General Growth is convening April meetings


General Growth Properties -- which has been interviewing community members to get their thoughts about developing downtown Columbia -- is convening meetings of local leaders this month, possibly to show a rough draft plan for Town Center.

County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a north Laurel-Savage Democrat, said he has been told by company officials that General Growth is also planning to have a meeting open to the community next month.

"I think these are all good steps in the right direction," he said. "Ultimately, we need a master plan that has broad-based support in the community."

Dennis Miller, General Growth's general manager for Columbia, could not be reached for comment. Since the Chicago-based company acquired the Rouse Co., which founded Columbia, in November, it has kept a relatively low profile.

Some of the invitees say, based on their invitations, they are not entirely clear about the focus of the meetings scheduled at the company's Columbia office April 12 and 26.

"Literally, it was like a 10-second phone call," Ian Kennedy, co-founder of the advocacy group Save Merriweather, said of his invitation to the meeting. "I got a call from Dennis Miller's assistant. She said, 'We're having meetings on these days, and you should come.' That was it."

General Growth hired the Baltimore consulting firm Mahan Rykiel Associates to interview a group of community leaders in February about Town Center, and many spoke about desires for a more pedestrian-friendly atmosphere, traffic solutions and a mix of housing and business to be built on the undeveloped land next to Merriweather Post Pavilion.

County Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, said he assumes that during the meetings the company will present a first draft of a development plan for Town Center, though he is unsure whether the ideas will incorporate only the company's properties or all of the downtown area.

Ulman said he believes his constituents desire a plan for Town Center that includes shops, restaurants and pedestrian walkways. He thinks downtown could benefit from more residential density if "it was really demonstrated how it would work, how it would be connected, how the traffic and parking would work. And we're not there.

"If we got there, I think I could be persuaded to supported it," he said. "If it's not a great plan, I'll fight it. I'll just oppose everything unless I see something great."

General Growth has put forward two plans to develop the 51-acre property that is adjacent to Merriweather, and the ideas have been strongly opposed throughout the community, with many people fearing the development could lead to the demise of the open-air concert venue.

In a plan that has been before the county Planning Board since October, the company wants to develop office and retail buildings on the property. The next meeting on the issue is scheduled for Thursday.

In the company's other proposal, it seeks to increase Columbia's housing density, which would allow construction of lucrative residential units on the parcel. The county Zoning Board turned down that request in January 2004.

The company appealed the decision, and Howard County Circuit Court Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr. is expected to rule on the matter before he retires in June.

General Growth has offered to sell Merriweather to the county -- with the condition that it be converted into a smaller, enclosed venue.

However, last month a citizens panel appointed by Howard County Executive James N. Robey recommended that the county buy the pavilion and preserve it as an open-air concert venue.

The Columbia Association also is planning to hold a charrette -- an intense summit over consecutive days -- to come up with a master plan for downtown. The board voted to allocate $125,000 to hold the charrette this year, but General Growth has refused to participate.

Association board member Jud Malone, who represents Town Center, was also invited to General Growth's meeting and said the association wants the company to participate in the charrette, but it welcomes the company convening the meeting of community leaders "because we think it's a good opportunity to understand what their intentions are for downtown."

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