A Florida developer has started construction on a 23-story condominium tower on Columbia's Lakefront after opponents failed repeatedly to limit its height or overturn county approval of the project.
The conflict has pitted the developer, WCI Communities, and business interests against neighbors and slow-growth advocates, who protest that the tower will loom over lush tree canopy and cast neighboring condos in shadows.
When completed, The Plaza Residences will be the tallest building in Howard County at 275 feet.
The tower will house parking, ground-floor retail and 162 condominiums ranging in price from $565,000 to more than $2 million, according to the company's Web site. The 1.46-acre site is across Little Patuxent Parkway from The Mall in Columbia,
Architecturally, the Plaza will be a sleek contrast with the few boxy office towers that are visible from Route 29.
"It's out of place," said Joel Broida, who has lived in Columbia since 1971 and moved into a new condominium behind The Plaza's proposed site from a single-family home two years ago. "It's just not part of the environment. This company builds beautiful condos down on the beaches in Florida. That's exactly where they should be."
The tower has been a focus of debate over the future of downtown Columbia, called Town Center. The 40-year-old community was a monumental achievement for its day -- a place acclaimed for tolerance and diversity, as well as good schools and property values -- but it is starting to show its age.
James W. Rouse's vision of walkable neighborhoods, a hallmark of new urbanism and environmentally friendly suburban design, never materialized. At rush hour, downtown Columbia can be a parking lot. Signs mark one strip of Little Patuxent Parkway as chronically congested.
"This project will bring tax revenue to Columbia, smart growth to Columbia and revitalization to Columbia," said William Rowe, vice president of WCI.
What Columbia will look like 10 or 20 years from now has not been decided, and opponents are doing everything to ensure that The Plaza Residences do not set the standard.
In June, County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, unsuccessfully tried to get the planning board to limit building heights to 150 feet, or 14 stories, until a new plan for downtown Columbia is completed. She wanted that limit applied to any project on appeal, which would have covered the tower.
In July, Howard County Circuit Judge Diane O. Leasure sided with WCI and against four Columbia residents, including Broida, on a procedural matter. The residents have asked her to reconsider.
County Executive Ken Ulman vowed before November's election to oppose the tower, but his attempts to persuade WCI to select another site or shrink the building have not succeeded.
Part of the problem, he said, is that WCI obtained all the permits necessary to build last year, and the residents who filed suit won't accept a smaller building. They don't want the tower constructed at all, he said.
"There are so many different parties involved with so many different ideas of what should happen," Ulman said. "I'm frustrated. I had hoped we would have been able to reach a compromise by now."
WCI started fencing the property last week to prevent soil erosion and prepare the site for digging, Rowe said. A bulldozer and a large steam shovel were sitting on the site.
The start of construction could have significant legal implications. Once "substantial construction" has been done, a court can't stop the work.
But Ulman said the conflict is not over. Nearby residents have not exhausted their judicial appeals, and Ulman said Sigaty plans to submit legislation this month that would limit Columbia buildings to 14 stories and apply to the tower. Sigaty did not return e-mails and phone calls to her home and office Friday.
"Because this legislation is pending, my hope is that folks will still come to the table in good faith and try to work together," Ulman said.
Sun reporter Larry Carson contributed to this article.