Historic Main Street, Ellicott City, Maryland is the place you show off to friends visiting from out of state. It’s where people catch up over coffee, pose for photoshoots, and go on dates. It’s where you find yourself window-shopping at a traffic light, wishing you were out of the car so you could walk over and take a closer look. It’s loved because it’s different. It’s authentic with quirky, local shops curving picturesquely in layers of granite and brick. Tourism has long provided life for Ellicott City and its many local businesses, in part due to its involvement in the Civil War and its claim to fame as the first terminus of the B&O railroad, the oldest rail line in the nation.
But unfortunately, between the chapters of the history that shaped this beautiful downtown are stories of devastating floods. The first of the most notable floods struck only two years after the original mill town settlement was established in 1766 along the Patapsco River. 1868 brought the most deadly flood, killing 43 people and sweeping 14 homes away. In 1972, Hurricane Agnes ravaged the town. A post supporting the train bridge near the river is marked with the water levels and dates of other floods—a sobering testament to cyclical damage. So, when unusually heavy rains fell in 2016 and again on May 27, 2018, it was sadly not the first time that businesses suffered and lives were lost.
These two recent floods were unique, however, because instead of flowing up from an overfilled river, the water flooded downhill towards the Patapsco from where the Tiber River and other tributaries converge. This kind of top-down flooding had not previously occurred in the local history of floods. Many despairingly blame uncontrollable natural factors for this new shift, but the built environment powerfully influences how changes in the climate play out locally. Ellicott City’s patterns of development, therefore, must be a central focus of this discussion.
In recent years, two local developers have built extensively in areas uphill from the city’s historic core. The surrounding area once was full of forests and soil that naturally helped absorb water accumulated in storms, but with increased development, impervious surfaces have only exacerbated the potential of flash floods. The retention ponds in these developments have also been proven by the past few years to be inadequately designed for the amount of water that can collect in a major storm. Reckless development near the tributaries significantly worsens the impact of heavy rains by preventing natural runoff. When the streams overflow in heavy storms, there is nowhere for the water to run except down the street towards the older part of town.
This past August, in response to the recent floods, Howard County publicly announced a $50 million flood mitigation plan to demolish 5% of the historic town. This five-year proposal, which has been presented as an immediate and necessary option, entails eliminating at least ten buildings at the base of Main Street and nine others outside of downtown. The idea is to create a wider channel for the water during the next inevitable flood by using Main Street itself as a gutter. Howard County’s report presents several considerations all aimed at widening the street, and it concludes that widening through demolition of the block is the most practical response.
According to the study, this would potentially only reduce peak water levels from 6-8 feet to 4-6 feet—still a disturbingly high number. A hydraulic study, called the McCormick Taylor Project, was conducted after the 2016 flood and made no mention of the need to demolish these buildings in order to save the town. Why now, after 250 years of occasional floods, is prime historic real estate being singled out as the obstruction to saving Ellicott City? And more specifically, why have these buildings at the base of the hill become the scapegoat for new flooding patterns beginning uphill at the other end of Main Street? Why is the County not pushing for the new developments to overhaul their retention ponds or looking to divert water to the few remaining wooded areas?
Perhaps it is no coincidence that the two developers who built the problematic developments uphill have also made large contributions to county councilman campaigns and have bought many properties in downtown Main Street. New development has been acknowledged as a contributor to Ellicott City’s flooding crisis, but it has not been taken seriously by county officials as a primary cause of the abnormal severity of the 2016 and 2018 floods. In July 2018 the county placed a one year moratorium on building in the Tiber and Plumtree Branch watersheds; however, halting construction for a year is an insufficient response to what must be a long-term solution. Without a change in laws and codes, future rapid development will only continue to rob the natural landscape of its assets and contribute to the dilemma of water having no outlet except the streets.
The most short-sighted aspect of the current proposal is the lack of clear explanation regarding what will replace the life that the local businesses in these buildings brought to the street. The county’s plan states that after razing the block, the vacant lots will become “community open space.” It has not been thought through how this would affect the community. Open space, whether in the form of vacant lots, parking, or landscaping, in the place of mixed-use local businesses is not what a commercial downtown needs to thrive. Demolition will destroy the sense of enclosure provided by a continuous streetscape, leaving instead an awkward hole along half of Main Street, a permanent reminder of tragedy. It would also cause an important landmark, the nation’s oldest surviving railroad station, to be exposed to the newly widened flood path and susceptible to greater damage. The absence of these buildings will change the entire character and usage of historic Main Street; if future flood mitigation efforts allowed new construction on these lots, it would be difficult to recover the soul and charm of the current historic structures.
So, what can be done? First, the public must be involved in the process. They must speak up for their community and be heard by county officials. The strength of the town lies with the concern of the people for their community. Preservation Maryland has produced several counterproposals and offered their aid to the county in supporting viable and less costly options that do not involve demolition. They have studied Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia—another flood-prone, antebellum, industrial town—and historic structures along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal as models. The organization has even proposed using flooding damage as an opportunity to educate the public and increase tourism by transforming these buildings into exhibitions of Ellicott City’s history.
The aftermath of flooding has been a grueling, emotional, and expensive ordeal for local business owners and residents; however, we must look at the broader context to find a solution better than irrevocable demolition in the heart of town. We must focus on holistically solving these manmade problems that affect natural climate factors and must not blame historic buildings for new flooding patterns aggravated by poorly thought-out new construction. Ellicott City is proud of its history and character and should be proud of its future too. If the county ignores reckless patterns of new development and existing issues with stormwater management while refusing to prioritize its historic commercial downtown, Main Street will lose more than a few local businesses—Ellicott City will lose itself. Like many small, historic cities, Ellicott City is a resilient town that has always rebuilt and recovered after natural disasters. It would be a shame if it could not recover from a man-made one.
All images courtesy of the author.
About the author
Mary Catherine Walter is from Ellicott City, Maryland and received a B.Arch with a concentration in furniture design at the University of Notre Dame in 2016. While at Notre Dame, she received a Nanovic Institute grant to research the urbanism of medieval cities in the United Kingdom. Since graduation, she has been working in residential design at McAlpine and can be found in their Atlanta office. She satisfies her interest in traditional urbanism by attending symposiums in Seaside and maintains a passion for writing in her free time.