Those who have followed the years-long saga of the Gateway School site in Clarksville might be experiencing deja vu after County Executive Ken Ulman's announcement last week that the county had reached a deal to sell the 7.8-acre parcel for $5 million to a developer for a commercial project that would stand out for its environment- and pedestrian-friendly design.
If the statement had a familiar ring, it's because the county made essentially the same announcement in May 2010 — the same price, the same land on Clarksville Pike across from the River Hill village center, the same developer and the same celebration of the promise of the project. At the time, developer George Stone called the deal a "business milestone."
This time, Stone, a Clarksville resident and principal of GreenStone Ventures II LLC, was quoted in the Ulman statement as saying, "We are thrilled that the county was able to get this project back on track."
The project is still clouded by uncertainty, because Ulman announced only a partial solution to the problem that previously held up progress on Clarksville Commons, a development that is to include stores, restaurants, a farmers' market, and perhaps offices.
The name suggests public space open to all, but the trouble has always been access — not for pedestrians but for cars. The problem is traffic flow: left- and right-turn lanes, "full movement access" and "inter-parcel service roads" in State Highway Administration lingo.
An SHA decision about highway access to the site off Route 108 helped break a logjam, leading to renewed discussions between the county and GreenStone Ventures, which in turn led to the most recent announcement from Ulman.
The SHA agreed with a conclusion reached by a traffic engineer who had been hired by the county: that an existing driveway on the east side of the site could be used, but only for the first of the two phases the developer envisions for the project. The agency agreed to allow that access point to have "full movement," meaning it can be used for right and left turns in and out, while it is now only used for right turns in and out.
For now, the county and the developer can stop worrying about a big sticking point: a second access point on the west side of the site.
A letter the SHA sent to the county in May mentions the intention of building an access road that would serve several properties, including Clarksville Commons, although an agency spokeswoman said no specific location for the road has been identified. The highway agency refers to it as an "inter-parcel service road."
That sort of talk worries Steve Kendall, an owner of Kendall Hardware, which sits on nearly five acres just to the west of the Gateway site. Kendall, GreenStone and the county never could agree on a way to use Kendall's private driveway to extend Great Star Drive to the north across Clarksville Pike — an intersection with a traffic light — to create an access road into Clarksville Commons.
Kendall said he offered to sell Stone an easement to use the driveway for $1.3 million but they could not agree on terms.
Kendall expressed skepticism about the SHA decision and concern about the impact the project could have on his business. He said Clarksville Pike is congested enough as it is without having a turning lane into Clarksville Commons just a few yards from the Great Star Drive intersection that leads into his driveway.
"Even our entrance some days of the week has a bottleneck," said Kendall, whose grandfather started the hardware business in 1947. "It's going to be gridlock."
He said he's worried about the second phase of the project.
"I'm afraid Phase 2 is going to rear its ugly head, which is not going to be to our benefit," Kendall said.
Last summer, Kendall told The Baltimore Sun that he feared a new access road behind his store would cut a storage area in half.
"The whole thing is very vague, very open-ended," he said last week.
Joseph Rutter, a principal of Land Design and Development — an Ellicott City firm that works with landowners, engineers and architects to shepherd projects through the county approval process — said each of the two phases would occupy about half the site. Both phases combined are to include about 40,000 square feet of stores and 13,000 square feet of restaurants. Those figures might or might not include office space, depending on what further traffic studies show, Rutter said.
Rutter said no decisions had been made about the best location for the second access point in connection with the second phase. He estimated that the developer could file its first plans with the county in the next few months.
Ulman, meanwhile, is emphasizing the terms of the county's land sale agreement with GreenStone, which calls for a market square, sidewalks on Clarksville Pike, green roofs and rain gardens.
"The developer now has to file a site plan," Ulman said last week. "We believe this project will become a dynamic and unique destination."
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