Forum presents over 100 ideas to reshape Columbia Proposals include changes in council

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A new report marking Columbia's 25th anniversary says th community needs to look seriously at changing the way it is governed, open a center for heightening appreciation for ethnic diversity, and entice the city's developer to build housing in Town Center.

"These recommendations really strike at the heart of what Columbia is today," said Morris Keeton, president of the Columbia Forum, a Columbia think-tank that organized the four-year project looking at possible improvements.

The report, entitled "An Agenda for Columbia," was pulled together by 12 committees that examined a wide range of issues from transportation and housing to downtown development and governance.

While the 56-page report contains more than 100 recommendations for improving life in the city, it does not offer any specific ideas about how to put them into practice. Specifics, said David Tucker, the author of the report, should come from the public after the report is distributed at a conference Oct. 25 at Atholton High School.

Mr. Keeton said he expects the recommendations for governing the un-incorporated city of 65,000 to generate the most controversy.

But recommendations aimed at closing a widening schism in Columbia's diverse ethnic and cultural groups and getting the Rouse Co., Columbia's sole developer, to enhance a car-oriented Town Center with a sprinkling of housing, retail and cultural areas may well spark debate.

Three key recommendations for changing Columbia's governance would make the Columbia Council chairmanship an elected office and replace Columbia's one-vote-per-household system by allowing every resident over 18 a vote in village and council elections. Council terms would be two years.

Council members now sit for one year and appoint their chairman. Except for two villages, voting in Columbia is limited to one vote per household.

Alan Schwartz, a Columbia lawyer who headed up the committee that examined the governance issue, said his committee believes the recommended changes would get more citizens interested.

"We found enormous apathy in elections in many of the villages," said Mr. Schwartz. "In some villages you are lucky if you see a 10 percent voter turnout for village or council elections. That's got to be changed if Columbia is to be a vibrant community."

Lengthening council terms would bring stability and consistency the council, as well as provide enough time for a member to become knowledgeable on issues, he said.

The added stability and experience of council members and having a chairman elected community-wide would add a stronger sense of independence from the Columbia Association, said Mr. Schwartz.

The non-profit Columbia Association, collects annual property assessments from homeowners and businesses and operates community facilities, such as pools and community centers. The Columbia Council must approve the association's policies and its $30 million budget. Critics have sometimes charged the council with being a rubber stamp for policies developed by association staff members.

"There is a perception among residents that the council wasn't as strong as the Columbia Association," said Mr. Schwartz. "A chairman who is elected by the entire community would bring at least a perception of power, and independence from the association."

Alex Hekimian, chairman of The Alliance for a Better Columbia, a citizens advocacy group, says the organization supports the Forum's proposed governance changes. "If you change

governance, you change everything else," he said. "And it's time for a new system of government in Columbia."

Karen Kuecker, a Columbia Council member who assisted the governance committee, agrees that changes are needed and she supports two-year council terms. She's not so sure about electing the council chairman.

"I worry that the chair would turn too political, if elected community-wide," she said. "The council needs to retain its political neutrality."

Mr. Schwartz's committee recommends appointing a commission to examine the financial implications of establishing Columbia as either a special tax district or a municipality with limited functions. He believes Columbia could save $25 million in bond debt through such a change.

While the suggestions on improving how Columbia is governed seem destined to generate debate, ethnic factionalism and racism hold serious potential for disrupting Columbia's future, said Karen Reeves, an employee training specialist who assisted the cultural and religious diversity committee.

During the past two years, Columbia, envisioned as a hub of racial harmony and inclusion, has seen several incidents of racial and ethnic extremism, including students openly exchanging racial slurs, swastikas painted on school property, and hate literature circulated in neighborhoods.

Rather than reacting to such incidents, the committee proposes to create a community mediation center and a cultural center to focus on teaching conflict resolution skills and resolving a wide range of disputes, from domestic to community-wide. A cultural center would sponsor and promote cultural and ethnic-oriented events and workshops, Ms. Reeves said.

"Columbia is a very rich, diverse community ethnically. Unfortunately, it's human nature to surround oneself with people who are similar. We shouldn't be isolating people from their own cultures, but we should get more people mixing with different ones" said Ms. Reeves.

Town Center, dominated by The Mall and its expansive parking lot, is frequently criticized for lack of focus and visually interesting buildings. Its biggest drawback, the committee found, is that it is oriented to cars, rather than serving as a hub of pedestrian activity.

Still, the committee was surprised to find many residents didn't necessarily want the area to evolve into a traditional urban center, said Dick Lewis, a wholesale food sales manager who headed up the committee.

"What people said they want is to be able to drive through downtown at 50 miles an hour and have easy access to the mall," said Mr. Smith.

"They associate urban centers with crime and homelessness.

"With that in mind we can't create the traditional urban center. We have to create something new, which really hasn't been created before," said Mr. Smith.

The goal for improving Town Center, the committee decided, is creating an area that encourages more pedestrian activity. That can be accomplished in two key ways:

Building on successful downtown cultural and artistic events, such as summer concerts at Lake Kittamaqundi and persuading the Rouse Co. to build housing in the area.

The committee also recommends that Rouse build low-rise buildings downtown marketed to small retail, cultural and artistic-oriented businesses and organizations.

Many recommendations on topics such as health, the environment and education, would require significant state, county or regional action.

Examples:

* A transportation committee recommends that a mass transportation hub be established in downtown Columbia, linking Columbia's bus system with regional mass transit, including a light rail link with Baltimore and Washington.

* A committee that looked into environmental issues recommends that the Middle Patuxent Valley Nature Area, located west of Columbia, be opened as an public environmental education center.

* The education committee recommends expanding outside of schools to offer education opportunities to a wider audience and expanding programs for preschool children.

HIGHLIGHTS

The Columbia Forum, a 12-committee volunteer planning group, spent four years compiling a report marking the community's 25th anniversary. Among more than 100 recommendations for Columbia's future contained in the 56-page document were:

* To begin studying whether Columbia should become a municipality with limited powers or become a special tax district.

* To extend the terms of Columbia Council members to two years.

* To make the chairmanship of the Columbia Council an at-large, elected position.

* To allow everyone over 18 to vote in village and council elections.

* To encourage the Rouse Co. to consider housing and small retail tenants for Town Center.

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