The changing face of Ellicott City

ELLICOTT CITY, Md. - In a lot of ways, Ellicott City is undergoing a late-in-life growth spurt—shedding historic baby teeth to make room for new pearly white chompers.

Only the historic baby teeth are aging landmarks, and the pearly whites are eco-efficient, modernized retail centers and commercial businesses .

It's in the third wealthiest county in the country and ranked second-best place to live . Ellicott City has experienced 30 years of planned growth, although recent construction and the demolition of some of the town's more notable landmarks has been a little jarring for some.

"It's atypically what I consider Howard County development. They're going to develop every inch of Howard County that they can," Dean Volmer, a former Ellicott City business owner, said.

Ellicott City was home to the Enchanted Forest, the state's first theme park. Although the property (which was featured in the 1990 John Waters film Cry-Baby ) fell into disrepair roughly 15 years ago, it wasn't until October of this year that the site was finally cleared to make room for a bank, according to Ellicott City Patch .

Just across Route 40, the Forest Motel and Diner and Soft Stuff ice cream parlor—both well-known Ellicott City establishments—were knocked down in favor of a planned sports bar (Glory Days), office space and a residential building.

"This is true, but that writing was on the wall [for the Forest Diner] when the Princess Diner (now Double T Diner) moved in next door several years ago," Howard County councilwoman Courtney Watson said.

Volmer, who used to own Jilly's Bar and Grill in the Enchanted Forest Shopping Center, has watched the few blocks radically transform over the last five years.

"I think it's a case of overkill," Volmer said of what's happening across the street from his old restaurant. "Yeah competition is good for the businesses and the people… but how many places do you really need for people to eat? … They're trying to modernize Route 1 [through Elkridge]… and I think that's what they're trying to do to Route 40."

But officials have made an effort to preserve some of Ellicott City's historic qualities.

The Soft Stuff ice cream parlor will be re-opened as a year-round business, Watson confirmed. Additionally, some of the more iconic pieces from the Enchanted Forest were relocated to Clark's Elioak Farm to improve agricultural tourism. Another good example would be the Subway sandwich shop that opened on Main Street in Old Ellicott City—the first chain restaurant to open on the historic street. The Subway had to adhere to Ellicott City's strict historic property guidelines before opening.

"The county rate and pace of growth is set by the General Plan ," Watson said in an email. "The county citizens often request, and the county encourages redevelopment of properties on Route 40 and Route 1 as properties age and the opportunity for assemblage of properties occurs. We have new design standards for commercial properties and a design review process to help encourage more attractive development."

Howard County issued 64,361 square feet of retail business permits to Ellicott City in 2012, the highest of any town in Howard County, according to the Development Monitoring System Report, published in May 2013.

The boom in retail space accounts for the Turf Valley Towne Center, which is home to Ellicott City's largest approved non-residential building permit—a 48,000 square foot Harris Teeter. The center, when completed, will be a 108,000 square foot neighborhood center.

"[What you're seeing is] redevelopment of an aging commercial corridor," Watson continued in her email.  "We view redevelopment as an opportunity for better design and road connections and encourage it. Redevelopment does not necessarily mean more development.

Many citizens who contact me want to see improvements in the look and feel of Route 40 and Route 1, which are our aging commercial corridors," Watson added. "The population grows as more families are attracted to Howard County for its high quality of life, great education, #1 library system, and thus we attract more commercial investment to serve the citizens. The people I speak with are excited about the investments being made along route 40."

One of those residents is Martin Johnson, who moved to Ellicott City in January 1984.

"I like slow growth. I have nothing against growth, but I like slow growth," Johnson, a liquor license consultant in Ellicott City, said.

"It just seems to have never stopped," Johnson added. "The national economy does not seem to have affected Howard County particularly, and it certainly hasn't affected Ellicott City particularly."

He harkened to Clarksville, another Howard County community that has experienced more of a "tidal wave" of growth in recent years.

"In some areas you have 5-lane streets," Johnson said. "Turning from the center lane is not something you would've seen years ago."

Neighboring Columbia, oft-ranked alongside Ellicott City as a top 10 place to live

nationally, is expiring a growth of its own in preparation of the million or more people expected to move into the area over the next 20 years.

"Change is coming whether we like it or not," Phillip Nelson, President of the Columbia Association, said.

About 5,500 resident units in high-density condo-style buildings are planned for Columbia.

"We're dealing with five different generations in Columbia," Nelson said. "Baby boomers and millennials are looking ahead."

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