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Columbia invites developer to make plan public

The Baltimore Sun

The Columbia Association board of directors sent a letter yesterday inviting General Growth Properties Inc. to present its plan for downtown development at a public meeting, following recent controversy over private meetings the developer has held.

"We do understand that your plan may not be finalized at this time," the board wrote in its letter to Douglas M. Godine, vice president and general manager of Mid-Atlantic operations for General Growth. "Recent invitations to various groups within the community demonstrate your desire to engage the public in this important endeavor. The Board of Directors welcomes the opportunity to invite you to an open forum at which you could share your plans with the board members and other interested individuals."

A spokeswoman for the developer declined yesterday to identify a date for such a meeting.

"General Growth is looking forward to sharing its draft Master Plan with the Columbia Association," said Barbara A. Nicklas, General Growth's vice president of marketing for master-planned communities. "GGP is waiting for the revised framework document from Howard County which will influence the proposed Master Plan. In the meantime, GGP continues to meet with experts and community leaders in the areas of the arts, economic development, environmental and housing as it formulates the specifics of its plan."

In recent weeks, Chicago-based General Growth, which controls most of Columbia's downtown real estate, has held private meetings with community groups to discuss redevelopment in Town Center. Some have criticized the developer for not making all of the meetings open, and some officials have even said they would not attend a meeting unless it were open.

"It's very appropriate for the CA board to have made that invitation for an open forum on what GGP has in mind," said Alex Hekimian, who is president of the Alliance for a Better Columbia. "They're saying, 'This is the public's business, so let's do it in public.' "

Whether or not the private meetings are technically legal or not doesn't really matter, Hekimian said.

"It gives the appearance that GGP has something to hide and that they're doing some private lobbying," he said. "They're probably used to having secret meetings and getting by with that. A master plan is not an item for secret sessions."

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

Two weeks ago, the Columbia Association board sent a four-page letter to Howard County Executive Ken Ulman suggesting that the county's vision 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.

The letter was put together based on ideas expressed by residents at a public hearing about the framework document "Downtown Columbia: A Community Vision," which Ulman released in September.

In the letter to Ulman, the Columbia Association 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.

"The County Executive is pleased with the response and suggestions we have received from the Columbia Association and a number of citizens regarding the plan for Downtown Columbia," Kevin Enright, a spokesman for Ulman said in an e-mail response. "The input we have received has been well thought out and has been helpful in this process. The Department of Planning and Zoning is now reviewing and compiling the broad range of comments received."

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