Consider Route 1.

It’s that sometimes famed and sometimes infamous stretch of Americana that, like it’s nearby, modern and parallel counterpart, Interstate 95, pierces and punctuates southeastern Howard County. It’s also helped bring decade upon decade of economic opportunity along for the ride.

But as the artery has aged and fallen into various stages of disrepair along various spots on its map, Route 1 has been a topic of ample debate that has also been accented with a sense of optimism, as a number of new projects have risen in recent years.

With more construction in the works, a discussion about Howard County’s approximately 11-mile stretch of the highway is rarely dull and can careen toward frustration, as that development has occurred somewhat slower and in a more scattergun manner than some observers had hoped.

‘Sweet Spot’

While the redevelopment of Columbia Town Center seems to get more attention, Vernon Thompson, executive vice president with the Howard County Economic Development Authority (HCEDA), said that “6o% of our activity is centered around Route 1, with many fresh food and even some cyber companies” interested in the avenue.

“They kind of cluster. Our reputation, location and proximity to Route 95 help,” said Thompson, noting that, as is often the case, the market and landowners really dictate what’s going on there. “We’re just trying to watch the market, see what logic dictates and act accordingly.

“Right now, we’re in a sweet spot. It’s a long process, and it will slowly continue,” he said. “It’s what we call a legacy corridor, and it’s got some hair on it.”

In addition to some sights that can be less-than-sightly, a big challenge along Route 1 is that its myriad property owners know the value of their land will continue to increase.

“That makes it hard to assemble parcels. We’re looking for developers who have the patience to assemble large enough [parcels] to build game-changing projects that are consistent with the county’s development plan, to help establish more mixed-use and improve its look and feel, and the job and tax bases,” Thompson said, citing current projects like Iron World Fencing, North Laurel; G. Cefalu, a greengrocer in Jessup; mixed-use projects like Bluestream; and the Howard Square residential project, both in Elkridge, where Howard County is also working on creating a main street.

Indeed, Route 1 is a big player in the county’s job market. Raj Kudchadkar, deputy director with the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning, said, “Many people don’t know this, but that Route 1/Route 95 corridor between Elkridge and North Laurel already retains 30% of our jobs. We want to ramp that figure up.”

To do that, Kudchadkar said, Howard County is offering a Route 1 tax credit, which is a year old. “Our first applicant has applied” to acquire a $100,000 loan to improve the building, façade and landscaping for properties of less than 10 acres.

Areas of Focus

Kudchadkar added that Howard County is also hoping to acquire the Sustainable Communities designation for the southern end of Route 1, which encompasses Savage and North Laurel. According to the National Council of State Housing Agencies web site, the county “plans to target streetscape and transportation enhancements along Route 1 corridor,” develop historic preservation policies in Savage, promote transit-oriented developments (TOD) at the Laurel Park and Savage MARC stations (see article, page 2) and expand community services.

“It’s much like the Route 1 tax credit,” he said, also noting the availability of another similar program, the Job Creation Tax Credit.

Kudchadkar also pointed to progress in that area, notably the Laurel Park Station (see page 2). “If we want it to be a business district, [Route 1] has to look like a business district.”

Much of Route 1 isn’t there yet, although “There has been progress,” said Jen Terrasa, Howard County councilmember in District 3, noting that the most recent comprehensive zoning for the corridor was the 2003/04’s Comp Lite. “Some of what was hoped for has come to fruition,” like the successful Lorien Elkridge project; but she added that activity within Route 1’s Corridor Activity Centers haven’t been so great.

Terrasa also discussed the need for more commercial development on the southern end of Route 1. “For that to work, more residents and more traffic are needed,” she said. “Take Ashbury Courts [in North Laurel], for instance. It has a building above a floor of neighborhood retail, but there are not enough people there to support its commercial portion. We need more commercial nodes.”

There “hasn’t been much progress on that end of Route 1,” she said. “There are [numerous] parcels available, and we have been hoping to see a number of them merged to start a grander project, perhaps like Shipley’s Grant [a mixed-use project in Ellicott City]. Today, you have to go north of Route 32 to buy a cup of coffee.”

So that area “needs more concentrated energy, like Maple Lawn has,” Terrasa said. “If one restaurant there is crowded, you have other options; that’s not the case at Ashbury Courts.”

Southern Weakness

Daraius Irani, chief economist of the Regional Economic and Studies Institute at Towson University, agreed that Route 1 is “not as strong near Laurel,” where there “isn’t as much development, like there is next to the Route 100 end” of Route 1, and offered a similar perspective about its merits.

“It’s got potential, but it does have some challenges,” Irani said, “notably [buying land from] enough small property owners to assemble a larger parcel.”

Another general concern of Irani’s is traffic. “Even something positive, like Sunbelt Produce building its big facility in Jessup, means additional traffic and large- scale trucks using roads that can’t really support it,” he said. “It’s a state highway which means there can be infrastructure concerns, such as setting up traffic lights, ingress and egress,” etc. “That’s one more level of bureaucracy to deal with.”

It all leads to uncertainty within the business community about what may eventually rise before: residential, mixed-use, industrial, or something else. “It’s hard to make a decision on how to proceed,” said Irani, “because they don’t know what to expect.”

Pointing out that there are still some of the stereotypical rundown roadside motels dotting Route 1, Irani also noted some of the progress. “Howard County has made a deliberate effort to improve it,” he said, “but they have to rely on the private market.”

The continuing emergence of the cybersecurity market “may give Route 1 a boost” on its southern end, near Fort Meade.

To hear others tell it, that boost is already coming. “It used to be that no one would move out of Columbia, south of Route 95,” said Darrell Nevin, managing director, commercial division, with Keller Williams Realty Centre of Greater Howard County, in Columbia. “Now, it’s the center of the universe between NIH and Fort Meade.”

The affordable housing that is being built along Route 1 “is a sign of what’s to come,” he said. “Apartment rents are already cheaper, and the completion of Dorsey Run Road as a bypass for trucks is closer to completion, which will ease traffic.”

Another indicator is the success MOM’s organic market, which is ideally suited to the corridor because of what Nevin termed the “food desert” on the highway’s eastern end.

Fits, Starts

Speaking of the supermarket business, a development that has risen a couple of miles south of the Howard County line — Town Centre Laurel — is indicative of what’s expected to happen along Route 1 “for the next 10 to 20 years,” said Nevin.

“That’s where the upswing will be. The new Harris Teeter at Town Centre Laurel is an important indicator or where the smart money is going,” said Nevin. “Route 1 will never be a place for huge assemblages of land. I don’t think anyone will want to assemble 1,000 acres along the highway to build another Maple Lawn.”

And that means a variety of projects will continue to pop up along Route 1.

“In an ideal world, it would be great to get all of the auto-related businesses and hubcap folks in one location,” Thompson said. “I don’t know how soon that will be. There are plenty of landowners thinking about that.

“If you want immediate gratification,” scanning the Route 1 landscape for development opportunities “may not be your line of work,” he said, “but, we are making progress.”