Historic Ellicott City, Maryland is a place that exudes authenticity. It’s been flooded again and again, traipsed over by Civil War soldiers, and stained by locomotive coal smoke. Unfortunately, the most recent floods have resulted in local officials calling to demolish large portions of the historic district, a move that could set a terrible precedent here in Maryland and beyond. Today’s guest, Mary Catherine Cochran, herself a lifelong preservationist, is working to stop that plan and to find a way to balance life safety and history. And the future of this historic community depends on her. [music]

From Preservation Maryland Studios in the historic podcast, district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast. [music]

This is Nick Redding. You’re listening to PreserveCast. We’re joined today by Mary Catherine Cochran, who was a Howard County, Maryland native and a lifelong preservationist. She was the co-founder of Preservation Howard County, a former director of the Claudia Mayer Cancer Center, and previously served as the executive director of the Patapsco Heritage Greenway. In recognition of all of this work and more, in 2017, she was inducted into the Howard County Women’s Hall of Fame. Mary Catherine has also been a tireless defender of Ellicott City and has been working in partnership with the grassroots collective of supporters and larger organizations like Preservation Maryland to defeat a new proposal that would demolish large portions of this historic town. Mary Catherine, it is a pleasure to have you with us here today on PreserveCast.

Well, thanks for having me, Nick.

So you and I have known each other for a little while now, but we want the audience to get to know you. So tell us a little bit about yourself. I mean obviously, you’re a Howard County native, but was your first job in preservation? What was your path to preservation? Obviously, you have a real passion for– this was something that you’ve done your entire life, or how did it all come together?

Well, I was born and raised in Howard Country, Maryland. I was brought up in an old farmhouse and it was probably built in just after the civil war, and I think that probably living with those uneven floors and the windows that jammed in the summertime, and just the idiosyncrasies of an old house made me appreciate– this work has aspects that were surrounding me. So I have worked in all kinds of jobs. I put myself through college. So I have worked at dry cleaners and that was opposed to being as a receptionist, but I’ve always had that passion for the historic aspect of our own community and what it means to tell those very important stories.

And so I guess, just so people know, for those listening from around the country, where is Howard County? What kind of county was it when you’re growing up? What kind of a county– what kind of a place is it today? How would you describe it?

Yeah. So when I was growing up, Howard County was very rural, it is agricultural-based. I could ride my horses all around what is now the new town of Columbia. It has evolved very rapidly over the last 50 years with new growth and new development. Its ideally situated between Baltimore and Washington D.C. It’s one of wealthiest counties in the nation and so it saw a lot of growth and development that have occurred over those years. And in that process of growth and development, we lost the majority of our significant historic resources. And so the scramble is on to try to preserve what is left.

And so one of the most historic places in Howard County, obviously, and sort of the thrust of these interviews since it’s sort of right in the headlines at this moment is Ellicott City, so for someone who has never been to Ellicott City. You’re describing this to a friend. What is Ellicott City? Why does it matter to you? What would you see if you went there for a first time?

Well, Ellicott City is a– it’s a very unique mill town. It is important not only to Howard County, but to Maryland and the region and to national history. It is the location of a national landmark rail station, which was the first terminus on the B&O railroad in America. It’s also the cradle of the industrial revolution in the nation. So the Patapsco River, which runs through Ellicott City, not only generated the mills, but it was also where the latest and newest innovative practices were brought over from Europe to increase the ability to weave fabric and harnesses the power of the water to make products. And these products were shipped to the ports in Baltimore, and then worldwide. So it really is not only just important to us, but from a national perspective, being the cradle of the industrial revolution and the cradle of transportation initiative, it’s got that historic significance. But if you were coming to visit me and staying in town, I would tell you this about Ellicott City. It’s got this unique charm. It’s built in a granite outcropping. It is full of independently-owned stores and businesses. The streets are crowded on the weekends and in the evenings. It’s a terrific place to dine and to eat. It’s a thriving economic town. And a great example of how a historic resource can be that kind of a thriving resource in terms of economy.

But obviously, with that said, it also has a history of floods. So maybe give people a sense of what’s the water like there. Why does this place flood? Where does it flood from? How does that all come about?

So Ellicott City is built at the foot of the Patapsco River. And the Patapsco River– it’s the beginning of the river that forms the inner harbor of Baltimore City. So it was a large and mostly navigable river until it became silted over a couple of hundred years ago. So we have two kinds of floods in Ellicott City. The floods that we used to expect were the riverine floods where we would have rainfall and dams further up would open their gates and the river would rise slowly at the bottom of the hill and inundate the buildings that were in closest proximity to the river. But lately, scientists believe because of climate change and the ever-worsening severe weather events and rain events that we’re having, our flooding has been from the top down. So we’re experiencing significant stormwater floods that are washing down from the hills above and moving through the town with great speed and destructive force towards the Patapsco River.

