The 33 single-spaced pages of zoning jargon that county planners used to describe their view of renewing Columbia's Town Center may look dry and lifeless.
But a public discussion on the document drew more than 30 community leaders to a meeting this week with Marsha S. McLaughlin, the planning director, who walked the group through the Planning Department's initial revisions to the General Growth Properties plan to remake the 40-year-old community.
"There's a lot here that seems legalistic and hard to get excited about," McLaughlin said during the 90-minute session Monday night at Columbia Association headquarters.
As McLaughlin led the group through the so-called technical staff report, she touched on highlights that she said would help realize project goals. The 30-year redevelopment plan calls for 5,500 new housing units, 5 million square feet of office space, 1.25 million square feet of retail space and cultural and environmental amenities in a more urban setting.
The session was organized by the Downtown Forum, which is made up of members of civic and community groups. The discussion was designed to elicit information, not serve as a platform for points of view on the GGP plan, said moderator Roy Appletree, a past president of the Association of Community Services, a coalition of social services groups.
"We're an informal group that's been meeting since January," he said of the Downtown Forum. "We do fact gathering. We don't reach conclusions."
The discussion focused on the zoning changes sought by GGP for the 264 acres in Town Center, which would have the force of law, McLaughlin said. She also explained how the proposed changes would apply to existing standards, such as the requirement that 36 percent of Columbia's 14,272 acres be left as open space.
In the report, county staff members suggest six five-year phases of development instead of the three 10-year phases that GGP proposed, so as to be able to better monitor and control progress. Also, the staff wants 15 percent of new homes to be priced for moderate-income families who earn up to about $80,000 a year. That adds 5 percent to the amount of moderate-income housing that General Growth suggested.
The staff also suggested eliminating 200 units of student or worker dormitory-style housing.
"We weren't sure what student housing was," McLaughlin said.
Other changes include requiring county approval of each neighborhood's final development plan at one time, to make sure the various pieces later fall into place. The GGP plan would divide downtown Columbia into six neighborhoods.
"We don't want to see little bits and pieces coming into downtown," McLaughlin said.
Board hearings on the General Growth plan, the county's revisions and the developer's replies won't begin until next month, McLaughlin said.
Even critics of the developer's plan said that McLaughlin's staff has addressed some of their concerns. Yet several asked questions about the implications of GGP's shaky financial situation and fears of bankruptcy, and about guarantees that the project would not overwhelm the town's infrastructure.
"I think this technical staff report has a lot of good stuff in it, and it needs more," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo. She attended the meeting with Lloyd Knowles, her husband and a former County Council member who has been critical of the size and scope of the proposal.
Bridget Mugane, president of the Howard County Citizens Association, was one of the few people who said they had read the entire document.
"The technical staff report addressed all the missing pieces," she said. "It puts the teeth in things."
At times the target of development critics, McLaughlin received compliments on her staff's report. Those who attended the session ranged from Yale Stenzler, the retired former state school construction czar, to Mary Ellen Duncan, former president of Howard Community College. Others included two Columbia Association board members and advocates for public transportation and the environment.
"The technical report was really an excellent piece of professional staff work," Appletree said.
McLaughlin said that if infrastructure requirements are not met, the full plan will not be built.
Traffic is a concern, she said, because vehicles from Harper's Choice and Wilde Lake villages tend to move through Town Center to approach U.S. 29 and Broken Land Parkway. General Growth's assumption that up to 15 percent of motorists could be lured out of motor vehicles for other modes of transportation is "very ambitious."
And the prospect of a GGP bankruptcy is difficult to plan for, she said, though adding that bankruptcy "has no impact on the county's power to pass legislation or enforce laws."
If the county adopts a well-written plan, a new developer should be willing to buy into it and must still follow the law.
"If we've got the vision right, others could see it," she said.
AT A GLANCE
Highlights of General Growth Properties' proposal for redeveloping Columbia's Town Center:
* 5,500 new homes and apartments
* 5 million square feet of new office space
* 1.25 million square feet of retail space
* 20,000 new trees
* 250,000 square feet of cultural space
* More hotels