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Much ado about a meeting

The Baltimore Sun

Tomorrow night Columbia Association board members and officials from General Growth Properties Inc. will confab on the future of downtown.

It's been a meeting long in the making -- a complex negotiation rivaling a high-level peace treaty. And exactly why the key players in Columbia's future haven't gotten together sooner depends on whom you ask.

"It seems like it shouldn't be that difficult to schedule a meeting," said Gregory F. Hamm, GGP's regional vice president and general manager of Columbia. "I think it all stems from a misunderstanding in the past, and I just want to move forward. For downtown Columbia to achieve the goal that Jim Rouse set and for that to continue to grow, then all the stakeholders need to be involved."

Barbara Russell, Columbia Association chairwoman, said that the CA board has been trying to meet with General Growth since October.

"We have certainly indicated for months that we wanted to meet with them," said Russell, the Oakland Mills representative who has decided not to run for re-election and will retire at the end of the month. "I don't feel in any way that CA dropped the ball."

Just about every aspect of the meeting has been a point of contention -- from location (Spear Center at GGP headquarters), to time of day (7:30 p.m.), to who could attend (open to the public). Even how long the meeting will last has sparked differing opinions.

A spokeswoman for Chicago-based GGP said the meeting will go no later than 10 p.m., but could end sooner.

Russell said her board suggested that the planned joint agenda would require at least 2 1/2 hours, making 10 p.m. the very earliest that the meeting could end, given its 7:30 p.m. start time.

"We are the kings and queens of late-night meetings, so we'd be willing to stay as long as needed," Russell said with a chuckle.

The CA board recently capped its own 7:30 p.m. meetings at 11 p.m., unless a special vote is taken and two-thirds of the board wants to go later. Board members had decided that their meetings -- which sometimes extended past midnight -- essentially became private if they went so late that residents could not reasonably be expected to attend.

When the idea of meeting with the CA board was first broached, GGP wanted to meet in a closed meeting, which CA said it couldn't do, Russell said.

The issue of closed meetings flared late last year when some citizen groups challenged the "listening sessions" the developer was holding to discuss downtown development, in light of the Maryland Homeowners Association Act, which spells out when meetings can be closed to the public.

The next month, as part of an announcement of leadership change, GGP said it would cancel a planned meeting with Columbia's village boards and managers. That action came after a union representing about 9,000 janitors and security employees in the Baltimore area ran full-page newspaper ads depicting closed doors labeled as "GGPs Columbia Master Plan Meeting."

When Hamm took over late last year, CA board members invited him to speak to them. He asked that the session be an introduction rather than a formal presentation.

Then GGP offered to meet with CA staff and invited board members to attend, but during the day, when it would be easier for the developer's consultants and other staff to attend, Russell said.

Columbia Board members nixed that idea because some board members and many members of the public would not be able to make daytime meetings.

"GGP has been meeting with community groups in closed meetings for months, and they've also held public evening meetings with their staff and consultants," Russell said. "So, I don't think it was unreasonable for CA to be asking for open meetings in the evening. I can only conclude that they didn't wish to meet with us until now in an open meeting."

Part of the rub is that what the CA board and GGP are trying to accomplish is sometimes done out of public view.

"We're trying to engage in the normal type of dialogue that neighbors do," Hamm said. "Typically, you call someone up on the phone and the technical expertise on both sides gets together and talks. I've never had to have all discussions with an entity be public. Even with county and state government, it's very unusual that all meetings are public. But, apparently it's different for the Columbia Association."

Not even all the members of the Columbia Association Board agree with Russell's characterization of the negotiations with GGP.

"We've spent the last 15 months telling our staff they can't talk to GGP," said Tom O'Connor, a CA board member from Dorsey's Search. "We have squandered this whole time. I fear we are going to look unprepared and disjointed at this meeting."

O'Connor said the board will not be able to have a two-way conversation at that meeting because members don't know, as a group, what position they want to take.

"The way we should have done this is to ask our staff some questions," he said. "They could have made some recommendations to us. We're kind of not allowing ourselves to be part of the conversation."

Michael Cornell, board member from River Hill, shared O'Connor's concern about CA not being engaged.

"It took us four months to get a meeting with GGP," he said. "We have dropped the ball. We have not been involved."

General Growth is scheduled to hold its third of four planned public meetings tonight with a member of its planning and design team working on the downtown master plan.

A fourth meeting will be held on April 9 with Jaquelin T. Robertson. As founding partner of the architecture and urban design firm Cooper, Robertson & Partners, Robertson has led his firm's design work on award-winning architectural and planning projects, including Daniel Island, S.C., New Albany, N.Y., Celebration and WaterColor in Florida, and Val d'Europe in France.

GGP is to release its long-awaited, draft master plan for Town Center on April 28.

"We're trying to align ourselves with the long-term best interests of the community," Hamm said. "That includes making Columbia more walkable, more lively and a place that attracts employers."

The discussion about Columbia's downtown in the coming months is likely to become increasingly technical.

"I think the public will find that most of the discussion is not very interesting, but it is necessary to move things forward," Hamm said.

Also on the agenda at tomorrow night's meeting between the CA board and GGP will be a presentation by the company's consultant on its Regional Storm Water Management Plan. GGP headquarters is located at 10275 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia.

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