Concessions made in plan for downtown

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In a marathon Howard County Zoning Board meeting that ended at 4:08 a.m. yesterday, the Rouse Co. made some concessions in its request to add a few thousand residents to downtown Columbia.

Expecting the hearing, which began about 8:30 p.m. Monday, to be the last on the development company's petition to add more than 2,100 residential units to Columbia, Chairman Ken Ulman pledged that the board was willing to stay as long as necessary.

"After eight straight hours on a zoning case ... we are adjourned," Ulman told a tired crowd of about a dozen residents at the end of the meeting.

The board will schedule a session to vote on the petition. Hearings on the matter began in July, and the long session was the eighth.

One of the company's key changes was the voluntary move to increase the number of moderately priced housing units from 5 percent to 10 percent. That would lead to at least 160 affordable units in Town Center and 54 affordable housing units set aside for the other villages.

The move was cheered by the county's Interfaith Coalition for Affordable Housing, which had lobbied Rouse to increase the amount of affordable housing.

"It is no longer just the poorest that cannot afford quality, decent housing," the group wrote in a statement released yesterday, applauding Rouse's proffer. "Soaring housing costs are far beyond the reach of police officers, teachers, nurses, secretaries and janitors that serve the community."

If the board - which is made up of the five members of the County Council - approves the petition to increase Columbia's density, the majority of the additional units would be developed in the 60-acre, crescent-shaped property behind Symphony Woods in Town Center. Those units, about 1,600, are estimated to add 2,352 residents to Town Center, which now has a population of 4,265. The remaining units would be reserved for Columbia's other nine villages on a first-come, first-served basis.

Rouse is expecting that the proposed development will create an active urban core, with the additional residents and mid- or high-rise mixed-use buildings with 400,000 square feet of office space and 100,000 square feet each for big-box stores and other retail.

Responding to a unanimous request from the board, the company also agreed to separate from the petition the 150 units dedicated for Oakland Mills, allowing the board to approve the project apart from the overall petition. Those units likely would go toward a proposed senior apartment building on a vacant 1.7-acre lot owned by Exxon Mobil Corp. in Oakland Mills Village Center. The project is supported by the Oakland Mills Village Board, which hopes the additional residents will help revitalize its struggling village center.

"All this does is signify it's our intention to approve the Oakland Mills portion of this as soon as possible," said Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat.

In addressing Ulman's concern that the proposed retail in Town Center might compete with Columbia's village centers, Rouse granted that grocery stores larger than 20,000 square feet would not be built as part of the new development.

In a matter that was not raised during the past seven hearings, board member David A. Rakes, an east Columbia Democrat, requested that the company lift covenants tied to the land on which Grandfather's Nursery in Long Reach is built. The covenants are causing the owner difficulty in selling the land.

Dennis Miller, Rouse vice president and general manager of Columbia, appeared baffled at the link between the nursery and the company's petition, but he did say that if the Long Reach Village Board indicates it wants residential units to be built on that site, "I'm OK with that."

Miller, however, would not satisfy a concern that has been important to Ulman - committing money to creating a Central Park-type atmosphere in Symphony Woods, which is managed by the Columbia Association.

Ulman said the park in its current state - a stand of trees where residents rarely venture - is a "complete barrier to this project adding to the vibrancy of downtown."

But Miller said he is not comfortable making any commitment to land owned by the Columbia Association, which has not indicated it wants the area changed.

Board member Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, asked that Rouse create a "fully integrated pedestrian plan" in Town Center that the company would fund. He was also concerned about parking for Merriweather Post Pavilion, which Rouse plans to convert into a year-round enclosed venue while relying on parking decks near The Mall in Columbia. Guzzone asked that the company provide sufficient parking without making residents cross Little Patuxent Parkway.

Miller did not agree to either request, explaining that the pedestrian access would be sufficient, and that parking for the pavilion would meet necessary requirements.

In the midst of the board members' requests, Vice Chairman Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican, said he was bothered by the indication that Rouse had to agree to all of the members' requests or the petition would not be approved.

"I have a problem with this board basically saying, 'We really want you to do this,' wink, wink," he said.

Ulman said he was not trying to dictate aspects of the plan, but he is concerned about whether the proposed development will create a vibrant urban area, as Rouse proposes.

"I can't support this without some additional commitments," he said. "If these [requests] are met, then I'll support it. And if they're not, then I won't."

In closing arguments, which began about 3 a.m., Rouse lawyer James D. Lano assured the board that the downtown area's infrastructure is suitable for extra residents, explaining that a sufficient road network exists and the development will meet the requirements for schools.

"Town Center is a Smart Growth area," he said. "It's already preserviced to accommodate this development."

Lano also said the development would "more than pay for itself." According to an economic impact study prepared for Rouse by Tischler & Associates Inc., if the land is developed with 10 percent of affordable housing units and 10 percent of age-restricted units, the county would receive $75.5 million by 2017, the estimated first year after build-out.

But E. Alexander Adams, a Glenwood attorney who has been one of the primary opponents in the case, called the economic study "so flawed, I can't believe you would give it any weight at all."

Adams, in his closing argument, warned the board that if it allowed Rouse to sell the units to developers - as the company has indicated - it would create a "horrible precedent ... a chilling effect on any redevelopment in villages."

But earlier in the morning, Miller had claimed that charging for the units would help guarantee quality construction and architecture.

"We definitely believe that the units have some leverage to ensure you get a better product," he said.

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