Howard releases 'vision' of town

The Baltimore Sun

The Howard County government released yesterday what it hopes will be the framework for the next 30 years of development in Columbia's Town Center.

Two years in the making, the report, "Downtown Columbia: A Community Vision," is intended to provide General Growth Properties, the Chicago-based company that controls much of Columbia's downtown real estate, with guidance in creating its development program.

"We know we're going to have a lot of discussion about the details," said County Executive Ken Ulman. "We wanted to be very clear about the framework, about the values and about the vision."

The report says new development should form well-defined districts within downtown, create a pedestrian-friendly environment and establish height limits appropriate to each district's character.

It advocates building parking garages to reduce or eliminate surface parking lots and recognizing Symphony Woods and Merriweather Post Pavilion as Columbia's "Central Park" area, with the pavilion converted to an indoor-outdoor facility for year-round use.

Echoing themes sounded by Ulman, it says Columbia should include housing for low-, moderate-, and middle-income families and that "green" environmental technology should be used whenever possible.

The report includes a traffic study that recommends roadway extensions and intersection improvements and the creation of a countywide transportation management center.

"We've had so much discussion," Ulman said. "It's time now to get moving. I hope this will be a six-month process. That may be a little ambitious, but that's my hope."

The discussions included a weeklong planning charrette in October 2005, in which hundreds of people discussed the future of Columbia, a planned community of about 100,000 people founded by James W. Rouse. Columbia celebrated its 40th anniversary this summer.

The release of the framework is the first of three steps outlined in the report. The second step is for General Growth Properties to create a proposal for a master plan, request an amendment to the county's General Plan and petition for necessary amendments to zoning regulations.

Under the final step, the proposed amendments will be reviewed by the public and presented to the Planning Board and County Council for action.

"The heart of Columbia is James Rouse's vision," said Bill Mackey, planning supervisor and project manager for this framework document. "And this continues that."

The framework includes three key components: amenities, such as interconnected sidewalks, public art and attractive streetscapes; development, both residential and commercial; and transportation improvements that would support all the new amenities.

"The idea is that you have to have those three things in balance to come alive and work," Mackey said.

The plan also is organized around five themes:

Making a special place.

Moving and connecting people.

Sustaining the environment.

Balancing and phasing growth.

Involving everyone.

"Although the community has been involved in this process, it is still vitally important to get citizen feedback on this document because we need to know how effectively it communicates their desires," Marsha McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, said in a statement.

"Additionally, we want to be certain that the county's guidance adequately expresses the importance of balancing transportation improvements, amenities and development. It is the balance of these three elements that will enable the community vision to come to fruition."

A series of public meetings on the framework will be held next month.

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