The two recent floods of Old Ellicott City (OEC) have caused significant damage, business and financial losses, disruptions and tragic deaths. Careful analysis indicates that to prevent or reduce future problems we cannot simply keep putting the town back together the way it was and expect a different result the next time; after all, it is in a flood zone, collecting water from over 2,000 acres. Flooding will happen again, most likely sooner than later due to more dramatic weather events brought on by climate change.
Is development the problem? Surprisingly, not much: engineers hired by Howard County found that, had the same rains occurred before the development in the OEC watershed, the resulting floods would have been only about 20 percent less and that completing the development of the watershed will also make little difference. So stopping development is not the answer based on scientific data.
In fact, stopping development projects will make things worse for OEC. New communities and redevelopment of old sites under our current regulations will improve the situation by providing quality, quantity and 100-year flood controls to reduce runoff to OEC from places where there is little-to-no stormwater control now. To help reduce flooding in OEC, these new projects need to be fast-tracked, not slowed down. These projects alone will help, but not stop the flooding. To mitigate the flooding, we need to make infrastructure changes above and in OEC, as recommended by the county-hired engineers, and changes to Main Street itself.
A concept to revitalize OEC and significantly reduce flooding for lower Main Street has been put forward privately by an architectural and planning team from OEC experienced in flood measures for historic structures in the similarly flood prone Jones Falls Valley. The concept plan should provide significant flood relief for lower Main Street while also improving vehicular and pedestrian flow. Further study and development of this plan along with the implementation of the flood warning system and suggestions from the McCormick Taylor study should make a significant difference.
In summary, this plan would divert most or all of the water from the New Cut streams that normally flow into the Tiber River midway down Main Street. A diversion structure with a new road on top would send the water under Saint Paul Street to carry it safely to the Patapsco without impacting Main Street. This would prevent perhaps as much as 41 percent of the water during a flood event from reaching Main Street.
As proposed in previous concepts, this plan would remove the buildings which bridge and constrict the Tiber at the bottom of Main Street, allowing the Tiber to be daylighted and appropriately dredged, giving its channel greater carrying capacity. A park setting will be created that makes the river an attractive asset to OEC instead of being its enemy. After all, it is because of the confluence of rivers here that the town was built in the first place. To preserve most of the town, we need to sacrifice a few of its buildings, or at least the parts that restrict flow and access to the river.
In addition, the plan would connect Saint Paul Street to Old Columbia Pike by creating a new link, connecting across the diversion structure to Saint Paul Street. Some of the buildings proposed to be removed are owned by my family and associates. With fair compensation to owners, this plan can be a key part of the solution. This concept has the added benefit of allowing Main Street to be one way going west to Old Columbia with the St. Paul extension going one way east, creating a giant traffic circle. The traffic lights at Maryland Avenue and Old Columbia could be removed, the sidewalks widened and angle parking instituted. Re-zoning parts of OEC will provide an opportunity for new businesses and buildings on higher ground to maintain a critical mass of shops and restaurants, reinforcing the vibrancy of lower Main Street.
Additional projects which would help prevent flooding damages include: substantial steel fences around the parking lots and dumpster enclosures to prevent clogging the rivers; stabilizing and cleaning stream embankments; rebuilding our sidewalks out of concrete to protect infrastructure and foundations; and creating public private partnerships to build new retail, offices and apartments with stormwater management and structured, free public parking.
Contact your elected officials and let them know a revitalized Ellicott City that embraces its river heritage is possible now, that new development with modern stormwater management must be permitted to proceed to help protect OEC and that the projects recommended by these studies should be funded as soon as possible to preserve the history, charm and beauty of OEC.
Bruce T. Taylor, M.D., is a psychiatrist and developer who owns property both in Old Ellicott City and above the city. He is not related to the firm McCormick Taylor. He can be reached at email@example.com.