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Columbia phobia? Alternative to sprawl: North Laurel won't become 'edge city,' but fears are legitimate.


COLUMBIA BOOSTERS are proud of their community's choreographed mix of residential and commercial development, its diversity and open spaces. To many, it is an oasis unmatched in suburbia. But outside its borders, in Howard County at least, Columbia has a bad name.

This is one reason why the Rouse Co.'s plans to build a 527-acre "mixed-use" center for housing and business in North Laurel is causing such a ruckus. Foes are troubled by the thought of a Columbia-style village rising near older, traditional communities. They view the development, the largest mixed-use center under consideration, as an unwieldy imposition that would change life as they know it.

The site runs along Interstate 95 and is bounded by Gorman Road to the north and Route 216 to the south. It is zoned "planned employment center," a designation that Rouse is trying to convince county officials to change to mixed use for businesses, 1,400 homes and recreational facilities in Columbia's image.

Opponents have no reason to fear Columbia. Although it endures some parodies about its unusual street names and its ability to disorient visiting motorists, the community is a far better alternative to unplanned sprawl and has preserved plenty of open space. Skeptics, however, are right to ask whether the planned North Laurel center will have enough road improvements and school capacity to accommodate the load.

Another concern is whether this site will actually become a mixed-use center akin to Columbia. Ideally, it should attract small businesses such as high-tech firms, but it could become a giant residential development. Howard County unwittingly created this scenario by changing the definition for mixed-use centers. Under the revision, developers can build nearly half the homes before constructing businesses. A county struggling to bolster its commercial tax base does not need mixed-use centers that have mostly homes and only a few shops.

Before it blesses the Rouse plan, Howard County also must assure that infrastructure will be able to handle such a large development. Residents, meanwhile, must come to realize that a Columbia replica would change their surroundings, but in a more orderly manner than might occur otherwise.

Pub Date: 12/27/96

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