Residential Construction Expands in the City and County
By Gina Gallucci-White, Photography by Turner Photography Studio
At what has become the City of Frederick’s front door stands a spread of land at the corner of South and East streets that is mostly known to passersby for the pallets of mulch stored there. But now the land—for more than a century the home of Frederick Brick Works—is poised for one of the most ambitious development projects in recent local history.
Developers want to turn the 65-acre site, which extends to Monocacy Boulevard, into a mixed-use project that would bring in up to l,260 residential units and about 130,000 square feet of retail space.
The Brick Works site represents the capstone of a bigger trend of planned and ongoing residential development in the city and county, even along the East Street corridor that was once home to manufacturing, warehousing and distribution.
You don’t have to travel far to see much more:
• On the northern end of East Street, Canterbury Station is adding hundreds of homes near The Banner School on North Market Street. (The school will move to a new permanent location on Dill Avenue at the conclusion of the academic year.)
• To the east, the former Renn Farm at Monocacy Boulevard and Hughes Ford Road is being turned into Renn Quarter, a mixed-use project that will add 1,050 residential units as well as 105,000 square feet of retail space next to 73 acres of parkland.
• In December, construction crews broke ground on The Residences at East Church Street, which includes 350 apartments in five buildings to be completed next year.
• A 610-unit development on Boyers Mill Road in New Market, known as the Gordon Mill development, is before the Frederick County Planning Commission.
• Libertytown has two significant projects. In March, a 193-unit development near Liberty Elementary School on Md. 550 was approved by the county Planning Commission. There is also Mill Creek, which is being built now near Md. 75 and Jones Road. The development is planned for 143 single-family homes on 65 acres. And these are just a handful of what is under construction or proposed.
“We have seen an increase in construction over the last couple of years,” says Joe Adkins, deputy director of Planning for the City of Frederick. In 2018, 272 residential construction permits were issued in the city and the numbers have climbed dramatically since then, with 768 permits issued in 2022. Through the first two months of this year, 152 permits were already issued.
In the county, housing construction is on a smaller scale. “In terms of homes being built right now, most of the construction that we are seeing is from development projects that were approved many years ago going back to the 2012-2014 time period,” says Mike Wilkins, the county’s director of Development Review and Planning. “We have not seen much in the way of large housing developments getting new approvals in the past eight or so years.”
Given the seismic economic disruption that accompanied the pandemic, all this construction might seem surprising to some. “I think there were a lot of things about coming through the pandemic that would have defied predictions if people had made them,” says Frederick Mayor Michael O’Connor. “I don’t think we expected that this [increase in housing construction] is what we would see. The activity that we are seeing now, a lot of it actually picked up during the pandemic and I think that was a surprise to a lot of people. It certainly put strain on resources and we have had to staff up in the last couple of budgets to try to keep up with it. Based on the permit activity, we are not necessarily seeing that it is going to subside.”
O’Connor believes the pandemic caused people to evaluate quality of life as an important consideration for where they wanted to live. Frederick, he says, is a great spot for people who have more flexible work arrangements through their employer and still want close proximity to Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.
“I think we stood to benefit from perhaps the changes in the way people were thinking about their own lives and the fact that we can offer a high quality of life in Frederick and we are still close to the places that people might have to commute a couple of days a week,” he says. “I think it just put us right in the right spot, in the sweet spot, really, to see the type of activity that we have seen. … I would say I am surprised at what we have seen but I will also say I think the city is managing it pretty well.”
Wilkins notes, “There are a lot of people who want to move to Frederick County and so obviously there is a need to provide housing for those folks who are moving into the county.”
