CA board sees flaws in plan for downtown

The Baltimore Sun

The county's vision for downtown Columbia should be rewritten to specify requirements for developers, identify sources of money for traffic improvements and state clearly how many homes can be built before more public services are needed, according to the Columbia Association.

In a four-page letter sent to Howard County Executive Ken Ulman last week, the association board emphasized the community's desire to remain true to founder James W. Rouse's vision for the town.

"It is our belief that Columbia was founded on a masterful creative vision for its time," the letter said. "This new millennium vision must go beyond today's standards and set the standards for others to follow in every community across the nation, as Rouse's plan did when he created a community that is studied in urban planning classes all over the world."

The letter also requested that the plan list amenities and services that the developer and county must provide and address conservation of open space and inclusiveness of all ages and economic levels.

Columbia Association board members culled their material for the letter from suggestions made at a public hearing during which residents shared ideas and criticisms of the framework document, "Downtown Columbia: A Community Vision," which was released by Ulman in September.

"I like that they've taken a strong stand on specificity," said Alan Klein, a spokesman for the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown. "The problem with generalities is that they're open to interpretation. When we don't put enough specifics in, then we're left having to trust GGP [General Growth Properties Inc.]."

For instance, "a vibrant, walkable downtown" might mean a raft of 30-story buildings to one person, and to someone else mean clusters of three- to five-story buildings with shops below and residences above, Klein said.

About the only thing that was not addressed was whether homeowners will be responsible for new costs, Klein noted.

"Our feeling is that those who profit from the development should pay for the infrastructure cost," he said. "Columbia was built for 100,000 residents, and we have our 100,000 residents, so it's no surprise that any additional density will place a strain on the existing infrastructure, particularly the roads."

But not all the community groups were as happy with the association's letter.

"I think CA is being too specific with no knowledge of what GGP does plan," said Emily Lincoln, a spokeswoman for Bring Back the Vision, a community group interested in Columbia issues. "For CA to issue 'shalls' at this point seems premature. They haven't met with GGP. They don't know what GGP intends. I don't see how that can be effective."

Overall, the organization likes the framework document, she said.

"It's a fine vision," Lincoln said. "It's full of worthy concepts from which General Growth can formulate the exciting plan I expect to see."

General Growth, the Chicago-based company that controls most of Columbia's downtown real estate, is holding private meetings with community groups and leaders to discuss downtown redevelopment. But some have criticized the developer for not making all of the meetings open, and some officials have said they would not attend a meeting unless it were open.

General Growth will create a master plan proposal and request an amendment to the county's General Plan and petition for necessary amendments to zoning regulations.

Proposed amendments will be reviewed by the public and presented to the Planning Board and County Council for action.

The county has held six meetings to discuss the framework document.

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