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Developer to set forums for Columbia planning

The Baltimore Sun

In his first public appearance yesterday, General Growth Properties Vice President Gregory F. Hamm tantalized about 100 people with a list of concepts but no specifics on his firm's plans for redeveloping central Columbia.

"This is my maiden voyage speaking to the Columbia community. It's a week or two earlier than I would have liked" because he had no concrete news to convey, he told an early-morning crowd at a meeting of advocates for transportation at the Bain Center in Harper's Choice. He took over from Douglas M. Godine a month ago, becoming the third general manager of Columbia in two years.

Next week, the 45-year old Northern Virginia resident said, his firm will announce a schedule of community meetings that will precede release of General Growth's draft redevelopment plan, followed by another round of meetings and discussion before specific zoning changes are submitted to Howard County officials.

"If done properly and collaboratively, we can make progress," Hamm said.

He appeared to make a good first impression on a crowd peppered with veteran Columbia activists, such as Del. Elizabeth Bobo, who have not been shy about criticizing proposals such as the 23-story condominium tower or the planned town's developer.

Bobo, who represents the Town Center area, greeted Hamm as "Greg," as she rose to congratulate him for making his first appearance a public one. He called her "Liz" in return. Bobo told a lunch crowd Saturday at a League of Women Voters meeting that she had called Hamm about the demise of the 36-year-old Bun Penny store at The Mall in Columbia, an event that troubled some older residents.

Two County Council members -- Mary Kay Sigaty, a Democrat who represents west Columbia, and Jen Terrasa, a Kings Contrivance Democrat -- also attended, as did Marsha S. McLaughlin, the county planning director.

Hamm narrated a PowerPoint presentation that touched on the concepts that most Columbia residents have said they want enhanced as part of the redevelopment. Those include economic housing diversity, better transportation and pedestrian access, more social and business vitality, plus a transparent public process that values the opinions of residents.

But though he talked about General Growth's plan to hire a "world renowned transit consultant" and a desire to do a major upgrade of the town's storm water runoff system, Hamm offered no details. He said the new transit consultant's ideas could change conclusions reached in earlier transportation studies that dwelt mostly on traffic and roads. Mixing residential, commercial and office uses together could also cut the need for parking because people can walk more, he said.

"Significant improvements on storm water could be made in large steps," he said. A resident suggested that General Growth consult with the Columbia Association to coordinate his plans with theirs to dredge the town's lakes, which were designed to capture sediment before it reached the Patuxent River and the Chesapeake Bay.

The relationship of the Town Center project with nearby village centers is something else Hamm had no answer for, he said, responding to a question from former County Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung. He said General Growth will begin meeting with village residents and officials soon. He also declined to answer a question from Roy Appletree about when the company would hope to begin profiting from a redevelopment project.

Bridget Mugane, president of the Howard County Citizens Association, told Hamm, "It's been very distressing to watch General Growth Properties to this point." She urged Hamm to work with the Columbia Association and people in the community.

"Bring the county in, not a draft you run by the community," she urged.

Hamm said that is his intention, including using the dialogue at yesterday's meeting.

"Without cooperation, nothing good will happen," he said.

After the 75-minute meeting, Sigaty and McLaughlin said that they would rather Hamm and General Growth take their time and create a good plan than push a proposal forward just to end the protracted debate.

County Executive Ken Ulman had said he hoped to see a proposed plan come to the county by early spring, but McLaughlin said summer might be more likely before anything gets to the county Planning Board, which must consider the proposal before it gets to the County Council.

"In the long run, if they take their time upfront, it's going to be a better process," Sigaty said.

"It's going to take time," McLaughlin said, agreeing that the plan will be "more on target," the more careful work is done in preparation.

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