Meeting to address Columbia's downtown


Columbia's Town Center isn't a pedestrian-friendly downtown.

There are few sidewalks and crosswalks, and only one sky bridge. Cars zoom along Little Patuxent Parkway, creating a nearly impassable barrier around The Mall in Columbia. And plans to revitalize the downtown area are sure to bring more traffic and clog streets in the vehicle-driven suburban center.

But if General Growth Properties and the county plan to transform Town Center into a successful bustling urban environment, cars and pedestrians are going to have to co-exist in a symbiotic relationship.

General Growth will be addressing those issues Tuesday night at a town hall meeting, examining how to allow for more pedestrian access while also attempting to ease traffic.

"One doesn't exist without the other," said Dennis Miller, the development company's general manager for Columbia. "Walkable communities, they have traffic ... and urban areas, traditionally they are walkable. They're necessary ingredients for a vibrant town center."

About 500 residents have responded to General Growth, saying they plan to attend the 7 p.m. meeting at the company's Columbia headquarters.

The meeting comes after the company released its draft plan last month to transform Columbia's downtown with businesses, hotels, homes, parking and open space, as well as to build extensively on the 51.7-acre crescent-shaped property next to Merriweather Post Pavilion.

General Growth's plan calls for a mix of businesses, homes, parking and open space on the property near the pavilion, which would remain an open-air venue, with concertgoers able to park throughout Town Center.

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

The plans generally have been well received by the community, though residents are concerned that the extra homes and attractions will lead to clogged streets, primarily Governor Warfield Parkway, Little Patuxent Parkway and Broken Land Parkway.

"We need to keep [traffic] flowing efficiently because time lost commuting is time lost from our families," said Bridget Mugane of Columbia, a lawyer who helped spearhead community opposition to General Growth's plans to only commercially develop the land by Merriweather.

"If we have commuters flowing through the downtown core, traffic may slow from 5 to 10 mph, and there will be long, long backups at each light on Little Patuxent Parkway," Mugane said.

Traffic, parking and pedestrian access will be key elements in selling the plan to the community and county officials, who are planing a broader review of the area this summer and fall.

The draft plan is a product of ideas from the company and about a dozen community leaders, whom the company interviewed this year and then met with during work sessions last month.

'Horrible' access

Ian Kennedy, president of the advocacy group Save Merriweather who was on the community panel, said he is sympathetic to commuters who may get stuck in traffic, as well as people who are trying to walk through the community.

He called pedestrian access in downtown "horrible," explaining that he has tried to ride his bike around town and found even that to be a challenge.

Traffic and pedestrian access are "pretty much the foundation of everything," Kennedy said. "How are we going to get around -- if it's by car, if it's by transit, if it's by foot or bike. And how do we structure this new development, this new Town Center, in such a way that access isn't a problem?"

County Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, said that while pedestrian access around downtown is "terrible," infrastructure is available to improve it significantly.

In the past, he advocated turning Little Patuxent Parkway into a main street-type of atmosphere, with on-street parking and pedestrian walkways to link the commercial and residential areas.

'Vibrant' vision

"I think we all have in our minds this wonderful, vibrant place, where people are out and about," Ulman said. "In order to create that kind of environment, you've got to really be focused on the street network. The key is, do you have enough options of different ways to get through an area?"

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