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Residents testify on Town Center proposal

In a tense hearing before the county Zoning Board last night, Howard residents testified and cross-examined one another over their support or opposition to a Rouse Co. plan to significantly develop downtown Columbia.

In what would be a major development in Town Center, Rouse is petitioning to add more than 2,100 residential units to Columbia, with the majority of them earmarked for a 60-acre, crescent-shaped property behind Symphony Woods.

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The area, which is zoned for commercial use, surrounds the 9-acre Merriweather Post Pavilion site and could have mid- or high-rise buildings, big-box stores and 1,600 residential units if the petition is approved.

Those extra units would bring an estimated 2,352 additional residents to Town Center, which now has about 4,200.

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Some residents want Columbia - a planned community developed 36 years ago - to remain as it is, and fear that the additional units will only cause clogged roads and more crime. Others are hoping that the extra population will create a vibrant urban atmosphere, turning Columbia's Town Center into an active downtown.

Donna L. Rice, a Town Center resident who also represents the area on the Columbia Council, told the Zoning Board last night that the development will help complete the "heart of our city." She said she doesn't understand the "controversy and turmoil" over the matter, which she claims is purely a Town Center issue.

"Residential development is key for Town Center, and we are very, very late in blooming," Rice said.

Frank Martin of Ellicott City, however, questioned how 2,352 additional residents would help make Town Center vibrant if Columbia's population of 96,000 had not already accomplished that.

William Santos of Wilde Lake asked Rice how big-box stores - allocated 100,000 square feet of space under the Rouse plan if the land is developed residentially - would fit in with the vision of Columbia developer James W. Rouse.

Hearings on the plan will resume before the Zoning Board for a fifth night Sept. 24.

Howard Research and Development Corp., a Rouse subsidiary, is asking to increase Columbia's maximum residential density to 2.5 dwellings units per acre from 2.35. That would create 2,141 units.

Wednesday night, Rouse officials presented an economic impact study to the board that showed the county could receive $20.8 million to $78.8 million in tax revenue from the development by 2017, which is expected to be the first year after construction is completed.

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The range depends on whether the property is developed residentially and what percentage of dwelling units are designated affordable housing. The county stands to make the largest net revenue, $78.8 million, if the property were developed for mixed use with 5 percent of the units set aside as affordable housing.

The Columbia Association also stands to benefit significantly from the project. If the area were developed with 5 percent of affordable housing units, the homeowners association would collect $21.1 million by 2017 in annual fees based on property value assessments.

But some residents are protesting Rouse's plan to dedicate only 5 percent of the units as affordable housing. The county's Interfaith Coalition for Affordable Housing is to trying to persuade the company to increase it to at least 15 percent.

Barbara Hope, the coalition's chairwoman, told the board last night that the group would not oppose the Rouse plan if 10 percent of the proposed units in Town Center were set aside for affordable housing. If the petition is approved, that percentage, in addition to the number of proposed units to be built in an Oakland Mills senior apartment complex, would bring the total near the coalition's goal of 15 percent.

"We talk to families every single day who are living on the edge," Hope said.

Sherman Howell, vice president of the African American Coalition of Howard County, also urged Rouse to increase the affordable housing amount to 10 percent.


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