La Plata's future: mend or amend?

Vision: The tornado-torn town is struggling to decide whether to rebuild as it was or to aspire toward a new, more inviting ideal.

July 21, 2002|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

LA PLATA - On the outskirts of downtown, in the neighborhood of historic homes and the one of 1980s vintage, a chorus of hammers securing shingle to roof is the soundtrack of progress. The newest lawn ornament here is the sign proclaiming which contractor is doing the repair work, and there's plenty to be done.

But the center of La Plata's business district - the three square blocks that bore the brunt of the deadly April tornado that slammed through this country town turned Washington suburb - is eerily quiet for a place that until that night boasted more than 160 stores and offices.

Almost no improvement work is being done here. As far as the eye can see, there are blue tarps where roofs used to be, vacant lots where orthodontists and lawyers and hairdressers worked, or condemned buildings awaiting the wrecking ball.

"If a traffic study were done two weeks before the storm and today," said Van T. Mitchell, a lifelong resident whose family building supply company is gone, "it'd be down 95 percent."

The obstacles to rebuilding La Plata - or building a new La Plata, as some proponents like to see it - have come, in part, because sometimes it takes a while to settle with insurance companies. But some of the delays can be traced to the push for progress.

The town's 72-year-old mayor doesn't want the same old La Plata built in this void. The devastation, he says, has also brought opportunity.

This is the chance to fulfill a vision Mayor William F. Eckman and other leaders of this town of 7,000 have been working on for years - a pedestrian-friendly town, in the model of Annapolis or Ellicott City, with stores built right up to the sidewalk, with second-story apartments above, with parking hidden in the back instead of greeting visitors with bumpers and tailpipes. An architect is busily working to design a place La Plata has never been before.

And nature has cleared the slate.

"We want to make La Plata a destination, the kind of place people will come on a Saturday or a Sunday," said the mayor, whose 19-year part-time job became a full-time one on the last Sunday of April.

With the help of volunteers from all over Maryland, the heaviest debris was gone in a week. Careful planning for the future takes time, however.

No building permits have been issued as the town tries to work out design elements, whether a new storm-water system will be needed, how much parking will be allowed, where driveways can be placed.

Eckman said Friday, though, that he expects as many as three permits could be issued this week.

No one will be forced to build under the town's "vision plan." But some business owners are upset that even if they wanted to rebuild exactly what they lost, they haven't been able to get building permits for that, either.

"People are antsy but ... this is the hard part now," said Nina Voehl, a spokeswoman for the Charles County government.

The tornado, one of the most powerful ever to hit Maryland, came quickly, just after 7 p.m. on April 28, surprising residents who were getting reports that the storm's path put it through Waldorf, several miles to the north.

Residents hid in basements and bathtubs. They cowered as trees were snapped off, homes were pushed off their foundations, window after window was shattered. On Oak Avenue, named for the historic trees that lined the road, there is barely any shade to be found.

Forty-eight commercial buildings were destroyed, the mayor says. It's unclear how many will rebuild in downtown. There are doctors and consultants and others who are working from home or in other office space outside central La Plata.

Eckman predicts they'll be back: "I think a year from now we'll have more business in La Plata than a year ago."

Henry DiLorenzo's orthodontics practice stood at the corner of LaGrange and Centennial streets. Now it is nothing but a parking lot and a concrete slab.

It had been renovated the summer before - new dental chairs, X-ray machines, computers, murals of the Chesapeake Bay painted by his elderly father. But DiLorenzo never got around to increasing his insurance.

DiLorenzo gets excited when he hears about the new plans for the town and wants to be part of it - if it can be done quickly. He said he's willing to build apartments above the practice. His son is in dental school and would be able to enjoy the space for years to come.

But he is getting impatient. Without concrete plans from the town, DiLorenzo hasn't paid his own architect to draw up blueprints. After all, it could turn out to be a waste of time and money. This is his livelihood in the balance.

"I'm just treading water right now," he said. "Nothing has happened yet."

Mitchell, the building supply store owner, returned July 3 to the office building he owns across from his destroyed warehouse and lumber yard. Looking out the repaired windows to see very few others reopened is depressing, he said. He recalls the lift the town got when the Safeway reopened in late May. He doesn't think there is enough of that going on.

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