Ulman urges faster U.S. 1 development

Bill would ease approval of new housing along commercial corridor

April 27, 2008|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

Seeking to accelerate redevelopment of the U.S. 1 corridor, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman wants to change the county's complex growth laws to allow builders to move forward more quickly.

A bill submitted by Ulman for County Council introduction May 5 would make as many as 250 additional housing allocations available annually from future allotments for projects on U.S. 1 -- some similar to the mixed-use Patuxent Square apartment/retail building where a ribbon-cutting was held last week. If approved, that would double the number of allocations available to 500 a year.

"It was born out of my frustration," Ulman said of the legislation.

County planning director Marsha McLaughlin called it "an interim measure" until the next General Plan revision around 2010.

County officials have been working for the past decade to spur redevelopment along U.S. 1, the county's oldest and, by many accounts, least-attractive commercial corridor, where old industrial businesses, used car lots and taverns are gradually being replaced by hotels, townhouses and shopping centers. A community task force formed in 2001 designed a plan for the corridor's future, and the council rezoned the area in 2003 and 2004 for mixed residential/ commercial complexes, especially around public transportation stops.

Located on U.S. 1 in north Laurel, the Patuxent Square building is the first to emerge from that process, but it took eight years. Nine other projects are awaiting construction.

According to county planners, two large projects in the works would bring a combined 2,400 new houses and apartments to the corridor. They are the redevelopment of the Aladdin Mobile Home Park in Jessup, and Bluestream, which is planned on 70 undeveloped acres just north of Aladdin. But because of their close proximity, the projects must share 150 housing allocations per year under current county rules. Farther south in Savage, a project at the MARC train station calls for about 400 apartments in two high-rises, plus a hotel, office/retail buildings and parking garages.

McLaughlin said the Savage developers want to build large apartment buildings more quickly than the current system allows. Other opportunities may come, she said, next to the Laurel Race Track and in historic Elkridge.

The county allows 1,850 new housing allocations annually among five planning districts, with 250 reserved for U.S. 1 projects. But if allocations are exhausted for a given year, a developer must wait, sometimes for years, until more are available. Banks often won't lend construction money if a developer doesn't have the county's allocations in hand.

In addition, Ulman said, the number of available allocations doesn't always match plans for specific projects. If a builder plans three 60-unit apartment or condominium buildings, for example, but has access to only 52 allocations, the project must wait, Ulman said.

The legislation would expand eligibility for U.S. 1 revitalization allocations to townhouse and apartment projects. Currently, they are available only for mixed commercial/residential projects.

It also would cap the total allocations advanced into any single year at 250, and orders county planners to process projects while they wait for allocations, another way to speed the developments along. No single project could get more than 125 advanced allocations in one year.

The council will conduct a public hearing on the measure May 19 and could vote on it in June.

Ulman said it is important that the work done by county officials, community leaders and developers to promote the change be followed up with results.

"It's one thing to create the task force, to create the pretty pictures, then to do the rezoning," Ulman told the assemblage of elected officials, business leaders and residents at the Patuxent Square ceremony. "It's a whole other thing entirely to see something come out of the ground. This is a major priority. I am not patient."

Patuxent Square has 80 one- and two-bedroom affordable apartments, with rents ranging from $732 to $868 a month, or about half the market rate of new apartments. The first floor of the L-shaped building contains 16,000 square feet of retail space.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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