Ellicott City is an historic community, located at the confluence of multiple tributaries that feed into the Patapsco River. The community is steeped in history, including its location along the National Road, the first terminus of the original B&O Railroad line and rich mill history dating back to 1772. Given its historical significance, unique urban form, and collection of boutique shops and restaurants, it is a premier destination within the greater DC/Baltimore area and warrants a highly context-sensitive approach to planning and urban design.
The stakeholder-based planning effort began in May 2017 in response to a devastating flash flood in July, 2016. While flood mitigation, grounded in Hydrologic and Hydraulic Analysis, has always been the foundation for the planning effort, the master plan is far more encompassing, addressing flood mitigation as it relates to achieving the community’s vision as a model resilient community that thrives by protecting its people, commerce, history, culture, and natural environment. To that end, the master planning team has been developing recommendations that address a broad range of inter-related flood mitigation, urban design, transportation, historic preservation, economic development, community marketing, and organizational challenges that could be addressed in the short, medium and long-terms, spanning up to 30 years. Throughout the process, maintaining the integrity of Ellicott City while balancing other Master Plan objectives has remained paramount.
Immediately following the 2016 flash flood, the community’s passion and commitment to the town was demonstrated during the ‘Respond’ and ‘Recovery’ phases of the flood response. After the initial emergency response, a series of action groups were developed to begin addressing the town’s flood-prone nature. Numerous idea generating workshops were held with focus groups and the general public, resulting in several resources outlining potential strategies for flood mitigation and improved public amenities in town. To demonstrate a true collaborative partnership, these resources were reviewed at length before formally beginning the master planning process. Though integral to all MRA projects, the importance of serving as a ‘collaborator’ instead of ‘outside-expert’ was even more important in Ellicott City, where the level of investment and sense of pride on behalf of the community has led to an outstanding rebuilding effort not only in 2016, but in 2018 as well.
The planning was underway for approximately one year and nearing completion when a second, even more devastating, flash flood occurred in May 2018, placing a new sense of urgency on immediate action. In response, Howard County developed a “5-Year Strategy” to implement flood mitigation measures that would make the most impact in a short period of time, with emphasis on life safety. As a result, the County has had to make difficult decisions, including the planned removal of several historic buildings along lower Main Street to allow widening of the channel and more effective conveyance of floodwaters.
While many of the Mahan Rykiel team’s recommendations remain relevant following the second flood, the master plan effort has evolved to include helping the County envision how the widened channel along lower Main Street could also serve as an attractive, vibrant open space within the heart of the community. As with addressing most challenges in Ellicott City, this effort includes a complex set of inter-related challenges, including the careful balance of maximizing hydraulic function and creating a useful and attractive amenity space while being sensitive to the community’s rich history and the interpretation of the buildings lost.
The recommendations developed in response to the two historic floods and the County’s 5-Year Strategy outline a vision for a future Ellicott City that lives in closer balance with the hydraulic forces that have shaped the town through the generations. Though Ellicott City will never be without flooding risk, the recommendations will help generate a more resilient response to flood events should they occur again in the future.