Motel reserves the right to thrive

A Howard business fights to overcome crime, bureaucracy

September 11, 2000|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

Suresh Patel spends most of the day and much of his night standing behind a window of 2-inch bulletproof glass, living the American dream.

Sleep does not come easily, even when he is tired. When you are the owner and operator of a decaying highway motel often frequented by drug dealers and prostitutes, it's important that someone watch from the office as much as possible. It's the only way he and his wife, Indira, can feel safe.

"People come from the street, doing all kinds of drugs and illegal activities," Patel says. "We are tired of it. They sneak in any time they want. We have no control."

In fixing up the Pin-Del Motel, Suresh Patel wants to give his family a better life. It's a dream Howard County officials say they want to make reality for businesses like Patel's along U.S. 1.

The government word for the dream is "revitalization." It means taking the seedy parts of the highway and polishing them to a shine.

But sometimes, even with government encouragement, it's not easy for businesses to resurrect themselves. Lack of money didn't stand in Patel's way. But a zoning quirk did.

Credited with popularizing travel between Washington and Baltimore during the 1920s, U.S. 1 became Maryland's forgotten highway soon after the construction of Interstate 95 in the mid-1960s.

The drug trade and prostitution began to thrive along the highway as businesses deteriorated and money went elsewhere. In recent years, debate between elected officials and residents in Howard County has focused on how to clean up U.S. 1.

Howard County Councilman Guy J. Guzzone says progress is being made, but adds that he doesn't think the government should swoop down and force the changes.

"One of the things I've always said is I don't want the government doing something to Route 1," Guzzone says. "I want the people and the government involved to work together to do something about it."

The Pin-Del Motel has been a part of the landscape on U.S. 1 near North Laurel for as long as most people can remember. No records exist, but Patel figures the oldest part of the motel was built in the 1930s. The two buildings that make up the motel, facing each other across a dimly lit parking lot, are a study in contrast.

One is clean and roomy. The two-story building is relatively new. The rooms have cable television, and a one-night stay costs $45.

The other is musty and cramped. The sinks in the 10-foot-by-10-foot rooms are prone to leaks. The radiators are rusted. On the ceilings above the beds are full-length mirrors. A night here costs $24.

"When you have a place that does not look so good, you cannot ask for the nicest people," Patel says. "You can't charge high rates for something like this. All of it must be torn down."

But Patel was to find out that a zoning line dividing his property stood in the way of his plans. On the front half of his property was the motel, and on the back half was his house. The zoning boundary made the property part residential and part commercial, and any new motel building he put up would be subject to zoning laws governing business construction near residential property.

The laws were so strict that no new motel would be built unless Patel were granted a line adjustment by the county. Last year, he put together his best proposal, pleaded with the county and hoped for the best.

"They told me no," Patel says. "They said once I touched the old building, it would need to comply. It would have to be like 30 feet from the residential line or something. No one opposed us. All my neighbors were in favor of it. They still declined the request."

It was not the America that Patel dreamed of when he was growing up in western India in the small town of Boriavi - a place where Gandhi once walked the streets, protesting British colonial laws that made it illegal for farmers to make salt.

As Patel grew older, he and his friends heard how fast things moved in the United States, how the changing face of technology made America a place of promise for everyone.

"My family was a joint family in India," Patel says. "Which meant my uncle tried to control everything for us financially. My father was a very kind man. He never raised his voice. I knew he would never listen to anyone but my uncle on financial matters. I wanted my own life. I needed to escape."

The year was 1968. America was changing rapidly, but so was Patel's life. He had married before he left India, but his wife stayed behind while he earned his master's degree in civil engineering at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

When he was not in classes he worked, stacking and delivering newspapers and cutting grass. For three years, he lived on $2.25 an hour.

"When I graduated, I tried to find a job as a civil engineer, but no one would hire me because I didn't have any experience," Patel says. "I couldn't starve, so I did anything I could to make money. I worked labor jobs, sometimes 18 hours a day."

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