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Struggling for balance


Signaling that it is nearing completion of its work, a community panel studying the future development of downtown Columbia requested that county officials prepare a written summary of its deliberations.

That was the easy part.

The harder question is: Exactly what is the summary to say?

After months of meetings, wide disparity remains on key issues, not the least of which is the vision for the downtown area.

That was apparent again Thursday as the 23-member, county-appointed focus group debated the specificity it should demand and consider.

On one side is the proposition that the group should limit itself to "the big vision," leaving the details to others.

"The purpose here is what do we want in downtown," said Richard B. Talkin, a board member and attorney, whose clients include some of the largest developers in the region.

"We should not get that detailed," he said. "We're here to talk about vision: What do we want downtown to be and how do we get there?"

On the other side are those who claim the details are necessary before one can prudently determine whether the vision is socially, environmentally and fiscally acceptable.

"We should look at the big picture, but we've got to look at the smaller stuff, too," said Cynthia Coyle, a panelist and member of the Columbia Association board of directors.

Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, acknowledged that the group's work is difficult. "Everyone is struggling" to find balance, she said.

The focus group said it will review the Department of Planning and Zoning's summary, which could be completed next month, and perhaps recommend changes before concluding its work.

The department appointed the group to consider its draft proposal to convert downtown into an urban center. The panel was first convened in mid-December and has met regularly since February, when the plan was announced to the public.

The genesis of that plan ostensibly was a weeklong communitywide charrette, or brainstorming session, in October.

The Department of Planning and Zoning's draft proposes greater heights for buildings in some areas of downtown, higher density, additional retail and commercial space and a road and path network that is more "pedestrian-friendly," as well as open space and plazas for community and civic events.

While there appears to be general agreement within the focus group that downtown should be planned for greater density, stark differences remain. Those are likely to remain because the panel has decided not to endorse any specific plan.

"We're a sounding board, not a decision-making body," said board member and west Columbia Del. Elizabeth Bobo.

That prospect leaves the Department of Planning and Zoning in the position of preparing a final plan without specific guidance and with sometimes-conflicting ideas.

Among the key questions are:

How much additional housing is too much, or can there be too much?

At what point will traffic become unacceptable, and will that congestion force people to use alternative ways to move around downtown?

Should employees who work and park downtown be charged a fee, and is there merit to constructing garages on the fringes and using shuttles to bring people downtown?

How can the plan ensure that new housing satisfies the needs of the full economic spectrum?

What percentage of the land should be devoted to open space, parks and plazas?

What are the fiscal implications for taxpayers, and how much of the costs will be borne by developers?

McLaughlin, in an interview, said the focus group has provided "fairly strong feedback in some areas" that will assist the department in revising the plan.

"It's a diverse group, not all of one mind," she said. "They have been struggling with the less physical aspects [of the plan]. ... They want to know not just what it looks like, but what it feels like."

Many of the issues, though, are ultimately linked to the overall vision for downtown. But it remains unclear what that is.

There isn't even agreement on what is meant by an "urban" center.

While some members of the focus group hope to see Columbia become more a metropolitan draw, others wish to retain its character even as it grows.

"What is Columbia designed for and for whom?" asked Mohammed Saleem.

"It is not Baltimore. It is not Washington. It is still Town Center," Saleem said.

McLaughlin urged the group not to get bogged down in detail. "I really like the idea of keeping it [vision] big, but with enough breaks built in" so that the plan can be monitored and adjusted as necessary.

Underlying the group's discussion is a pivotal issue: Whose vision should the plan reflect - the public's, the Department of Planning and Zoning's, or the landowners', principally General Growth Properties Inc.?

"The first question is, which vision? Whose vision?" Alan Klein, a member of the audience, told the focus group.

Klein said the final plan should not be fashioned by General Growth. "I don't trust GGP. I hope to someday, but I don't now."

"GGP is here to implement. They are not here to create a vision," Klein said.

Albert Edwards, vice president and director of engineering for General Growth, said the firm is committed to working with the public on the future of downtown.

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