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Views of the future

The Baltimore Sun

After more than three years of deliberation - and sometimes acrimonious debate - Columbia's developer is preparing to submit rezoning plans for the town's center early next month, officially launching the far-reaching transformation envisioned for the planned community over the next three decades.

Gregory F. Hamm, vice president of General Growth Properties, told about 300 people at a public meeting Wednesday night that the firm would submit its plans to the county "early in August."

The plan, which will require approval by the county government, calls for five neighborhoods around the Mall in Columbia and Merriweather Post Pavilion comprising:

* 1 million square feet of new retail space;

* 4.9 million square feet of office space;

* 5,500 new townhouses and apartments;

* 640 more hotel rooms;

* 265,000 square feet of "cultural space"

The affordable housing component of the plan is not finalized, Hamm said.

The number of residential units has been a point of dispute. During the 2006 political campaign, County Executive Ken Ulman called the proposed figure "ludicrous." Now he's taking a somewhat softer stance.

"My gut feeling is that 5,500 are too many, and that has not changed," he said earlier Wednesday. But he said he is "open minded."

"They've got a lot of work to do to convince me on that," he said.

County Council member Mary Kay Sigaty, a Democrat who represents west Columbia, said she is not necessarily opposed to high density in town center.

"I'm looking for the best thing we can get," she said.

Hamm and two consulting architects presented the plan in a 90-minute PowerPoint presentation at the GGP headquarters building. They said that injecting a dense mixture of new residences, stores, offices, hotels and renewed public spaces into town center is vital to rejuvenating a downtown where the current 25 percent office vacancy rate is a big improvement over the recent past. Tax revenues would give the county a net increase of $11 million a year, enough to pay for the growth, he said.

Adding narrow tree-lined streets in neighborhoods, stores with floors of apartments above them, and plenty of pedestrian walkways and green spaces would revitalize the town over the next few decades. The changes also would slow traffic, hide parking garages behind U-shaped midrise buildings, and ease traffic complaints by slowing vehicles and inviting people to do more walking.

"None of us knows what that mix is going to be over the next 20-25 years," said Jaque Robertson, a New York architect who laid out the details during the presentation. "The key to this plan is flexibility."

The plan would include several buildings 15 to 20 stories high on the southern end of the crescent neighborhood along Broken Land Parkway near Merriweather. A portion of the woods along Little Patuxent Parkway where the annual Wine in the Woods festival is held also would be developed into culturally themed buildings and green spaces, though the land currently is owned by the Columbia Association.

The entire area, from the intersection of Governor Warfield Parkway and Little Patuxent Parkway on the north, to Broken Land Parkway and U.S. 29 on the south, would be transformed with new development accented by green spaces, woods, new street networks, walkways and public spaces.

Mark Southerland, a resident who attended, rose to complain about what he termed "the incredible shrinking Symphony Woods."

But Hamm countered that "Symphony Woods is a seriously degraded environment." And reforestation and enhanced preservation of the Lakefront area and natural woods along U.S. 29 will help, not hurt.

He also pointed out that there were very few young people in the crowd, something a more exciting downtown could remedy.

Since they were unveiled in April, the general concepts of the plan have been well received by many residents, but some fear the company's plans are too ambitious and could overwhelm local schools, roadways and harm treasured open spaces.

"Every day when I try to get out of my neighborhood at 5 p.m. or 8 a.m., I can't," said Deloise Wilkie, 73, of Wilde Lake. "You can't move and you want to add more people downtown?"

Hamm replied that adding a network of new streets will disperse and slow traffic, making movements easier by giving motorists more options instead of contending with high-speed traffic or circular collector streets.

Cindy Coyle, the Harper's Choice representative on the Columbia Association board, noted that Hamm and the architects hadn't mentioned adding new schools. He replied that the average 1,100-square-foot apartment or condominiums would hold an average of 1.7 people per household, meaning few children.

But Michael Cornell, a River Hill CA board member, questioned that, noting that school system enrollment estimates in his area were notoriously low.

"I don't think that is realistic," he said.

Hamm responded that home sizes in River Hill are much larger.

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