And just recently– I mean, within the past two years now, we’ve had two really devastating examples of this type of flooding. And the most recent, over the Memorial Day weekend in 2018. And as a result of that, after the first flood, the plan was to put things back together and to try and mitigate this. But now, there is this new plan. And what’s the current proposal that’s on the table, who proposed it, and what would it mean for Ellicott City?

So obviously, we have to figure out what to do with the water if we’re going to save Ellicott City. And after the major flood in 2016, an engineering firm, McCormick and Taylor, did a H&H study to model the valley and try to understand where the water sources were coming from, what we could do to both retain and convey the water safely around [the?] town. That 2016 study was remodeled after the 2018 flood. So this current plan is bits and bobs of the original two plans. It is a five-year plan that would, in theory, convey and retain enough water to protect Main Street, Ellicott City. But the reality is that when this plan is modeled, it still leaves four to six to even eight feet of water on Main Street and it’s still flowing it more than what the National Fire Protection Agency classifies as less water. So it doesn’t mitigate for life and safety, which I think was the original intent of this plan.

And it accomplishes all of this by what? By a lot of demolition, right? I mean, we’re talking about losing a lot of buildings.

So there’s a couple of– there’s an upstream pretension project which will contain about 80 acre-feet of water. But we need about 3,000 acre-feet of attention in order to cover the rainfall that we’ve been getting. But the biggest part of it, the thing that people are most worried about is that it does purchase and demolish 19 buildings in historic Ellicott City, which is a national registered historic district. 10 of those are adjacent to each other on lower Main Street. So, effectively, on that part of Main Street, they’re wiping out about 24% of the town, which is problematic, not only from historic preservation perspective but also problematic from an economic opportunity perspective, and really changes the face of the town. And [inaudible] were doing so because it was the last resort and we could save lives because we’ve lost four people in the past two floods, and nobody wants to lose any more lives in this flood. And if this was the last resort and we had to do this to save lives, I think that everybody would be easier with it. But to demolish this percentage of Main Street, still leave that amount of lethal water on the street and not really solve the problem. It seems like we need to do a little bit more research to find a better solution.

Well, I was going to say, “Why, in your opinion, is this a bad proposal?” I mean, you don’t think you’re kind of laying that out. But, I mean, it really doesn’t– and I guess maybe then the question is what’s– and this is more of an opinion question. But then if that’s the case, – and this really isn’t a great proposal – why is this the proposal? What do you think is at play here? Why would the county pursue this if it really doesn’t seem like it’s the best for the community?

Well, I don’t think there are any bad intentions here. I think there are just bad actions and bad reactions. There’s a lot of emotion and trauma involved with the folks that have been through the flooding before. People have been working very hard to look at and evaluate different solutions. But this decision to demolish these buildings, this part was not an open process. It didn’t happen with other voices weighing in it. It happened without discussion, without dissent. And sometimes when those decisions are made behind closed doors, by people that are emotionally involved, that aren’t seeking bigger answers or other viewpoints, you can get a bad plan. And I think the intents were good. But I think the conclusion is a bad plan that doesn’t save life, that demolishes 24% of the buildings, and doesn’t really look towards the future and what’s going to happen to the buildings that remain on that part of Main Street, including the national landmark rail station.

So, yeah. I mean, I guess, you got to know a little bit. And full disclosure, Mary Catherine is not a hydrology scientist, but she has read enough reports that she probably has some she has enough hours in this that she might qualify at this point. But are there other options on the table? I mean, I think it sounds like and I will interest of full disclosure, I completely agree and we’ve been involved in this, but obviously what’s being proposed isn’t great but are there ways of accomplishing this? Have people suggested alternatives that could work that aren’t being pursued? Or what could be done to actually make the community safe and save buildings? Do you have any thoughts on that?

Well, there actually has been some studies and some modelings done for actions that would take water off of Main Street. One, is a concept that was put forth in the 2016 hydrology report that required the boring of two tunnels through the granite to allow safe conveyance with the water around the town. That modeling showed great promise but the study wasn’t analyzed from a fiscal perspective and feasibility perspective. And so, I’d like to see them go back and look at that and look at other conveyance options because we just don’t have the landmass anymore to retain the amount of rainfall we’re getting. We’re getting more rainfall because of climate change. And Ellicott City, we’re just one small place and one small county. But this climate change is dramatically affecting the whole northeast part of the United States and even beyond that to the point that all of our infrastructures, we have to really take a step back and say not only for our historic resources and our historic towns that are often built on riverways and on coastal areas but also for all of our building. What are we doing to prepare for this change that’s coming in terms of how we’re going to actually handle stormwater that doesn’t have this destructive force to our community?

Yeah. And I mean, you’re kind of hitting the nail in the head and sort of jumped into the next thought I have here which is this is– I mean, it is a Maryland issue, it’s a Howard County issue, it’s an Ellicott City issue if you drill into it. But in a sense, it really is sort of a bell-weather for the rest of the country. I mean, I guess obviously you’ve just compellingly made the case. Why it matters to the rest of the country. But are there lessons learned here– I mean, obviously we’re still in the middle of this. Even though it’s been suggested this is a done deal. We’ve heard that before and this far from done. But is there something– are there takeaways? Are there advice from what you’ve experienced that you would want to convey to other people in communities that either are grappling with similar issues or perhaps in the future will grapple with similar issues? And anything that you’ve learned along the way that you would want people to think about?

