Morris & Ritchie play key role in shaping Harford development

Designers of Arc facility started in Bel Air in 1979

November 16, 2003|By Luciana Lopez | Luciana Lopez,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

This week's ribbon-cutting at the new Arc building in Aberdeen will bring a familiar feeling of accomplishment to the building's designers, Morris & Ritchie Associates, a longtime leader in Harford-area development projects.

The Arc Northern Chesapeake Region, a nonprofit that serves the developmentally disabled, chose MRA after a long selection process, said Tim Quinn, the group's executive director.

"I thought they just captured us better than anybody else," Quinn said. The new building was a particular challenge because The Arc needed a facility that paid special attention to the needs of the disabled. "If you watch a person who uses a wheelchair [here], they can get anywhere," Quinn said.

For Frank Hertsch, president of MRA, the building also will be an enduring reminder of the work he and the company he heads have been doing in Harford for nearly 25 years, during which the company has grown from a basement startup with two employees to a multistate engineering and architecture company with about 300 employees.

And for that quarter-century, Morris & Ritchie Associates has been shaping much of what Harford County has become, helping to build everything from public libraries to water and sewage plans.

Bel Air residents Richard Morris and M. Kirk Ritchie started the company in 1979 as a civil engineering and surveying group. Over the years, the company added services such as land planning, architecture and a broader range of engineering, and eventually moved into a Main Street office in Bel Air.

Today MRA occupies a 20,000-square-foot suite in Abingdon, with easy access to Interstate 95 for the daily fleet of surveyors and engineers who travel to job sites around the county. Other offices operate in Towson and Annapolis Junction, as well as Georgetown in Washington and Wilmington, Del.

MRA's origins in the county have left a deep impression, said Hertsch. The company's designs have helped shape the look and feel of the county, he said.

"If you go up and down [Routes] 24 and 924, you probably can't get out of sight of a community we were involved in," Hertsch said.

Designs like those at Riverside - the company's first major job, a southern Harford community that now includes more than 3,000 residential units and 530 acres of industrial and commercial property - influenced the way the county developed, he added.

Paul Muddiman, a vice president at MRA, said the company's design principles are such a signature piece of their work that even his wife can tell when the company has worked on a project. Those touches include particular care paid to landscaping, detailed entryways and buffers among buildings, he said.

Muddiman said that at Spenceola Farms, a 216-acre community under construction north of Bel Air, the landscaping was meant in part to make the more than 800 residential units appear less densely situated.

Not all of MRA's handiwork is easily visible. The firm worked on the water and sewer master plan for Havre de Grace in 1998, said Arthur Doty, the city's director of public works. "That was a pretty big job for us," Doty said. "We're still using [the plan]."

Doty said the company does other work for the city, too, such as checking over other sets of engineering plans submitted to the city. MRA is one of three companies that Havre de Grace mostly uses for such work, he added. "We're very pleased with the work that they did."

Bel Air also has worked extensively with MRA, particularly when the company still had its headquarters on Main Street, said Robert Syphard, senior planner for the town. "Whenever you'd have projects in and around this area, they've been one of the firms that people would turn to," Syphard said. "There was always a lot of dialogue, they were always able to deal with problems early on. It wasn't the kind of thing where every time you turned around something was wrong."

And although the company has left Bel Air, the town still bears the firm's imprint, Syphard said. Besides work on landmarks such as the firehouse, the public library and the Thomas Hayes Street Office, there are other former MRA works scattered throughout the town. "You can walk down [Main Street] and count three or four major projects that Morris & Ritchie was responsible for."

The firm's influence is set to continue into the future, as well. MRA designed a community center in Aberdeen that's set to open this month. The nature of MRA's work also lends itself to a long- term investment in the community, Hertsch said. "Five or 10 years from now, we're going to be working on some of the same projects that we're working on today," Hertsch said. "We're here for the long run."

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