After many delays, Columbia's downtown plan moving forward

Plans for vast changes to downtown Columbia have picked up speed in recent months, having cleared nearly a year's worth of political and economic hurdles — including the master developer's recently resolved bankruptcy and an election challenge to a key supporter.

The town's master developer, the Howard Hughes Corp., is now split off from a revived General Growth Properties, the Chicago-based shopping mall firm that emerged from bankruptcy in early November. Hughes is moving forward on an array of studies and plans that could get construction on the huge, 30-year project started in 2012.

"Although a lot of it has been quiet to the public, we've been working nonstop since February," said Gregory F. Hamm, regional vice president and general manager of the new firm, which has its headquarters in Dallas. "We see light at the end of the tunnel, which is great."

The zoning plan, approved by the County Council Feb. 1, would allow up to 5,500 new residences, 4.3 million square feet of commercial office space, 1.25 million square feet of new retail space plus hotels, a rebuilt Merriweather Post Pavilion, cultural amenities, environmental improvements and a pedestrian-friendly town center dotted with attractive public spaces. It is the biggest change by far in Columbia since the town was founded by developer James W. Rouse in the mid-1960s.

Although skeptics argued that the plan's ambitious goals gave developers too much leeway and would overwhelm the town's core with vehicles and people, elected county officials unanimously approved the blueprint amid assurances that built-in legal safeguards would prevent major problems.

Still, Alan Klein, a persistent critic of the project who ran for County Council on those doubts but lost in the Democratic primary to Mary Kay Sigaty, the council's key project supporter, said he fears the new corporation might not have enough capital to see the long project through. "Then we're in the position of 'who's in charge?' Who will move us forward?" he said.

Hughes is engaged in required studies on transportation and environmental improvements while also finalizing architectural design guidelines and holding talks on a master plan for cultural amenities. In addition, the developer is talking with housing advocates and county officials on ways of organizing an Affordable Housing Trust Fund that will have an estimated $43 million that the county required to prevent the new downtown from being a place only the wealthy can afford. Other nonprofits would be created to manage the various elements of the 30-year redevelopment plan intended to create an urban-style downtown from what is now a scattered suburban area surrounding a shopping mall.

The preliminary studies are vital, however, because they must help determine whether the planned town's infrastructure will be able to handle that much concentrated growth, especially the traffic. Without a potential third interchange on Route 29, or a vastly improved transit system bolstered by far more pedestrians and bicycle riders, for example, the county law might not allow the whole project to be built.

Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of Planning and Zoning for Howard County, said her staff has been in regular contact with the developer, especially on the design guidelines, which the council must vote on. Two meetings with residents on cultural amenities have also been held recently, according to Hamm and participants.

"General Growth Properties appears to be committed to moving forward, and has initiated action on many fronts," McLaughlin said, using the firm's former name. The County Council wanted downtown-wide design guidelines to control the look of new buildings and public places throughout the town center, McLaughlin said. Once those standards are established, work can begin on a separate master plan for each of six neighborhoods envisioned in the roughly 240 acres around the shopping mall. Hamm said his focus is to get all the general requirements fulfilled before focusing on which neighborhood will be redeveloped first.

Suzanne Waller, who represents the Town Center area on the Columbia Association board of directors, the homeowners association that operates the town's recreational facilities and open space, said she attended a meeting this month on cultural amenities and was pleased that the developer's consultants were there to listen to residents.

"It was really an excellent meeting," Waller said. Klein, who also attended one session, said he was pleased residents favored placing cultural amenities along Lake Kittamaqundi rather than in Symphony Woods near Merriweather, which was an earlier General Growth idea.

The design guidelines should be ready for County Council consideration next month, Hamm said, and consultants are working on other aspects of the plan. "By February or March next year, we should have most things wrapped up," and depending on market conditions, construction could begin on the first portions of the project in spring 2012. By mid-2014, he said, the first new buildings might be ready. The first project to begin construction, however, could be the remaking of Symphony Woods Park by CA, which owns that land. Work there is scheduled to begin in December 2011.

Like other Central Maryland developers, Hamm said he's looking to the planned cybersecurity command at Fort Meade and the base realignment and closing process to bring thousands of new jobs and people to the area. "There's going to be a lot of demand," Hamm said.

How to organize the housing trust fund remains unresolved, though discussions between Hamm's staff, county housing officials and members of a housing advocacy group called the Full Spectrum Housing Coalition are under way.

Tim Sosinski, an architect and member of the group, said the tension is about control, rather than substance.

"It's more about who would run the show," he said. "We want it to be independent," to avoid political pressures, but not so free of regulations that the money could be diverted for other purposes over time.

While this and other issues are discussed, Hamm said progress is being made, and the corporate plight of General Growth Properties, the Chicago mall company that in 2004 bought the Rouse Co., should help.

Hughes has other master planned communities in Summerlin, Nev., Bridgeland and The Woodland in Houston, Emerson in southeastern Howard County and Fairland in Prince George's County.

The firm will specialize in developing planned communities, Hamm said, making the downtown Columbia project a major focus instead of a sideline. "We're in the center, the core of the business, and that's nice."

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