Concern expressed about traffic, building height in Columbia's crescent

Downtown Columbia developer Howard Hughes Corp.'s plans to build a true downtown on 66 acres of woodlands on the crescent property were generally well received by members of the public Monday, although there were concerns.

The plan, which was revealed to the public last month in the Columbia Flier, calls for 2,100 residential units, a 250-key hotel, 203,000 square feet of retail, up to 4,360 parking spaces and 225,000 square feet of civic uses – which would include a new county library, state-of-the-art swim center, conference center and concert hall – directly south of Merriweather Post Pavilion. The developer also plans to build 1,125,000 square feet of general and medical office space in three plots west of the pavilion.

Increased traffic and the scale of the buildings -- the maximum building height in most of the development ranges from 15 to 20 stories -- were among the concerns raised at a pre-submission community meeting held at Howard Community College, where approximately 75 people were in attendance.

According to a spokesman for the project, independent traffic studies are conducted and updated throughout the development process to ensure the roads can support the development.

In addition, Howard County government conducts a study every five years to make sure the roads are still adequate for the traffic volume.

"I think the concerns you have expressed are very much legitimate, but I believe traffic is something you can solve with science,"  said John DeWolf, senior vice president for Howard Hughes. 

There was also concern that the height of the buildings would be too drastic a departure for Columbia, and would take away from the aesthetic quality of the community.

DeWolf has said the developer plans to seek the maximum building height in neighborhood. In area 1 and 2, which will be primarily office, the buildings will range from seven to 15 stories high. In area 3, which will be the commercial and residential hub located south of the pavilion, buildings could reach as high as 20 stories. 

DeWolf said the heights are within the requirements laid out in the Downtown Columbia Plan, and that those who are concerned "reserve judgment" until later in the approval process.

"It's not 20 stories everywhere, it's 20 stories in this one confined space," he said. 

In total, the project will include 4.8 million square feet of development and would cost the developer $1 billion to build. DeWolf said the developer hopes to be through the county approval process for the land use plan by the summer or fall of this year, with construction beginning in spring 2015. DeWolf estimates construction on the first phase to take at least a year and a half, which would put the opening of some of the buildings in late 2016.

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