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Columbia residents respond to redeveloped downtown building plans

As the first new residential and commercial project was unveiled for the redevelopment of downtown Columbia, residents already living in Town Center wanted to know what it will mean for them.

About 90 people showed up at Howard Community College Thursday, as officials and consultants with the Howard Hughes Corp. presented plans for the project, the first phase of which could include a maximum of 817 residential units and no more than 76,098 square feet of retail space.

The residents grilled the Howard Hughes representatives on a variety of concerns, ranging from how the proposed new Warfield neighborhood would fit in with the existing community and how pedestrian-friendly it would be, to the wisdom of adding so many rental units and so much retail space..

"We have houses all around there," said Patricia Laidig, the Town Center Community Association village manager, referring to the existing Warfield Triangle neighborhood. "Are you making sure that this is all integrated into the rest of the Warfield neighborhood that's already there?"

The proposed Warfield neighborhood, one of several neighborhoods that will make up the revamped downtown, will include development on nearly 30 acres of land. The first phase is focused on 9.3 acres on what is now two parcels west of the Columbia mall, between the northern end of Broken Land Parkway and the road that loops around the mall.

The specific number of buildings to be constructed in this first phase could be three, or it could be more, depending on the designs, Robert Jenkins, Howard Hughes' vice president of engineering, said Thursday night.

Documents that Howard Hughes filed with the county government projected one parcel with 14,000 square feet of retail space and 390 residential units on 4.78 acres of land. Another parcel could have 29,680 square feet of retail space and 267 residential units on 2.54 acres. A third parcel could have 32,418 square feet of retail space and 160 residential units on 185 acres.

The building designs, which have not yet been done, will determine the actual numbers, Jenkins said.

The neighborhood of Warfield is eventually slated to add up to another 1,000 residential units and up to another 283,780 square feet of retail space, according to the documents.

In total, downtown Columbia is expected to have a maximum of 5,500 new residential units.

Joel Broida, a Town Center village board member, said he was concerned about the residences being apartments.

"Putting in 817 units with rentals is like setting up a hotel," he said. "When you're a rental unit, you're transient. You do not become part of the neighborhood. Columbia is great, and I would hate to see it become a transient, hotel-like community."

There are now two rental properties in Warfield Triangle.

Sam Crozier of Harper's Choice asked why the proposed development called for retail. "We already have a zillion square feet in the mall," he said. "Is it really necessary to do more?"

John E. DeWolf III, a senior vice president of Howard Hughes, said the company envisioned shops similar to those in Bethesda, in Montgomery County.

"It's not going to be more of the same," DeWolf said. "It's going to be new, different, something that fits in with the context of everything that we're doing."

Linda Wengel, a Town Center village board member who lives in Warfield Triangle, asked about pedestrian crossings to the new development.

"This is really important to me. I think we need to make this walk-able, first and foremost," DeWolf said later in the evening. The design guidelines for the development, he said, "almost force that to happen."

The buildings are the second project being pitched for downtown Columbia. The Columbia Association is seeking to transform Symphony Woods, which encircles Merriweather Post Pavilion, into a park with walkways and, potentially, a fountain, restrooms, a stage and a café.

Both the Symphony Woods Park and Warfield construction projects are just beginning the process of receiving government approvals. The Warfield proposal will next be taken up by the county's Design Advisory Panel, on Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m., in the county government's George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

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