Columbia downtown plan gaining public support


Just two years ago, it seemed the battle over downtown Columbia's future couldn't get much worse.

The Rouse Co. was pushing to build more homes and to enclose the beloved open-air Merriweather Post Pavilion. Opponents saw the proposals as an assault on the planned community's founding principles. Even bigger questions were raised when Rouse was bought by an out-of-town developer last fall.

A lot has changed in two years.

The new owner, General Growth Properties, has embarked on a quiet campaign to win the public's support, led by the company's general manager for Columbia, Dennis Miller.

Now, parties who had fought each other bitterly are coming together around General Growth's plan to create a vibrant, bustling downtown core that would include many of the same elements, including building homes and shops on the land behind Merriweather, a proposal that had sparked opposition in the first place.

The draft plan, shown to the public at a town hall meeting last month, has been generally well-received. And the bitterness and harsh skepticism from both sides appears to have been quelled to a great extent.

"I just wish ... that [the company] could have responded a year and a half or two years ago," Howard County Executive James N. Robey said. "That's water over the dam. The plan I've seen is solid."

General Growth made perhaps its greatest concession in April when it decided that Merriweather, host over the years to performers from Janis Joplin to Evanescence, would remain an open-air venue and accommodate concert-goers with parking spaces throughout downtown.

"It's been a very positive breakthrough in this two-year ordeal," said Ian Kennedy, president of Save Merriweather, who was among the community leaders working on the Columbia master development plan. "They're going in the right direction, more so than ever. ... It seems they've opened up and paid attention."

The centerpiece of the plan is a mix of businesses, homes, parking and open space on a 51.7-acre crescent-shaped property near Merriweather -- Columbia's largest chunk of developable land -- now partially used for amphitheater parking.

One proposal would include a 24-story building, an 18-story building and an eight-story building. That trio of buildings could include 704,000 square feet of office space, 148,000 square feet of retail, 1,000 housing units and a 125-room hotel.

Roads could be built behind the pavilion and near the Lake Kittamaqundi waterfront. They would offer a Main Street-type of atmosphere, with parallel curbside parking, restaurants and retail outlets.

"I congratulate them for pulling this together, and there's no doubt they put a lot of effort into it," said County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a north Laurel-Savage Democrat.

Miller, a longtime Columbia resident who worked for Rouse and stayed on with General Growth, said the company put together a draft master plan with that level of detail after listening to residents complain about the lack of information being offered.

"I was excited and happy that people accepted the invitation to come out" to the town hall meeting, Miller said.

Bridget Mugane of Columbia, a lawyer who helped spearhead community opposition to the development plans, said she welcomes General Growth's ideas to make downtown "more friendly and charming" with outdoor cafes, open-space gathering areas and narrow, urban streets.

But while she said those ideas show that the company has been listening to residents' ideas, she is concerned that such a vibrant downtown will bring an influx of vehicles.

"[The development] would make it a more interesting and enjoyable place for all of us; I'm delighted with that," she said. "But it won't work, in my opinion, unless we solve the commuter traffic problem, the rush-hour traffic problem. We must address that, or I think downtown may fail."

Traffic will be the subject of another General Growth community meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. June 28 at the company's Columbia office -- a topic likely to be key to gaining support from the community as well as from the county, which is planning to create its own master plan for Columbia.

"It is critical to pull everything together and to make sure at the end of the day we're approving a plan that works for everyone," said County Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat.

General Growth's plan remains a work in progress. The company is appealing the Zoning Board's denial of its proposal to build homes by Merriweather and is awaiting a decision by the Planning Board on the plan to commercially develop the area.

And some residents who have opposed the company's development plans from the beginning remain skeptical.

Mary and Al Pivar of Columbia attended almost every zoning board hearing on Rouse's original development plans. Mary Pivar said she and her husband fear any homes built near Merriweather would lead to a pocket of upscale residences isolated from the rest of Columbia.

"[General Growth] built a very effective public relations presentation, which seems to be directing the public emphasis of public input toward traffic concerns, which in the long run they would not be responsible for," she said.

E. Alexander Adams, a Glenwood attorney who was one of the primary opponents of the company's original petition two years ago but did not attend the town hall meeting last month, doesn't see how the county will benefit if it allows General Growth to develop the area at a high residential density.

"Count me as unimpressed," he said. "I just don't see what all the self-congratulations is about."

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