A new vision of a better U.S. 40

August 19, 2005|BY A SUN STAFF WRITER

William A. Mackey Jr., When William A. Mackey Jr. envisions U.S. 40, he doesn't see what's there, but the possibilities of what can be.

But that's what he was hired to do.

Mackey's job is to implement improvements and encourage businesses to make others along a seven-mile stretch of U.S. 40, the main corridor for Ellicott City.

Those changes range from the simple, such as installing sidewalks where they don't exist, to the bold, such as convincing businessmen to dig deep and transform the exteriors of their stores.

Although the effort will take years to complete, the goal is clear: Craft a personality for U.S. 40.

"We hope to make Route 40 a more pleasant place - and to make it a place," Mackey says. "Create a special identity so that you experience it as somewhere."

It is a tall order. While U.S. 40 is thriving and is one of the county's principal economic regions, it has evolved over the years into something that resembles chaos more than a satisfying area for shoppers, pedestrians and homeowners.

Much of the long stretch is marred by traffic congestion, sprawling auto dealerships and huge shopping centers set well off the road, with large parking lots in between and little, if any, landscaping.

There are ambitious proposals to significantly alter the landscape of U.S. 40, although most of them are voluntary and many years off. Indeed, some of the boldest ideas are on hold because of a referendum in next year's election challenging the county's zoning.

For the moment, modest steps are the most people can hope for. But the U.S. 40 plans always were to begin that way.

The county turned to Mackey to see that those steps were taken after his predecessor resigned to take a job elsewhere.

Mackey, 41, is a Florida native who arrived here in February via New Hampshire and Boston.

When he entered the University of Miami, Mackey was leaning toward architecture or engineering. But his father, a civil engineer for the city of Miami, "thought my personality was well-suited for planning," Mackey recalls.

Mackey took a couple of planning courses and found he enjoyed them. "I thought it was a good fit, and I just continued to pursue it," he says.

He received a bachelor of arts degree in architecture and a master's in urban and regional planning. Mackey worked for South Miami's planning department for a decade, the last two years as its director.

He then accepted a position with a regional planning agency in New Hampshire, where he stayed for two years. While there, he got married.

Mackey gave up planning more than three years ago to pursue a far different vocation. He and his wife, Lisa, moved to Boston, where Mackey entered the seminary.

"I felt a calling," he says. "I wanted to explore it."

That decision, he says, was not as radical as it might seem. "It's a community of a different sort," Mackey says. "I'm willing to explore things and look at different options. Experiences are a great teacher."

But upon completing his studies about 3 1/2 years ago, Mackey decided to re-establish his previous career.

"As part of the discernment process," he says, "I felt like planning was really where I should be."

The seminary, Mackey says, was valuable in many ways. "I think I understand myself better, and I think I understand people around me in a better way," he says. "The seminary helps one think about values."

The decision to return to planning was perfect. The project manager for U.S. 40, Steve Johns, had just left, creating an opening in Howard County.

Mackey applied and was offered the position. The decision to accept, he says, was easy.

"All of Lisa's family are here in Central Maryland, so we decided to relocate closer to her family," he says.

They recently purchased a home in Catonsville. Last week they celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary.

While the referendum has put some elements of the U.S. 40 project on hold, some aspects are being implemented:

Sidewalks are being installed to make the corridor more "pedestrian friendly." The county, for instance, recently connected the missing section between Plum Tree Drive and North Chatham Road.

Cherry trees will be planted at key spots along the corridor as part of a broader landscaping effort.

Some local banks have agreed to offer below-prime loans for merchants who agree to make improvements to their properties along U.S. 40.

And "gateway" signs soon will be erected to help give the corridor an identity.

The U.S. 40 stretch is "a thriving commercial area. It's doing well," Mackey says. "The focus of the study is to allow and promote improvements. It's to define the street and encourage people to put in landscaping and add trees and make visual improvements."

While improvements will be incremental, Mackey says, the results could produce profound changes for the corridor.

"I like working with the big picture, and I like the idea of community life," he says. "Planning is basically creating a physical setting where community life can happen. I think everybody has a part to play in these things. There's many, many roles in creating a community."

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