Green proposals for downtown Columbia

The Baltimore Sun

Solar arrays, "green" roofs and storm-water management that doubles as civic art and takes place only when it's raining are among the ideas for improving the environment in the redevelopment of downtown Columbia, a consultant told residents this week.

Town Center could be a "city within a garden," said Keith Bowers, a landscape architect on General Growth Properties' design team -- a vibrant place that makes use of renewable energy and is built with local materials so that little energy is expended to bring supplies here. Bowers' ecological restoration design, planning and assessment business is leading the sustainability and environmental component of GGP's efforts to re-create downtown.

"We wanted to take the legacy of what Jim Rouse wanted for Columbia and move it forward," Bowers told an audience of about 100 who came to GGP headquarters Tuesday night to learn more about the developer's plan for the future. "When GGP leaves and we all leave, this whole sustainability project will be engrained in Columbia and a part of everyday life."

Downtown streets could be lined with bikes hitched to bike racks by riders who had set off on foot to explore, where pocket wetland areas dot the landscape and where trees create a rich canopy over the city below. Lighting could be turned down so it doesn't contaminate the beauty of the night sky, Bowers said.

Tuesday's meeting was the first of three this week that laid out specific elements of the master plan that GGP unveiled April 28. Forums on Wednesday and yesterday covered the topics of transit, traffic and culture.

The master plan calls for a first phase that includes a skating rink that converts to an open-air market in summer near the food court entrance of The Mall in Columbia, 300,000 square feet of new retail space, 200,000 square feet of office space and a new hotel.

Other proposed improvements call for a makeover of Merriweather Post Pavilion to give it a new roof, stage, back-of-house facilities and concession stands. Additional attractions could be added nearby to make it more of a cultural destination.

Downtown redevelopment -- which would span three decades -- would include, in the near term, new pedestrian walkways connecting the mall to the lakefront and to Merriweather. It is the first major renovation of the planned community since it was built 40 years ago.

"I'm greatly impressed that GGP is putting this kind of thought and these kinds of resources into this," said Jay Bonstingl of Wilde Lake.

But he and others had questions on housing, about which GGP has shared few details.

"We wanted to bring a plan forward that could fully be designed," said Gregory F. Hamm, GGP's regional vice president and Columbia general manager. "Residential [development] will clearly be part of the plan. Places are generally better that don't go dark at night. We want residential in as many parts of downtown as make sense."

The idea is to create a place that will grow over time and will attract the diversity -- including age diversity -- that groups studying downtown have decided is critical, he said.

"In June, we'll get into more detail, by neighborhoods, of where we think the density should go," Hamm said. "I think the community wants certainty, and they want to know where limitations are, and that's what we'll address."

When the developer submits the plan to the county this summer, it is expected to include a request for zoning changes to allow new residential development. The developer does not plan to exceed the 5,500 residential units discussed in the county plan.

Residents also raised concerns about an artist's rendering that depicts an overpass that traverses the end of Lake Kittamaqundi.

Hamm said the pictured location was just a beginning point for conversation. Although he originally didn't think the site was ideal, further study indicated that it might have the least environmental impact there, he said.

Bowers said proposed buildings around Symphony Woods could be "tree buildings" within the woods, so that they could be discovered as people walk. "We can nest them into existing trees, and plant trees around them," he said.

GGP meetings

General Growth Properties Inc. will conduct a community discussion series in all villages to gather comments and ideas from the community on the master plan. Those dates are:

Monday: Long Reach, noon-2 p.m., Stonehouse

Monday: River Hill, 7 p.m.-9 p.m. Claret Hall

Monday: Harper's Choice, 7 p.m.-9 p.m., Kahler Hall

Tuesday: Kings Contrivance, noon-2 p.m., Amherst House

Thursday: Dorsey's Search, 7 p.m.-9 p.m., Linden Hall

May 17: Wilde Lake, 10 a.m.-noon, Slayton House

May 19: Owen Brown, 7 p.m.-9 p.m., Community Center

May 20: Hickory Ridge, 7 p.m.-9 p.m., Hawthorn Center

May 21: Oakland Mills, 7 p.m.-9 p.m., The Other Barn

May 22: Town Center, 7 p.m.-9 p.m., Oakland Manor

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