Members would have liked more information but appreciate first appearance by Columbia manager

The Baltimore Sun

Although little new information was shared, Columbia Association board members considered Gregory F. Hamm's attendance at their board meeting a promising start.

Hamm, General Growth Properties Inc. regional vice president and general manager of Columbia, attended his first association board meeting Thursday night and talked about downtown redevelopment.

"This was progress because it was an open meeting in which General Growth Properties engaged directly with the Columbia Council," said Evan Coren, a board member who represents Kings Contrivance village. "A lot of residents care very deeply about the plans for downtown. They want the Columbia Council to engage directly and ask the tough questions so we can work together for the best for the development downtown."

General Growth was criticized by some community groups and civic leaders late last year for not making all of the meetings open, and some officials said they would not attend a meeting unless it were open. The Chicago-based company, which controls most of Columbia's downtown real estate, had held private meetings with community groups to discuss downtown redevelopment.

The company called the meetings "listening sessions," and said they were part of its outreach as it formulated a plan for Town Center.

"I thought it went all right for the first meeting," said Philip W. Kirsch, vice chairman of the board. "We were happy to see him. It would have been nice if he would have come with a few more details of what he wanted to talk with us about."

Alex Hekimian, president of the Alliance for a Better Columbia, who had criticized the private meetings, said he found Hamm's comments to be general.

"I think people were expecting more information than they got," he said. "There have been a lot of private meetings, and those people have gotten a lot more information than was available in public sessions. That's troubling. If the information was good enough for the private groups, why isn't it good enough for the public session?"

Because this was the first time Hamm had come before the board, Hekimian said that he thought "people didn't want to push the issue."

In an interview after the meeting, Hamm said he is interested in working closely with the Columbia Association on a watershed plan.

"We've independently begun working with the watershed beyond our own holdings," he said. "Most of the water that goes into the lakes goes in very dirty. That's why they're having to dredge those lakes at the cost of millions of dollars. What we're looking to do is try to take a private sector leadership role to try to look at some solutions."

This is an opportunity for a number of different groups to get together to make improvements to the environment, he said.

Hamm said he hopes that the watershed plan will be at least partially mapped out by the time General Growth submits its master plan to the county midway through the year.

Also at the meeting last week, the Columbia Association board approved charters for a watershed-resident advisory committee and a presidential-search citizens committee.

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