Town aims to redraw its core

The Baltimore Sun

A skating rink that doubles as open market space in summer, a hotel with 300 rooms and conference space for 1,000, and a small-cities institute that draws people from around the world, all in a pedestrian-friendly setting.

Those are among the highlights of a $350 million plan that lays out the first phase of a transformation of downtown Columbia, an effort that could span three decades.

The much-anticipated redevelopment proposal for the commercial core centered on The Mall in Columbia is scheduled to be unveiled tonight by developer General Growth Properties Inc.

Tonight's glimpse of the future caps off years of public discussion and depicts the first wholesale remaking of the planned Howard County community since it was created 40 years ago by James W. Rouse. The plan endeavors to follow through on Rouse's objective of making a more vibrant downtown that stands as the business, cultural and entertainment center of the county.

"Columbia is built on optimism and possibility," said Gregory F. Hamm, GGP's regional vice president and Columbia general manager. "It seems like his concept of Columbia and development really centered on what people need to be good people - what fosters good citizens.

"I think if we reshape some of the places here, the institutions that came from his vision will do much better."

When informed of the basic details of the plan, Barbara Russell, board chairwoman of the Columbia Association, said she was encouraged.

"I am happy that GGP appears to be taking a realistic look at what they're doing and not just a superficial look at sidewalk cafes and whatever," she said. "They seem to be looking at what impact the development would have on the existing city, and that's encouraging."

Through a spokesman, County Executive Ken Ulman declined to comment until the plan is released tonight.

The first phase of the plan does not include detail on residential development, an aspect of Columbia's future that has been on the minds of community leaders and residents concerned about increased density in the town of about 100,000 residents. However, Hamm said, the version of the plan that will be submitted to the county in June will be accompanied by a request for zoning changes to allow new residential development.

That sparks concern for some.

"These are some very creative ideas," said Alan Klein, a spokesman for the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown, a citizen advocacy group. "The red flag that goes up for me is, is this is a case of them showing us the sizzle, and we don't know what the steak really looks like behind it."

Work could begin as soon as 2010 and take about three years to complete. The plan is the first phase of a broader redevelopment of downtown Columbia that could require 30 years to bring to fruition.

"I wanted to get something on paper that would have the highest probability of becoming real," Hamm said of the first phase. "There were hundreds of pages of earlier plans, and they weren't very exciting. There wasn't any soul to them."

Retail space would grow by 300,000 square feet. By about 2011, construction could start on office space totaling 200,000 square feet, which would replace two current buildings that comprise 250,000 square feet. Construction of the hotel could begin about the same time.

A prominent feature is a face-lift for the Merriweather Post Pavilion that could make the performance venue "the next Wolf Trap," Hamm said, referring to the concert complex in Vienna, Va.

Enhancements would transform land nearby into a cultural center, including the possible relocating of Toby's Dinner Theatre, adding a children's theater and a specialized library.

The plan includes creating a new look for Little Patuxent Parkway, the main thoroughfare, which skirts the mall complex. Retail and arts space, and possibly an international center for the study of small cities, would front the roadway, replacing the office towers that ring the mall complex area. The center would capitalize on Rouse's legacy as an innovator of planning and building communities.

A pedestrian walkway starting at the mall would borrow elements from lively retail and restaurant districts like Bethesda Row and Pentagon Row and end at a landscaped, terraced walkway that would zigzag its way to the edge of Lake Kittamaqundi.

"This very creatively begins to draw the mall out and into a place we think can become a cultural spine for Columbia," Hamm said.

Few details were offered on how the project would be financed, although Hamm said he does not anticipate needing funding from the Columbia Association, the nonprofit homeowners group that manages a variety of community facilities.

The association "will benefit handsomely from the new development, with very little demand for an increase in services," Hamm said. Many aspects could be "self-funding," he said.

"It might mean we create a special tax district and cordon off part of the incremental new revenues to pay for the initial startup costs and infrastructure improvements," Hamm said.

The future of Columbia has been a point of concern among some residents since GGP bought the Rouse Co. in November 2004. A county redevelopment plan released in 2006 called for an additional 5,500 housing units. GGP does not plan to exceed that number, Hamm said.

Planning for residential development will follow the first phase of downtown Columbia's makeover. Work could begin in 2011 or 2012, he said.

GGP will conduct a series of meetings to seek community comments before the plan is submitted to the county.

Russell, of the Columbia Association, said the initial plan is likely to be well received by residents, because many of the concerns that people have center on residential density, tall buildings and traffic.

"If they're not talking about that, people will be a lot less frightened," said Russell, who is stepping down after eight years on the board. "Nobody is against culture. Nobody is against wider sidewalks. Nobody is against the things they're talking about. It's a way for them to get started."

Klein, of the citizens group, said he would want to see details on residential development.

"What we'd like to see is some specificity in regard to density, to height, to amenities," he said. "We need some specifics. Until we know something about their plans, we're not going to be in favor of the county increasing density.

"That's the only bargaining chip that the citizens have."

"We're not submitting this as the baked cake," Hamm said. "This is just the first page of the last chapter. It's really just the next conversation."

The meeting will be held at 7:30 tonight at the Spear Center in the headquarters of General Growth Properties Inc., 10275 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia.

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