Ellicott City stairway catches the eye and stormwater

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The historic courthouse overlooks the new retaining wall and stairway in Ellicott City.. (Andy McLean, P.E. -Water Resources Engineer)

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By Donna Morelli

Bay Journal

An earthquake, and then a flood, forced officials to repair a parking lot retaining wall in hilly Ellicott City.

The wall, already weakened by the magnitude 5.8 quake that shook the East Coast in 2011, was damaged a month later when Tropical Storm Lee took its toll on the historic business district of shops and restaurants.

Howard County’s innovative repair job did more than restore the wall — it netted the community an architecturally designed staircase, showy native gardens, a waterfall, less stormwater pollution of the Patapsco River and a BUBBA.

BUBBA stands for Best Urban Best Management Practice in the Bay Award, given to the Howard County project last month by the Chesapeake Stormwater Network. The nonprofit, which is located in Ellicott City, launched the BUBBA contest a few years ago to recognize stormwater projects or practices that achieve substantial water quality improvement in a challenging urban environment. It was accorded “best in show” honors from the winners of eight different categories of stormwater control projects.

Convincing staff wasn’t easy

Howard County’s problem of a failing retaining wall and restricted access to the parking lot could have been solved easily without adding stormwater management. But Jim Caldwell, director of the county Office of Community Sustainability, knew his options for stormwater management in a 250-year-old community were limited. Convincing staff wasn’t easy, though.

“There was a lot of apprehension, Caldwell said. “Our public works department wanted to fix the wall and walk away, and they wanted to build a stairway and walk away. This is the first modern BMP in town.”

Howard County hired the McCormick Taylor engineering firm to design a solution that would not only repair the stone wall but also improve access to the parking lot and treat runoff from two acres of pavement and buildings in the Circuit Court Complex atop a bluff overlooking the parking lot.

Adding to the complexity of the project were nearly vertical slopes, buried utilities and the need to meet building standards in a community that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Visually arresting

What McCormick Taylor came up with suggests that managing stormwater can be visually arresting. During heavy rainfalls, runoff from the courthouse complex washes into a flume that is tunneled underneath the staircase and empties into a series of areas densely planted with native vegetation. These “bioretention cells” retain some water, so it can be soaked up by soil and plants. The excess spills into a rock channel forming a waterfall and into another cell below.

Ellicott City’s new stormwater BMP is highly visible among the steep slopes, restaurants and shops of its busy Main Street. The new staircase increases pedestrian access to the courthouse and the cultural attractions below, and it enhances safety getting to Parking Lot E, which otherwise required walking on the dimly lit, blind curve of Court Avenue. The spectacle of a waterfall amid skilled stone work can’t be missed by those using the stairway —especially during a rainstorm.

The project has proven its durability, as it was unscathed after last summer’s flash flood, which devastated much of downtown historic Ellicott City.

$1.5 million in stormwater funds

The cost of the entire project totaled $3.4 million. The stormwater portion of design and construction was roughly $1.5 million, which came from Howard County stormwater fees [aka, the rain tax]. The cost was well within the average for stormwater BMPs in an ultra-urban environment, Caldwell said.

Under federal and state regulations, Howard County has to treat runoff from 2,000 acres of pavement and buildings. The Ellicott City BMP manages 2 acres of that amount. The value of the project is that many people who visit Ellicott City can see the stormwater management incorporated into an architecturally attractive staircase, Caldwell said. He added that any construction in a 250-year old city that is built out is going to be expensive.

“People need to understand that it is our responsibility to manage stormwater created because of our impervious surfaces. It’s a service to have stormwater taken away. No one expects to get electricity for free. If we could have a 1,000 more of these maybe we wouldn’t suffer as much flooding in Ellicott City,” Caldwell said.

For details about the Chesapeake Stormwater Network’s BUBBAs, visit chesapeakestormwater.net/the-bubbas/2017-bubbas-2/.