It’s been more than six months since the devastating late July flash flood that rushed down Historic Ellicott City’s Main Street.
But after the destruction came progress, too: Infrastructure work that was to take place in the future has been completed, sometimes years in advance; some buildings that were in danger of being demolished were saved; most of the businesses have reopened; and day-to-day life is returning to normal.
In the tragedy’s wake, one might think that all of the attention on the Historic District the present demands would mean that the future is something to think about, well, later.
Not so. The Howard County Economic Development Authority (HCEDA) took the occasion as an opportunity to look forward — by enlisting the Baltimore Chapter of the Urban Land Institute (ULI), which convened a panel to help envision a new future for the old mill town and promptly presented its recommendations at the George Howard Building on Jan. 12, encouraging the locals to “aim high” in the process.
No matter how far off some improvements may be, Larry Twele, CEO of the HCEDA, said the time to start discussing the future is now.
“[The ULI’s] professionals have traveled across the world, looking at the way successful communities are structured and operate. Their journeys have taken them to revitalized cities, rebuilt towns and successful historic communities,” Twele said. “When you take a third-party look at so many places, it really helps you to see opportunities from a different perspective.”
‘Wide, Not Skinny’
When considering the approach, Charlie Duff, president of Jubilee Baltimore and a member of the ULI panel, said the community “needs to start with things that can be done now, so our recommendation is to start by creating destinations” — by perhaps turning the underused B&O Railroad Museum at the bottom of Main Street, as well as the old post office, which is now the home of Howard County Tourism, into destination restaurants.
Secondly, Duff would redevelop “The Acropolis,” which is his name for the old Howard County Courthouse. “When we say ‘think big,’ know we’re not just talking about Main Street. In Ellicott City, that includes the Acropolis, and the Manor Hill Tavern. You need that vision,” he said. “It’s wide, not skinny. An organization needs to be created that will work toward realizing the potential of the place.
“Ellicott City needs to be a city, not just a street,” said Duff. “Between the Acropolis and [Parking] Lot D lies potential to create a very wonderful place.
“There are some squabbles between people with different points of view about [how to improve] Main Street, and there will always be,” he said, “but Ellicott City and Columbia should look at each other and do something that the other one isn’t doing. [Columbia founder] Jim Rouse had the sense not to make Columbia look like Ellicott City. And I hope that Columbia will never stop changing. Real cities don’t ever stop.”
On that note, Duff said Ellicott City “is the last type of place you’d expect to find in the Baltimore-Washington Corridor. However, the jewel that it is, it still faces hurdles to clear if it is to ever become the attraction” that Annapolis and St. Michael’s are.
“If you were to compare Ellicott City to Annapolis, know that Ellicott City doesn’t have a nautical community or the United States Naval Academy,” he said, “nor has it had 10 people who have devoted their lives to making it work, as Annapolis did. Ellicott City needs an [Anne] St. Clair Wright,” he said, tipping his hat to the founder of the Historic Annapolis Foundation, who served four terms as president while promoting the state capital’s gentrification.
While Ellicott City “has a lot of potential,” Duff cautioned that the change his group envisions won’t happen overnight.
“Strength happens with money,” he said, “and someone will have to put it up.”
Supporting Duff’s observations is Brad Rogers, principal with Advanced Placemaking, also of Baltimore, and also a member of the ULI panel.
“I think the Ellicott City is a tremendous, special place and a huge asset for Howard County,” said Rogers. “We’re entering a time when young people want to live in, and work in, neighborhoods with vitality and history, and Ellicott City provides that for Howard County — which is still very much a 20th-century suburb. It needs to figure out how to attract and retain young people whose tastes are changing.
“The flood was a terrible gift, if you will, but also one that we can’t afford to squander,” he said. “It forces us to rebuild with intention and purpose. We need to focus on what Ellicott City needs to be in the future, not just what it was yesterday.”
Anthony Cordo, executive director for Howard County Tourism, good-naturedly took Duff’s suggestion of finding a new headquarters for his office in stride, and was quick to hop on the bandwagon. “We all want what’s best for Ellicott City, of course,” he said. “The route to recovery was well thought out, from [County Executive] Allan Kittleman on down, and that’s a testament to what’s already happened.
“The ULI study has underscored our commitment to making the town grow, and understanding the different uses of the various buildings and lots,” Cordo said. “I think the group gave everyone in the room some new ideas.”
Concerning the part of the discussion about making Ellicott City a weekend destination, he said that, “There is always that pillar of a shopping, eating and overnight accommodation, thus creating a turnkey district with everything in one place,” and that the plan gave some parameters to work toward that goal.
“I don’t know if all of those things the ULI group discussed will happen, but getting us to think big was key to the presentation,” Cordo said. “There are a lot of buildings along that stretch of Main Street, and we have a lot of talent that’s already here. I’m very excited to see what the next five years bring.”
Like Cordo, Karen Besson was among the many attendees at the Jan. 12 meeting who share the enthusiasm for what Ellicott City can become. However, Besson, president of the Ellicott City Partnership (ECP), wishes more stakeholders and residents had been in the audience that evening.
“We found the information presented by the group very valuable,” she said, noting she arranged a second live presentation on Jan. 31 at the ECP’s property and business owner meeting. Earlier that day, Besson also took part in a research trip to nearby Downtown Silver Spring. “Obviously, Ellicott City is a completely different animal, but there are elements that we can take away from the visit, including asking all of the stakeholders to get involved and make what we have even better.”
And like Cordo, she also loved that the ULI panel encouraged going big. “I love the ‘aim higher’ mantra,” said Besson. “Ellicott City needs to be a town of mixed offerings for a mixed crowd. We know that people who came here when they were younger often return later in life.”
In the end, she said, preparing for the future is all about people’s various perspectives.
“I can’t overemphasize the value of having fresh eyes here, and that’s why it’s so valuable to have the ULI here,” Besson said. “All around our region, we deal with competition for consumer dollars. Main streets are popping up all over the region, but we have an authentic Main Street. We have to capitalize on that offering.”
True, but as Duff suggested, the theme of the evening was to work together to meld the varying opinions to make that happen. Twele stressed that notion, too.
“ULI and their suggestions are not intended to be a final answer for Ellicott City,” he said, “they are intended to be used as points of discussion during future planning and community sessions. The rebuilding and revitalization of this town is a marathon, not a sprint, and great ideas from thought leaders such as [the ULI group] position us to be more successful.”
Besson concurred. “This is the kind of presentation we’ve needed,” she said. “It couldn’t have come at a better time, because we’re moving out of disaster phase, and we can take the next step to make Ellicott City better,” she said. “I have this vision of a thriving Main Street. Ellicott City is poised to embark on a new chapter in its history.”