After U.S. 1 plans, the work starts

Howard task force hopes revitalization blueprint will become a reality

July 23, 2002|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Now comes the hard part.

That's what Howard County politicians and a group of volunteers are saying about efforts to clean up and redevelop U.S. 1.

The volunteers, known as the Route 1 Corridor Task Force, finished the second phase of a two-year report this month, recommending that the county establish more bus routes and commercial and residential zones along U.S. 1. While many praised the 50-page report as an important planning tool, most say that the true work of redeveloping U.S. 1 lies in the future, after this fall's County Council elections.

Volunteers hope their two years of work will not fall by the wayside after Election Day.

"It's going from the theoretical to the real practical nuts and bolts of getting things done. That's where your level of commitment to a project becomes apparent," said Kevin Doyle, a co-chairman of the task force.

Most task force members say two factors should drive the redevelopment of the road: financial incentives to encourage land and business owners to make changes and rezoning land to spur development.

But the task force report was meant to be a broad guide for the future and did not make specific recommendations for financial incentives.

Two banks, Citizens National Bank and Allfirst Financial Inc., have set aside $25 million for loans to small businesses along the road, but county politicians have not formulated tax or loan incentives.

Most politicians and candidates say they hope to create public-private partnerships to spur development along the road. U.S. 1 "will be a win-win situation. ... There will be enough interest from the private sector to create partnerships," said County Executive James N. Robey, who is running for re-election against Steven H. Adler, a co-chairman of the task force with Doyle.

But even when the county does develop a financial plan, it appears that no incentives will be enough for some business owners along the road to change. For example, Hubcap City in Jessup looks almost as it did when it opened 20 years ago.

"I never have been and never will be interested in changing," said Dan Selke, the owner of Hubcap City, a discount store that many county leaders privately say is one of the biggest eyesores along U.S. 1.

Customers can come to Selke's store, which he describes as "shabby," to look at his wares laid on the ground or in simple displays in front of his store. The only way into the store is on a plank leading to the showroom.

Despite his business' appearance, Selke said, he sells nearly a half-million hubcaps a year, and he and other small businesses have little reason to change.

"No one comes here to pay for a pretty building, they come for cheap hubcaps," Selke said.

"We've been doing fine for years, and it feels like [the government] want us to get out."

Task force members sigh when they hear about business owners such as Selke but are quick to add they have no desire to force anyone to change. They acknowledge that it would be difficult to get all of the businesses along U.S. 1 on the same page.

"It would be naive to say that there are not going to be those battles fought ... but I think there's a way to make it worthwhile to owners to change or spruce up their property," Doyle said.

While county officials are unsure when they can put together financial incentive packages, they have a better idea of when they can rezone. The council is expected to plan comprehensive rezoning for the county next year, and revitalization supporters are hopeful the council will make sweeping changes to U.S. 1.

"It's going to be a critical issue. ... There are quite a few areas that suggest the council will have to upzone," said Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican.

Beyond the basics of zoning and incentives, the study committee identified an array of other moves that government and community groups could make to facilitate U.S. 1's revitalization, including improved bus service, cleanup of public spaces and development of parks along the highway.

Because U.S. 1 is an important transportation corridor, one key set of supporting proposals involves improvements to smooth growing volumes of traffic on the highway and major feeder streets such as Guilford and Dorsey Run roads.

Task force members suggested that several sections of the highway, including areas between Whiskey Bottom and Gorman roads, be landscaped and lanes added to accommodate commercial trucks. Improvements to help traffic flow through major intersections also were suggested.

Some of the transportation improvements have been budgeted for by the state and Howard County officials and are expected to be completed within a few years. Others are on the drawing board or have been proposed by volunteers or transportation planners.

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