Up a Creek

A New Tide of Improvements and Development is Aimed at Polishing Downtown's Scuffed-Up Jewel

By James Eppard | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 04.01.14 – Feature, Frederick Scene, People & Places

“I think everyone’s waiting for the economy to really get better and for the creek to really come alive with Phase Two,” says Roland Castle, a co-owner of Creekside Plaza, pictured with his wife, Gloria.

Justin Kaufman and his five-year-old daughter Calah have a routine when they venture from Point of Rocks to Downtown Frederick. They hit Market Street for lunch and ice cream at Pretzel & Pizza Creations, and then stroll down to Patrick Street to see what’s new at Dancing Bear Toys and Gifts. Afterwards, they visit the ducks on Carroll Creek, which on a recent warm Saturday afternoon made Calah squeal with delight.

“When we came down here, we came specifically to watch the water,” Kaufman says as he looks off one of the pedestrian bridges over Carroll Creek Linear Park and his daughter chirps about feeding the ducks.

By all accounts, it’s a successful day—Calah is happy, so dad is happy. At least two Downtown merchants are enriched by the Kaufman’s expedition. And decades of urban planning, construction, development and nurturing revealed their success in turning a once-murky, flood-prone creek in the middle of the city into a scenic draw for residents and visitors. But a succession of shuttered restaurants along the most decorated portions of the creek park has raised some questions about the viability of businesses on the street level of the city’s ongoing urban-design experiment.

Even city officials acknowledge that a critical mass of retail on the creek has yet to appear. While the number of visitors to Downtown Frederick has increased steadily in recent years, and the number of businesses has grown (17 in the past year), the creek has been flat or churning. “The challenge we have along Carroll Creek Park right now is the critical mass of retail is not yet sufficient to drive foot traffic,” says Richard Griffin, director of the city’s Office of Economic Development. “Downtown has got it, but Carroll Creek as a component of Downtown doesn’t have a critical mass yet to pull people.”

“There was nothing along here at all”

Carroll Creek Linear Park, a 1.3-mile swath of public space through the city’s business district, has been a work in progress since the 1970s, when torrential rains caused massive Downtown flooding. The largest of the floods, in October 1976, left businesses along West Patrick and South Market streets underwater after a 16-hour deluge dropped seven inches of rain on a saturated cityscape. The area around the swollen creek was deemed a 100-year floodplain and Downtown Frederick’s number was up.

The floods spurred years of planning and a $60 million engineering project, begun in 1983, to tame the creek and eliminate the flood threat. Culverts as wide as city buses were dug on each side of the creek to channel overflow away from town. The 10-year remediation project, stretching from Baker Park to East Patrick Street, led FEMA in 2003 to finally remove Downtown Frederick from the floodplain.

Meanwhile, ambitious plans for new buildings along the creek were winning approvals on the premise that prudent development mixing commercial, residential and retail would draw more people Downtown and buoy the fortunes of tenants new and old. The goal, says Griffin, has always been “to increase the market-share that Downtown is getting overall—so that more people are coming, more people are shopping, more people are dining out, and more people are working and living Downtown.”

The city appointed a group of business leaders, residents and city staff—the Carroll Creek Task Force—to envision the future park space along the creek. To the degree that they could, the group worked with neighboring property owners and developers to ensure the private projects on both sides of the creek would blend seamlessly and beneficially with the unique public space in between.

Darrell Batson, director of Frederick County Public Libraries, remembers when the C. Burr Artz Library on East Patrick Street broke new ground and expanded to the creek, positing the waterfront space had the potential to be special. At the time, however, there wasn’t much to see from the library’s new rooftop terrace. “All the rest of the development came after us,” he says.

“There was nothing along here at all. It was just two concrete walkways with graffiti on it.”

In 2005, park construction began in earnest, with the installation of brick pathways, lighting, fountains, footbridges, plantings and playful murals that visitors recognize today. The Downtown Frederick Partnership continued sponsoring events on the creek to integrate the evolving space into the broader fabric of the city. Maxwell Place, a luxury condominium on the south side of Carroll Creek, wooed new residents with amenities traditionally not seen Downtown, like parking and water vistas. Across the creek, the multi-story South Market Center and Creekside Plaza opened with a mix of commercial and retail, filling a demand for modern, flexible Downtown space. Restaurants and shops snapped up space on the promenade levels with sunny visions of passers-by peeking in the windows, coming inside and opening their wallets.

“We just don’t know how to get to you”

By most measures, the developments that have sprouted up along Carroll Creek have fared quite well. Residential and office spaces are leased at or near capacity. La Paz Mexican Restaurant, which moved from a hard-to-find spot Downtown to the creek nine years ago, hasn’t looked back. “This fit the bill for us,” says La Paz owner Graham Baker, citing the restaurant’s size, and location. Motorists cruising up South Market and slowing to cross the bridge over Carroll Creek can’t miss it. “We knew this was a very good spot for us to be,” Baker says. “The patio along the creek here has been great.”

But some current and former proprietors say the very thing that makes their locations unique may also be handicapping them. Sam Kwon, the owner of Hinode, a Japanese restaurant on the ground floor of South Market Center, says people can’t find his restaurant because they can’t see it from the street. Hilda Staples, whose restaurants include VOLT and Family Meal in Frederick and Range near Washington, D.C., opted not to renew a short-term lease for her Lunchbox venture a few doors down from Hinode for the same reasons. “It’s very hard to get in and out of that space if you’re not local,” Staples says, adding that it was frustrating to get calls from inbound customers saying, “We’re here. We just don’t know how to get to you.” Other recent closures on the creek include Five Guys and The Greene Turtle—established chains that rely on high volume that decided to seek their foot traffic elsewhere.

