The Aberdeen rail station is back on the transit map. Literally.
The newest versions of MARC train system maps now picture the Harford County stop among others across the state–an appropriate addition after the state of Maryland designated the station and surrounding area as a “Transit-Oriented Development” Zone.
That designation is intended to provide state support for a radical redevelopment of downtown Aberdeen, one which local leaders hope will finally break a lingering stigma around the station and turn it into one of Maryland’s premier mixed-use projects, combining residential, commercial, and transportation elements.
Officials with the Maryland Department of Transportation presented their latest plans for that project to Aberdeen’s city council and local residents Thursday afternoon. Among the designs are plans for a large hotel bordering Festival Park; a full street-scaping of Route 40 through Aberdeen, and several six-story tall office buildings with first-floor retail centered around a new “Station Square,” which would feature a new underpass below the train tracks.
If realized, the project’s proponents hope it could redefine Aberdeen as a community and re-center Harford County.
“In some ways, it makes more sense for this to be a downtown for Harford, it’s a natural transportation hub,” said David Benn, an architect with Cho, Benn, Holback and Associates of Baltimore, who presented the plans to the council. “This kind of plan could dramatically change the character of this place. Save the good stuff, the small-town feel, but build off of it.”
Full details of MDOT’s proposals can be found on their official Web page for the Aberdeen project, and in the following presentation.
Benn played to a standing-room crowd in the city council chambers for a scheduled 4:15 p.m. presentation which included all of the council members. As they had already heard the presentation, a planned 6 p.m. repeat of the material was called off, with council members convening only a brief session to make statements backing the designs.
Among the citizens present was Ben Cordle, pastor of Bible Baptist Church on Mitchell Avenue, not far from the train station, who questioned how parking would be handled in the time between the start of the first projects and the completion of a planned parking garage. Benn said parking would be encouraged on the other side of the tracks, in the area of West Bel Air Avenue, but did not provide specifics.
Cordle said a lack of commuter parking has been an ongoing problem on work days.
“They park [along the streets], park in people’s yards, park right up to the intersection, to the point that you have to pull into the intersection to find out if there’s a vehicle in the intersection,” he said.
The mixed-use development would target those seeking a more urban style of living, in which they could possibly commute by shuttle to work at Aberdeen Proving Ground and find the services they need at hand in downtown Aberdeen. But selling that type of lifestyle may involve changing not just the city itself but the mindset of a traditionally rural and suburban Harford County populace.
But Benn said Aberdeen has a key advantage over some other Transit-Oriented Development sites across the state: the rail station is already located close to the downtown area, rather than being surrounded by vast parking lots in a less accessible part of the community.
“We have a downtown here, we already have a main street, we’re just reinforcing it, we’re knitting it in,” he said. “You don’t have to attract everyone from Harford County [to urban living], you just have to attract the right type of people. They can still have a rural or suburban lifestyle, this just provides another option.”
The cost of the project had not been determined, with Benn saying it “depends on the year you build it in.” Harford County Economic Development Director Jim Richardson estimated that redevelopment of the train station itself would cost between $25 and $30 million, with more going into the street-scaping of Route 40.
The city would also have to acquire parcels of property around the downtown area to assemble into land for larger construction efforts. Furthermore, private-public partnerships including tax incentives would likely be required to lure a hotel operation and other commercial entities.
Finally, Richardson said Aberdeen Proving Ground officials have been involved in conversations about improving public transportation through the main gates of the facility. While he said the county is not able to run a shuttle only for APG employees, the Army does have that ability, and has been running such a shuttle since the spring. However, it was not clear if the shuttle was heavily used.
As the city still seeks ways to deter vagrancy and other activities from Festival Park, Mayor Mike Bennett said maintaining safety in the newly-constructed areas specifically—and all of downtown Aberdeen generally—would be critical. He said the new underpass below the tracks would be much more wide-open and pedestrian-friendly, and turning Route 40 into a tree-lined boulevard may help slow vehicles down through the area.
Aberdeen Police Chief Henry Trabert has also begun a program of community policing, Bennett said, encouraging officers to work alongside downtown businesses to keep an eye out for questionable activity.
Bennett and city council members said the transformation of the rail station and downtown Aberdeen would likely take years to complete, but that the first steps could be accomplished in the near future.
“I am encouraged, and I am enthusiastic about where we are at this point,” council member Ruth Ann Young said. “I know it will take a lot of money, but putting that aside at this point we need to take baby steps…and what I am looking for is a domino effect.”