O’Connor says the expansion of housing construction demonstrates that Frederick is a desirable place. “People wouldn’t be coming here if Frederick wasn’t a nice place,” he says. “I think the benefit is that it helps us to expand the tax base, which allows us to look at service delivery in new and interesting ways. Being a place where people can live, I think, is attractive from an economic development perspective, as well, because those are potential workers. …The growth in our residential housing is something our economic development team can use to market this area to employers in the hopes that we can convince the people who are employing the people that are moving here that you are going to make your employees quality of life that much better if your business is located in Frederick versus being located anywhere else because you cut down on the amount of time that they have to spend in the car commuting.”
Another benefit that O’Connor sees is an increase in diversity, including bringing in a variety of new recreational and cultural activities to the area. “We can demonstrate that we are a community that is welcoming and open to all sorts of backgrounds, experiences and cultures,” he says.
Nonetheless, adding many houses, cars and people to the community does bring many concerns from existing residents, whether it’s a strained transportation system or a number of schools that are at capacity or overcrowded.
Alan Feinberg founded East Frederick Rising more than a decade ago. The nonprofit is a collective of residents, businesses, thought leaders and government officials championing the revitalization of the East Street corridor. He is concerned about the amount of new housing going on in the city and county. “By the time everybody wakes up, this place will look like the worst parts of Northern Virginia, where you need a road map to find your house because all of them look alike,” he says.
Noting the city’s governmental structure was based on a charter written nearly 60 years ago when the community was largely an agricultural hub, Feinberg says citizens should have more involvement in the planning process earlier on. “We love this community but so many people are not quite aware of what we are up against,” he says.
As the Western Maryland representative for the American Planning Association, Feinberg wants to establish citizen planning academies in the area, similar to citizen police academies. The idea is for residents to learn more about the planning process so they can have a better understanding and become more involved in government. “This is all about people loving a place,” he says. “If you don’t love it, you don’t fight for it and if you don’t understand it, you don’t fight for it.”
O’Connor says he understands the concerns being raised about the adverse impact development can bring. “You can’t have one side of the conversation and not acknowledge the other side,” he says. “The other side of the conversation is we do have some strained transportation resources. We want to be a good partner with Frederick County Public Schools and make sure we are not creating problems that are going to be more difficult for them to handle.”
Within the past few years, the City of Frederick has updated its Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, including establishing a Downtown Frederick Mobility Fee District last year. “We recognized that an ordinance that may have been adopted 20 years ago might not fit today, and what are some adjustments we can make to be sure that as we continue to see new residential housing growth that we are addressing the most clear and obvious concerns that growth is going to bring …?” O’Connor says. “We don’t want to say we are open to everyone that wants to come here and we don’t really care about the people who helped to get us to where we are. We have to keep those things in balance, and I think that comes through good budgeting decisions, a good capital improvements program that looks at where the needs are and puts the funding in the direction of addressing the impacts that new development brings. But … we have to be open to those concerns. We have to listen to those concerns.”
O’Connor served as an alderman for the city for eight years prior to being elected mayor in 2017. His early years on the board were during the Great Recession when the housing bubble burst, triggering a global financial crisis. “I know what challenges we faced from a budgeting standpoint back then,” he recalls. “It is certainly not something I want to repeat or duplicate.”
Some economists do believe an economic downturn is coming. According to a recent survey by the National Association for Business Economics, 58 percent of economists think there is more than a 50 percent chance of a slump in the next 12 months.
If a recession is coming, O’Connor says officials have done what they can to position Frederick to be resilient to economic changes. “I said early in the pandemic that I hope we would learn the right lessons,” he says. “Frederick went into the pandemic, I think, in a strong place economically and we certainly saw the horror stories of large and small businesses all across the country and the impacts the pandemic had on their operations. Frederick weathered it quite well.
“I think we started in a strong place and I think that has allowed us to emerge in a strong place as well but you can’t take any of it for granted. It doesn’t just happen. It happens because you are thoughtful in the way in which you approach your economic development strategies, the way you approach your budgeting, the way you approach your staffing. All of those have to be very intensional decisions and I think Frederick has [made them]. We’ve tried to be very intensional about the way we have approached our response.”