The Wine Kitchen, which sits between the former Lunchbox and Hinode, has taken extraordinary steps to guide people to their door. They contacted Google for a fix when they discovered the company’s popular online mapping tool placed them at the far end of the creek. The restaurant, which opened in October 2011, also started accepting reservations to better position themselves as a destination rather than relying on people happening upon the patio as they stroll the creek. “The hardest part has been people finding our location,” said co-owner Jason Miller. “You have to be creative. If you’re going to be where we are you have to be a destination.”

For her part, Staples pointed to a deeper issue, one that her former neighbors would echo. The Carroll Creek project was envisioned to be a lot more than what’s there now—more retail, more housing, more commercial. The project essentially stalled five years ago after the housing crash. The city wasn’t spending money on finishing the park, and chastened developers were holding back until a park—tangible evidence of the city’s financial commitment—was built to appeal to potential commercial investors. Staples suggests businesses on the creek have had to make-do with a half-baked concept.

“They had a design in mind,” she says. “They didn’t follow through with the full design.”

A dearth of vitality along the creak has contributed to some other visible fallout. The area near South Market Street has long been a place where the homeless and downtrodden congregate, due to its close proximity to aid organizations like Advocates for the Homeless and the Frederick Community Action Agency food bank. While their presence might stir fears of lawlessness, police statistics show incident calls around the creek area have markedly declined as officers have stepped up patrols between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. Nuisance crimes that were widely reported two years ago, such as disorderly conduct, drug use and littering, have all been reduced, says Frederick Police Chief Thomas J. Ledwell. “Just the visibility of officers down there provides a feeling of security,” he says.

The perception might change once the sought-after critical mass shows up and dilutes the population there now. The homeless have always been there, says the library’s Darrell Batson. “What has happened is the area has been built up. The people haven’t necessarily changed, but all of a sudden you’ve built some very nice apartments and businesses. That has been the dynamic change along the creek.”

“Everybody’s got to do something”

More dynamic changes are in the works. In December, the city officially broke ground on the next phase of creek improvements, a $15.8-million project that will extend the aesthetic finery east from Carroll Street to East Patrick Street and follow through on long-planned upgrades along the creek between Bentz and Market streets. The move nearly coincides with the city’s request for proposals in February for plans to build a hotel and conference center on one of four sites within reach of the creek. Taken together, there’s some expectation that developers might do their part and start building again.

“The city moving forward with the creek improvements is a really important thing because it shows a level of investment and a level of commitment that I think will be very reassuring and motivating to the adjacent development opportunities,” says Kara Norman, executive director of the Downtown Frederick Partnership, which runs the popular [email protected] events at the creek’s amphitheater from May through mid-September. “When you’re sitting there and thinking, should I make this risk as a private developer and put this money into this property? You want to be really sure that the city is going to put in that investment that is critical to the long-term success of your project.”

Bob McCutcheon, who invested heavily on building out a retail center around his company’s factory store, McCutcheon’s Apple Products, would certainly agree. He designed his project, which includes 35,000 square feet of retail space, before the economy collapsed. Then he saw how hard it was to pre-lease space on a park that doesn’t yet exist. “Everybody’s got to do something or it’s not going to work,” says McCutcheon, whose complex is on the section of the creek where the city just broke ground. “When the city gets the creek built, that’s going to be a turning point. At that point everybody has something to sell. I don’t see things moving forward until that’s done.”

The city estimates the new phase of the park project will take 18 months. Private projects that have been proposed along the creek represent more than $140 million in investment, along with 150 new housing units and more than 400,000 square feet of office, commercial and retail space, the city has said. A hotel, meanwhile, could have 200 rooms and more than 15,000 square feet of meeting space. Those figures could bode well for businesses upstream and all over Downtown. “We think those things are going to help dramatically with driving sidewalk and park traffic,” says Griffin.

“I believe if we announce that we’re going to build a hotel and conference facility in the mix of it, you’re going to see all these other guys spin their wheels to try to move quickly to open around the same time as a hotel coming online.”

A sense of optimism seems to be settling on the creek as shovels start digging again. Roland Castle, a co-owner of Creekside Plaza, is looking forward to the planned construction of a new fountain on the creek near his complex. His building is fully occupied except for 8,000 square feet on the creek where the Greene Turtle used to be. He sees things improving. “I think everyone’s waiting for the economy to really get better and for the creek to really come alive with Phase Two.”

Graham Baker of LaPaz next door says a Downtown hotel could only mean good things for the creek and the larger community. “People that come into town will eventually end up down here on this creek somewhere walking,” he says. “That’s going to be good for everybody.” At South Market Center, Sam Kwon says a hotel with a steady stream of clientele would certainly be welcome. At the Wine Kitchen next door, Jason Miller remains cautious in his optimism. “I’ll be more excited when something is coming out of the ground,” he says.

Last month, the space once occupied by Five Guys landed a new tenant, Döner Bistro, a quirky German restaurant that has gained a loyal following in Leesburg, Va., and the Adams Morgan section of D.C. Timo Winkel, the company’s founder, says the brick patio space along Carroll Creek appealed to him. It’s reminiscent of Northern Germany, where he’s from, and ideally suited for his niche biergarten-style venture. “It feels like Germany right here,” he says, picturing strollers along the creek popping in for a serendipitous European experience. The company proclaims on its website: “It’s your day, your life; you deserve a little fun.”

That’s what Justin and Carolyn Shay thought when temperatures touched 60 degrees on a recent Saturday. The Point of Rocks couple had been housebound all winter with their 5-month-old son Charlie and wanted to do something outside. “We came here to walk around and look for sidewalk seating,” Carolyn says. They discovered the sandwich-board sign for Hinode and followed the directions, which led to a spacious patio overlooking Carroll Creek, which on this day happened to be full of people. So they decided to stay for lunch.