If there’s one thing that developers and smart growth advocates see eye to eye on, it’s the failure of Howard County’s Corridor Activity Center (CAC) zoning district.

Created in 2004, CAC zoning sought to revitalize the Route 1 Corridor by transforming mobile home parks, auto salvage operations and unsightly stretches of frontage property into pockets of residential communities served by commercial enterprises.

A few businesses did arrive. Mission Place in Jessup has fared the best with retail stores but more meaningful anchors such as grocery stores and restaurants never gained a foothold.

When the Department of Planning and Zoning (DPZ) hired a consultant ahead of the county’s Comprehensive Rezoning effort in 2013, “this was one of the [zones] that they clearly signaled as not having exactly fulfilled its promise, and it hasn’t,” said Grace Kubofcik, a member of the HoCoBy Design Planning Advisory Committee that is helping to guide the county’s General Plan update process.

She said, “It has never managed to attract more than what you call individual type services, and it also didn’t lend itself to its promise of streetscaped enhancements.”

Originally, CAC zoning prescribed 300 square feet of commercial space for each dwelling unit.

Chipping Away

Nine modifications later, the requirement stands at 70 square feet, allowing a further reduction to 20 square feet for developments containing 800 or more dwelling units.

Legislation currently before the council would allow a reduction below 20 square feet if DPZ agrees that a market study submitted by a developer finds it is necessary for a CAC project’s financial viability. It would also reduce the fee paid by developers to buy down this requirement from $50 to $25 per square foot. The fee supports a Howard County Economic Development Authority (HCEDA) fund that promotes commercial development in the Route 1 Corridor.

Speaking before the Howard County Planning Board in September 2020, Sang Oh, a land use attorney representing Blue Stream LLC, said the alternative to reducing the CAC’s commercial requirement is for developers to build hollow retail spaces that sit vacant.

CAC’s commercial space requirements are roughly double the existing commercial square footage found in any of the Village Centers, which are also struggling.

Eventually, Oh said, the combined CAC density might suffice to support a grocery store, “but trying to set up each mixed-use development with its own accessory retail, that’s not going to happen.”

Which Direction?

Smart growth advocates see what’s happened in the Route 1 Corridor as a classic bait-and-switch scenario.

“Start a large project in a particular zone, and if conditions change, simply have the zoning regulation modified to protect you,” said Susan Garber, a spokesperson for the Howard County Citizens Association, in testimony before the County Council on Jan. 19.

She also questioned the appropriateness of considering such a wide-reaching Zoning Regulation Amendment when the county’s General Plan process is underway.

“CAC doesn’t need another Band-Aid,” she said. “It needs a comprehensive overhaul or elimination.”

DPZ’s Technical Staff Report on the requested zoning change notes that the retail landscape’s evolution has been accelerated by the rise of e-commerce and changes in consumer behavior influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, creating more demand for deliveries or curbside pick-up.

The report recommends flexibility until the retail landscape can be better understood.

“It’s obvious that the original intent in the CAC didn’t do what it was supposed to do,” said Phil Engelke, a member of the Planning Board. “Mixed use retail and commercial is very difficult, and…you can’t legislate these things to be successful.”

The broader question, in his view, is that of future direction within the CAC zones in the Corridor.

“We can’t continue to relinquish valuable land for residential use without trying to make up for it in other places because the balance of the commercial-residential tax base is vital to the county’s health and wellbeing,” said Larry Twele, HCEDA President and CEO.

By George Berkheimer | Senior Writer | The Business Monthly | March 2021 Issue