Almost everyone in Columbia agrees that settling on a master plan to guide an energizing makeover of the city's 40-year-old town center is an urgent priority. But some residents are concerned that the wrong plan could do serious harm. The Howard County government should proceed cautiously on this matter. The proposed redevelopment may be the biggest project since Columbia's birth, and its impact will be felt for decades to come.
General Growth Properties, which owns the Columbia Mall and much of the land around it, has submitted a proposal to the county to build 1 million square feet of retail space, 4.9 million square feet of office space and 5,500 townhouses and apartments, as well as hotel rooms and cultural amenities. Critics say that plan could produce a crowded, traffic-clogged city center that would encroach on Symphony Woods and other beloved town center amenities. And they note that the company would not be legally bound to carry out any of its ideas unless they are included in specific zoning proposals because of a recent court decision.
Further complicating the matter is General Growth's financial situation; the company is experiencing a cash crunch because of the economic downturn and is considering selling off properties. County approval of the proposal could significantly increase the value of its town center property, boost its earnings and net the county about $1 billion in new tax revenues over its 30-year life, GGP officials estimate. Howard County Executive Ken Ulman recently said General Growth's financial trouble "heightens the urgency to lock in a master plan for town center."
But the county planning board and council should listen carefully to criticisms of the plan and negotiate modifications that would ensure maximum public benefit. Outright rejection of the plan would set a dangerous course. It could lead to unplanned, piecemeal development of the property with negative consequences for the county, citizens and General Growth. More open communication and compromise would produce a better result.