Incentives may pave the way for a new U.S. 1

Proposal: Two councilmen are pushing to increase the number of residential units allowed in the area to encourage commercial growth.

Howard County

April 13, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

All the planning in the world can't change this reality: The success of Howard County's ambitious strategy to transform U.S. 1 into an inviting urban center with office buildings and high-rise apartments hinges on the people who own the land.

The task would be tricky even if all the owners were gung-ho for change because the boulevard is surrounded by a jigsaw puzzle of property - many owners, many small parcels - that would have to be pulled together into bigger pieces before anything substantial could happen.

But it is not clear what the majority of landowners thinks. The group has been largely silent as Howard leaders discuss rezoning roughly 2,000 acres along U.S. 1 to propel revitalization of the aging strip. A few have piped up in support, a few have sent letters in protest. Others are hesitantly weighing the idea of leaping into the unknown when - even if the zoning changes - they could much more easily stick with the businesses they have.

Hoping to get things moving, a pair of County Council members say they have a plan to remove what they consider a major roadblock.

To control growth, the local government sets limits on residential building - 1,500 homes a year, divided among five areas of the county. In the southeast section, which includes half of U.S. 1, large, mixed-use developments have taken so many of the "allocations" that revitalization projects wouldn't get any until at least 2009. The line likely will get longer before the new zoning is voted on at the end the year.

Councilmen Guy Guzzone and Christopher J. Merdon, who each represent about a third of the U.S. 1 corridor, said they will file legislation shortly that would add 250 residential units to the annual building cap, earmarked for U.S. 1 revitalization projects with a mix of businesses and apartments.

Without that change, "it's too uncertain," said Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican. "We need to provide them with incentives."

"This special purpose is really just to encourage the commercial growth," said Guzzone, a North Laurel/Savage Democrat who has stressed the importance of increasing the county's business tax base.

Allen Cornell, a senior vice president with the Michael Companies Inc., a commercial-industrial real estate brokerage and development firm, said the councilmen's proposal could make the difference between revitalization and stagnation.

"Nobody's going to try ... if you can't get allocations until '09," said Cornell, who represents property owners along U.S. 1. "It's six years. You can't get financing."

Unlike Baltimore County's attempt to redevelop by condemnation, Howard is hoping to move U.S. 1 toward denser, taller and more attractive development by redefining what can be done on the land. Planners, hoping to stop the proliferation of gas stations, used-car lots and storage facilities, are recommending three new zones, two of which permit a mix of businesses and apartments.

Most of the land along U.S. 1 is developed, and planners say those businesses will not be forced out. That means property owners will determine the speed of change - not the county, and not the citizens' panel that recommended the transformation.

"We think that achieving the vision that's laid out in the Route 1 revitalization study ... is a 20-, a 30-, a 40-year prospect," said Marsha McLaughlin, the county's planning director. "As land gets more valuable, making more intensive use out of that land makes more sense. ... Over time, people will see there's money to be made."

Representatives for the Maryland Transit Administration and the Laurel Park racetrack, both landowners in the corridor, have met with planners to discuss possibilities under the new zoning. A handful of developers have also popped in to say they're trying to acquire land.

"We would clearly look to the development community to tell us that this is what they think is possible under the zoning, and this is their proposal," said Adele Stephens, director for transit-oriented development with MTA, which is supportive of the Howard County concept. "We are not looking to be developers per se."

Get the ball rolling

Cornell, who also sits on the U.S. 1 revitalization committee, said many landowners are taking a wait-and-see approach. He thinks a pioneer will have to step forward with a "significant" project before people start jumping in line to redevelop.

"By default, the status quo usually wins out - inertia," he said. "Once you get the ball rolling, it's usually on your side, but you've got to get the ball rolling."

For the public school system, at least, slow change on U.S. 1 is good. That would offer education officials more time to react to a transformation that could either have a substantial impact on nearby schools or very little, depending on whom you ask.

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