A new town center?

The Baltimore Sun

Should Columbia's Town Center be redeveloped into a lively urban core, closer to what James W. Rouse imagined when he began designing his model city in 1963? General Growth Properties, which purchased the Rouse Co. in 2005, is answering with an enthusiastic yes - proposing major growth that includes half a million square feet of new office and retail space, as many as 5,500 new condos and townhouses and a significant redesign of the landscape around Columbia Mall.

But for some Columbians, the plan carries with it the threat of too much traffic and housing within the tight geography of Town Center. Their concerns and questions should be answered in detail before the Howard County Council decides whether to give this vision a green light this summer. County Executive Ken Ulman has already said 5,500 housing units are too many.

The amenities proposed by General Growth for Town Center are appealing - a skating rink, a remodeled Merriweather Post Pavilion, a hotel and pedestrian-friendly walkways lined with shops replacing the plain of drab parking lots that now surrounds the Mall at Columbia. The company's proposal applies the principle of Smart Growth in innovative ways. But congestion on Little Patuxent Parkway and other nearby roads has been growing in recent years, and the challenge of providing congenial residential neighborhoods for thousands of new families in so tightly defined an area as Town Center is substantial.

So far, General Growth has offered almost no facts on where additional housing might be built and few details on how traffic would be modified to accommodate the urban center. New links to nearby Route 29 will be needed, company officials suggest. Shuttle bus service might be established, they add.

An expanded, redesigned Town Center could be an attractive alternative for the county's fiftysomethings who want to downsize from colonials and ranchers, a convenient, culturally diverse enclave. Merriweather Post, a popular community asset, needs a facelift and would benefit from an upgrade. But the county should have in hand a more comprehensive account of the housing, traffic and financing of the new Town Center before it signs off on the plan.

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