Transformation of U.S. 1 under way

Changes in the corridor range from tree planting and new signs to multimillion-dollar developments

November 04, 2005|BY A SUN REPORTER

If one drives U.S. 1 today, it looks like it did yesterday. That is to say that the historic road cutting through Howard County isn't so celebrated anymore.

So why is Dace Blaumanis smiling?

As manager of the county's U.S. 1 revitalization efforts, one would forgive Blaumanis if she conceded defeat in what charitably can only be considered a formidable challenge.

And while she acknowledges the difficulty of revamping the 13-mile-long corridor, much of it neglected for years and widely regarded as an eyesore, Blaumanis also knows what's happening - even though most of it is not visible.

"There are a lot of things going on," she says. "I [recently] was looking back at what has been achieved, and I think a substantial amount of work has been done."

She is correct.

From the subtle, such as planting a grove of cherry trees, to the extreme, such as multimillion-dollar developments, the transformation of U.S. 1 has begun.

"The importance of it comes from the question, `Where do you grow from here?' " says Richard W. Story, chief executive officer of the Economic Development Authority. "And the answer is: Route 1."

Declining space suitable for commercial and residential development elsewhere in the county, Story says, guarantees a vibrant future for the U.S. 1 corridor.

"It will be the site of the inevitable growth that we want and that will occur," he says. "Route 1 will become the last frontier."

That evolution will be slow, and Blaumanis counsels patience. But there has been measurable progress.

That has been helped by the creation of zoning districts to foster residential, retail and commercial redevelopment.

Perhaps the most important of them is the Corridor Activity Center, or CAC.

"That is particularly active in part because they allow residential uses," Blaumanis says. "People are interested in proceeding with developing residential."

More than 1,000 apartment units have been proposed along the corridor and are in various stages of review by the county as part of the zoning and permits processes.

Those developments include:

North Laurel Hill Street complex, which would include 80 apartments and almost 15,000 square feet of commercial space.

Deep Run Crossing, which is planned for 77,000 square feet of commercial space and 318 apartment units.

Elkridge Crossing, at the former drive-in theater, and which proposes 362 apartments and more than 122,000 square feet for commercial use.

Elkridge Town Center, which plans 186 apartment units.

And last week, the owner of Beechcrest Mobile Home Estates revealed plans for 81 apartments.

Several proposed developments have been stalled by a legal challenge to the county's zoning process last year, commonly referred to as Comp Lite.

A citizens group has placed a referendum on next year's ballot that, if approved, would nullify the County Council's approval of the zoning changes.

High-profile projects

Two high-profile projects along the corridor, though, are progressing well.

The first is the overhaul of the former Eastgate Shopping Center in Jessup.

Atlantic Realty Cos. is spending $9 million to convert the property into 60 commercial condominiums for sale or lease. Tenants will include conventional and specialty retailers, wholesalers and service companies.

The development, renamed the Columbia East Marketplace, is scheduled to open this year.

The second is the multimillion-dollar expansion by Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream manufacturing and distribution plant, which is expected to be completed next year.

But, Blaumanis says, there's more to the U.S. 1 revitalization.

Five banks have promised to make millions of dollars in below-market rate loans to aide redevelopment along the corridor.

That program is similar to the one that helps finance improvements along U.S. 40 in Ellicott City.

There are more modest efforts which, Blaumanis says, are nonetheless vital to the overall success of revitalizing the corridor.

Three lighted "gateway" signs - mirroring the one at the entrance of North Laurel - have been installed.

And groundbreaking ceremonies were held in June for the 88-acre High Ridge Park.

"Those people are ecstatic that this park is coming along," Blaumanis says. "They've been waiting for something like this for quite a while. ... I'm confident that they will have a fine product at the end."

There are discussions about building a branch library at the park, although no decision has been made.

Street beautification and pedestrian safety are also important components to the revitalization program.

And two long-range state studies are examining land uses and their effects on transportation needs and infrastructure.

The Horizon Foundation also has stepped in to help provide services to the needy, particularly the youth.

"The needs are acute," especially in the southeast region of the corridor, Blaumanis says. "The population generally has a lower income level than perhaps the county, so there are more issues that come up for the families. Plus, there was a dearth of service providers right in that area."

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