Plans to transform the parking lot at the Savage MARC train station in Howard County into a small community of homes, offices, stores and a hotel are moving closer to fruition, part of Maryland's long effort to redevelop mass-transit parking lots.
Construction has not begun on any state-approved "transit-oriented development" projects, though a garage was built at the Owings Mills Metro station in Baltimore County. State transportation officials said that one project proposed at the State Center office complex in downtown Baltimore is expected to get under way this winter.
"We're all looking forward to see what these TODs look like," said Howard County Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a Democrat who represents Savage. Plans for the project were first announced in August 2006 by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Savage is one of 14 planned TODs in Maryland and the only one in Howard on the state's initial list of approved projects announced last summer by Gov. Martin O'Malley. Christopher Patusky, director of real estate for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said the state's list included projects furthest along and those that involved state land.
"If you look at TODs around the state, it's like a parade," said Patusky. The State Center project is leading the way, he said, with similar developments at the Metro station in Owings Mills and the MARC station at Savage not far behind. Next would be the Reisterstown Road Plaza Metro center, where Baltimore's downtown Social Security offices are slated to move, Patusky said.
Two other Howard projects were not on the state's initial list of TODs. The designation brings with it state money and staff support as well as potential tax incentives. The two projects are near the Dorsey station off Route 100, and at Laurel Park next to the existing race track along the railroad line running through Howard near the border with Anne Arundel County. The state did approve a TOD at Laurel City, in nearby Prince George's County.
Savage was a complex challenge from the start because of the relatively small size of the parking lot. A garage had to be built first, and to pay for it, Howard County had to approve an unusual funding mechanism called tax increment financing. Howard's County Council unanimously approved that in May 2009. Under the arrangement, the garage would be state-owned and bonds used to raise money to build it would be paid off by revenue produced later by the commercial portions of the project.
The concept is to cluster development around mass transit stations to promote use of the trains and help cut traffic, while putting lightly used state land back onto the tax rolls. Savage's station is located just off Route 32, only two miles from Fort Meade, where thousands of federal defense and cyber security employees and contractors will be coming to work over the next few years.
Now, developer Philip L. Ross of Petrie Ross Ventures says he has a new partner on the deal and can begin moving forward with the project. Ross, whose firm is based in Annapolis, would not name the company he is working with, but said he had picked up an extra parcel of land to boost the project's size from 12.5 to 19 acres.
"The development environment today is unlike when we first drew the plans in 2006," Ross said. But his firm has made adjustments. Having more room will allow an increase in office space from 78,000 to 100,000 square feet, while the parking garage can be lower and wider, with two stories instead of the original five.
In addition, the project will contain 400 apartments, a 150-room hotel and about 20,000 square feet of retail space along with the 600 space garage. Under Howard laws, at least 15 percent of the residential units must be reserved at lower rents for moderate income families. Additional parking will be on surface lots. Ross said the new plans must first be approved by both the county and state, but if all goes well, construction could begin by late 2012. Local officials are eager to see that happen.
"I think this is important for Route 1," said Howard County planning director Marsha McLaughlin. "Getting a TOD on the MARC line is important," she added. The Savage project is closer to actual construction than the other two more recently announced efforts, she said. "There are a lot of projects that have slowed down," Terrasa said.
At the Savage station recently, Justin Hill, 29, of Washington, an information technology consultant for a firm doing work at Fort Meade, said he could see himself living in the new community, though he's only been in the area three months and hadn't heard about the plans. He was waiting for the 3:55 p.m. Camden Line train at Savage's parking lot to go home.
"Personally, I would love it, having a housing opportunity nearby, shops and restaurants," he said about the project. "It would be great."
"This is the way we should be developing in the future," said Del. Guy Guzzone, who represents the area and worked on U.S. 1 revitalization plans during two terms as a Howard County councilman. "It's an opportunity to get people off the roads."
"It's all good," Ross said. "The county, state and we all want to see this project developed."