Rouse says town plan still works


A Rouse Co. official told the Columbia Council last night that the development company's vision for the planned community's future remains remarkably similar to plans it drew up 30 years ago.

"Except for those facilities that fundamentally didn't work, and there have only been a few, we haven't felt the need to try a new concept," said Alton J. Scavo, who has helped plan Columbia for Rouse for 25 years.

But the councilman representing Columbia's newest village disagreed, saying River Hill residents are frustrated that their community doesn't seem to be developing in accordance with Columbia's established villages.

"We're going to change the name River Hill to Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes," Council Vice Chairman David W. Berson told Mr. Scavo. "River Hill is going to be the land of 10,000 storm water management ponds."

River Hill is struggling with housing lots that are too small, open space areas that are difficult to develop with a network of paths and children's playgrounds, and cul-de-sacs too narrow to accommodate school buses, Mr. Berson said.

Mr. Scavo, Rouse's general manager of Columbia, discussed plans for Columbia's development, including expanding The Mall, creating a more vibrant downtown area and residential growth slated for Long Reach and River Hill villages.

He also said Rouse weathered the economic downturn of the early 1990s well. Columbia's residential construction and home buying markets remained fairly strong, although the office vacancy rate has just begun to decline, he said.

And no, the Washington Redskins, rejected this week by Anne Arundel County, don't appear to be part of the new town's future, Mr. Scavo said, responding to a councilman's question about a rumor.

However, Mr. Scavo said, Rouse is acquainted with Redskins officials and has talked to the organization, not about a football stadium site, but out of "curiosity."

The council also voted 8-1 to take a position opposing the general election ballot question that would allow county residents to petition to referendum county comprehensive rezoning plans or the county General Plan for development.

River Hill and the Kendall Ridge section of Long Reach will be the primary areas for residential development over the next several years, Mr. Scavo said. By 1999, River Hill is projected to increase from about 400 housing units to nearly 1,900, and Kendall Ridge from about 1,200 to more than 2,100.

Rouse wants to attract more office buildings to Town Center, but the market is struggling, Mr. Scavo said. Rouse also plans to build a type of housing in Town Center that will appeal to buyers looking for a "more urbane environment" than the typical Columbia village, he said.

He said Rouse is negotiating with several retail companies to expand the mall by as many as three department stores.

Several council members asked about Nordstrom, the Seattle-based chain that has expressed an interest in locating a store between Bethesda and Baltimore. Mr. Scavo wouldn't reveal which retailers were negotiating with Rouse.

Mr. Scavo said Rouse has had difficulty making improvements to older village shopping centers in Long Reach and Harper's Choice, adding that many retailers are more interested in locating in strip shopping centers rather than the courtyard-style village centers.

Councilwoman Hope Sachwald expressed concern about security, maintenance and vacant storefronts at the Harper's Choice Village Center. Mr. Scavo responded that the center has an unusual design -- "neither fish nor fowl" -- and said Rouse has explored "Draconian measures" for creating an alternative shopping area there.

Improvements for Long Reach village have been delayed largely because Rouse hasn't been able to come to agreement with Safeway to expand the anchor store, which is about half the size of other Columbia supermarkets, Mr. Scavo said.

He said Rouse has heard concerns similar to those of River Hill residents throughout the development of Columbia's nine other villages.

River Hill -- a village that will be dominated by single-family homes priced at $300,000 or more -- has been planned since 1965 to be Columbia's lowest-density development, Mr. Scavo said. The village will have more open space than originally planned, but much of that area is wetlands, which makes path and tot-lot construction difficult, he said.

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