Well, I think the lack of an open and transparent process really leads to bad decisions. And so, when you have– if you’re in your own community elsewhere in the country or in the state and you’re looking at these issues, I think that it’s important that you have vigorous conversations and studies to support making really science-based decisions and I don’t think that’s been done here and I think that if we want really good answers to this issue we’re going to have to move to that kind of a process.

What about community engagement? I mean, I guess maybe to start, what do you feel like the community response has been? Is this a community that’s torn? Is there support for demo? Is there not support for demo? And then, sort of along with that, maybe just start there, yeah.

Yeah. So I think there are about 30 to 50 supporters for this solution. And I think many of them are people who have lost their buildings. And in this solution, they are being offered the chance to get out from under this crushing debt and this crushing that now suffer twice, or they’re being– they’re having the opportunity to relocate their business to a safer part of town. And it’s hard to argue with people that are so invested and stand to lose so much if the county doesn’t buy them out. But I think that those that are truly invested in the safety aspect have to look at whether the plan is effective or not effective. And there’s also a sense to– these people, they’re just traumatized by what they’ve gone through, and they’re scared, and they’re fearful. And so they’re reaching for these quick, inefficient, and ineffective solutions because they’re afraid to take a step back and really try to understand the science behind it. I’m not sure if that was your question. I might have gone off the rails there.

No, I don’t think you did. I think it’s important for people around the country who are dealing with things like this to understand– preservation touches on a lot of different things. It can be the economic movement, it could be an environmental movement. But when it comes to community outreach and engagement, you have to think about things like trauma, right? That’s not something the average preservationist goes to school thinking about. But at the same time, that plays directly into what’s happening here and understanding that there’s a lot of emotions wrapped up in this. Obviously, Preservation Maryland has been pretty forward about our position on this to the extent that buying people out, we’re not opposed to public acquisition, but it’s what happens with those buildings, I guess, is really the big question.

Yeah, I would agree with that. And I would say that the vast majority of people that I talk to about this are, at a minimum, sort of shocked at how fast this is moving and shocked that the lack of a public process and that the potential loss of what they view as their Main Street community. It’s a difficult and complex issue. It’s hard for most– the average person to get into the weaves, but the way this was rolled out, it’s amazing. The grassroots effort and interest in this is high, and so trying to contain that and mobilize that is something that we’re working on. But at the same time, we don’t want to do it in a way that discounts, like I said, the real trauma that people have suffered on that Main Street community. And so it does kind of create a little bit of divided community, and that’s a little bit of a heartbreak for me because I’m close with the people that have been working on this issue. I’m close with the people that have lost their buildings, and their houses, and their jobs. But at the same time, I have to look at the larger, bigger picture, and we’re going to be on opposite sites of the issue, unfortunately.

So speaking of getting engaged, getting involved, what are people doing? And if someone’s listening to this, whether they be in Maryland or Missouri, what can they do to get involved?

So the Howard County Council will hear a bill about this on September 17th. But the best way to weigh in on what you think the value of historic preservation is or whether or not you think that demotion should happen without more investigation, the best way to weigh in on that would be to send an email to the county council. And that would be at councilmail@howardcountymd.gov.

It’s almost like you have that email memorized, Mary Catherine.

You think [laughter]?

Well, this has been fantastic and just eye-opening to hear about this, and I think there’s a lot of big takeaways. And hopefully, we can do a positive follow-up once we save these structures and come up with a really good permanent solution. Before we let you go, we ask the most difficult question. You thought flooding in historic districts and economic redevelopment was difficult. But now, what is your favorite historic place or site?

That’s a really tough question. And I would have to say that when I went back to my ancestor’s home in Ireland and I walked into the church that they had built in the small town of Clonakilty, and I laid my hand on those beams and on the baptismal font for each one was baptized into the world, I felt that to my very core. And that feeling remains with me. So there are many great places here that I’m surrounded by that are stellar. But that one, I have to say, spoke to my heart.

Well, perfect way to end this conversation. Mary Catherine, thank you for joining us. Thank you for all the good things that you’ve done, and all the good things that you’re doing in Ellicott City. Let’s keep in touch and hope to talk to you again soon.

Thanks, Nick.

Thanks for listening to PreserveCast. To dig deeper into this episode show, notes, and all previous episodes, visit PreserveCast.org. You can also find us online at Facebook and Twitter at PreserveCast. This program was supported by the Historic Preservation Education Foundation. PreserveCast is produced by Preservation Maryland in Baltimore City. Thanks again for your support, and remember to keep preserving.

Show Notes

Preservation Maryland is a leader in the effort to save historic Ellicott City. Learn more about our work in Ellicott City here and ways to direct your energies and concerns directly to decision makers.