With the future of downtown Columbia in the balance, town leaders have come up with an interesting proposal: Take key players - residents, developers, county officials - put them in a room for seven days and hope they come out with a master plan.
"Columbia is nothing if not an example of what good planning can do," said Joshua Feldmark, board chairman of the Columbia Association, which has proposed sponsoring the weeklong summit this spring.
In recent years, this process - known as a charrette - has become popular.
"It's because of increased pressure of growth these days on communities," said Bill Lennertz, director of the nonprofit National Charrette Institute. "As a result, everyone's getting more involved in land-use issues and increasing the need for collaboration."
Columbia's last significant undeveloped land remains in the heart of the city, and with recent development projects has come controversy.
Last year, some residents and county officials bitterly resisted and defeated the Rouse Co.'s attempt to build more residential buildings near Merriweather Post Pavilion. Since then, Rouse has been sold, but its successor, General Growth Properties, has made similar proposals to build retail and office buildings on the same land and to sell the nearby pavilion as an enclosed venue.
In addition, condominiums are being built near The Mall in Columbia. And Howard County is considering changing zoning laws that have governed Columbia development since the town's inception.
"There are so many things swirling around," said County Councilman Ken Ulman, a Democrat. "We need a master plan before any more development goes on downtown."
The Columbia Association, the town's governing body, will vote Tuesday on whether to approve hiring a consultant to help plan the charrette.
"We really need a plan here," said Jud Malone, a Columbia Association board member representing Town Center. "The way it works these days is that the companies present what they want. Residents react to it, usually against it. Then you have a long series of public meetings and legal challenges. Hopefully, we'll get a lot of that out of the way in these meetings."
The Columbia Association has no power over development projects. General Growth owns most of the undeveloped land, and the county oversees the zoning. But Columbia Association officials hope the proposed summit will give them and others a chance to have a say in the development.
A master plan emerging from the summit would not have any legal authority. But Ulman has floated the idea of including such a plan in the county's effort to reform zoning rules, possibly adopting the plan as law.
Airing their views
Confining in one room groups that often are polar opposites on development issues likely will cause tension, which Feldmark said is the purpose.
"There will be tension and clashing, but people would be airing all their viewpoints," Feldmark said. "It's a better arena to make that happen than the arena it's happening now in the rumor mill."