the additions are designed to attract customers to walk up to the second floor of shops.

"I don't think I would be interested in the project without the additions," Ruff said. "You need something to draw people inside."

"Generally, retail on the second floor is less successful," McLaughlin said.

But those plans could draw opposition from another quarter -- the Ellicott City Volunteer Firefighters Inc., which owns the parking lot where the additions would be built. Original plans had called for leasing it from the volunteer group for the center's parking lot.

Firefighters weigh in

"Our board of directors opposes the county building on that lot," said John Klein, the volunteer Fire Department's chief. But "there's never been a firm decision on that."

Ellicott City has about 10,000 seniors, making it the second-larg est seniors community in Howard County, behind Columbia. But it has only the fifth-largest of the county's 10 centers, and the only one not handicapped-accessible.

Since the center opened in the church in 1987, both the county and center members have been looking for a location with more space, handicap accessibility, on the first floor, and within two miles of historical Ellicott City.

"We have been here temporarily for the last 10 years," Buehler said of the church. "We want to see this project get moving."

Said Ecker, who said he plans to consider all the proposed uses for the site when making a decision, "We have looked for a senior center forever."

"It's divided. That's what makes my job so interesting," he said.

Pub Date: 8/19/98

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