Community leaders have been agonizing for years about how to rescue U.S. 1 from the drab motels, junkyards, tattoo parlors, dreary industrial parks, liquor stores and jails that define the highway in Howard County.
But developers aren't waiting for the long-planned makeover. They are betting that people will plunk down at least a half-million dollars to live near the rundown business strip - and they appear to be winning those bets.
"In most places, this wouldn't happen," said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county's planning director. "But I think, because of the perception of Howard County, that people are willing to intermix and have high-quality housing - because the schools are good, crime is low, traffic is relatively not congested. They're nice neighborhoods."
Single-family homes are selling for an average of $500,000 in the Rouse Co.'s new mixed-use development of Emerson, which straddles Interstate 95 on the U.S. 1 corridor's western edge, said Dennis W. Miller, a Rouse Co. vice president for development in Howard County.
In Rouse's gated community of Stone Lake, north of Gorman Road in the corridor, the first townhouse is under contract for more than $500,000, and the detached houses will sell "in the high six figures, low seven figures," Miller said. Construction on the 137-acre North Laurel property is focused around a huge quarry lake with cliffs.
"A million-dollar home in this community is going to be a very easy price tag to attain," Miller said. "It's going to - candidly - be the most stunning community in Howard County."
Miller said Rouse isn't having problems persuading buyers to pay more than Howard's average $263,000 home price to live in the U.S. 1 corridor. "People are now realizing how convenient it is," he said.
Other upscale developments are under way or in the planning stage up and down the U.S. 1 corridor - in Elkridge, Jessup, Savage and North Laurel, communities that had long been overlooked in Howard's residential building boom. Until now, homes along the corridor have sold for less than $200,000.
"Fifteen, 20 years ago, if people would have said, `Here's what's happening in North Laurel, Elkridge,' I would have told you [that] you were nuts," Rutter said.
Fast-growing regions across the country are seeing the same sort of investment in older areas with good locations for commuting, said John K. McIlwain, the Urban Land Institute's senior fellow for housing.
In Howard County, land scarcity in particular is driving people to take another look at U.S. 1 - and to look past the seedy hotels, vacant buildings and businesses that don't necessarily cater to an upscale clientele.
What they see are crisscrossing major highways leading anywhere they would want to go, a short drive to Baltimore-Washington International Airport and quirky stores tucked behind the signs and utility lines.
Longtime residents have some misgivings about the new residential development that seems to be rushing in, but they say it's about time people stopped pigeonholing the communities they love as undesirable places.
They point to quaint neighborhoods such as Lawyers Hill, a historic district just west of U.S. 1 in Elkridge that was a 19th-century retreat from summer heat for the well-to-do before it aged into a full-time home for regular folks. Savage Mill - full of antiques and artsy shops - is also near the road.
"I think developers thought, `Wow, here's a chance to put in some high-end housing, and it's accessible to everywhere," said Kevin Doyle, co-chairman of the U.S. 1 revitalization task force, who moved to Elkridge eight years ago.
His task force's work is part of a Howard County effort to chart a new future for a boulevard marred by decades of hodgepodge construction.
The County Council is considering rezoning land along U.S. 1 next year to attract different types of businesses - such as corporate headquarters - along with a mix of retail and residential units. Also next year, the local government will install stone community signs and begin landscaping along the road to "set the tone," said Elmina Hilsenrath, head of the county's environmental and community planning division.
Many developers say the new subdivisions will have a gentrifying influence on businesses in the area as people with a lot of disposable income look for places to spend it.
But it throws into question the commonly held view that the corridor is the last, best hope for more affordable residences in one of the most expensive counties in Maryland.
Fairfax County in Virginia, which has had success revitalizing its portion of U.S. 1 after complaints about blight and topless go-go joints in the 1980s, is seeing million-dollar houses a short jaunt from the road.
"There isn't really that much affordable housing left," said Becky Witsman, executive director of the nonprofit Southeast Fairfax Development Corp. "That's going to be a challenge."
Doyle, whose U.S. 1 task force in Howard hopes to see high-density housing as well as businesses near the road, believes an opportunity for less expensive homes in the community exists. But he knows it's getting more difficult by the day.
As nice as pricey houses can be for an area hoping to improve appearances, Doyle doesn't want them to take over.
"If you build nothing but super-high-end housing, you don't have the workers here - you don't have the people who are going to work in these businesses," he said. "You're going to be creating a situation where everybody living here is working somewhere else and everybody working here is living somewhere else."