Howard County Planning Board members and staff appear excited about a developer's proposal to revitalize downtown Columbia over the next 30 years, but they still see the devil in the details.
That was the impression left at a public meeting in Columbia last week, where, for the first time, members of the county's Planning and Zoning Department shared their views on a proposal by General Growth Properties Inc., Columbia's developer, to overhaul a 364-acre site that includes The Mall in Columbia and Merriweather Post Pavilion.
"GGP did some high-end professional work" in assembling its plan, said Bill Mackey, the county's chief of comprehensive and community planning. "But we've come up with a number of specific recommendations" for improving it.
He laid those out in a 40-minute slideshow presentation to the Planning Board as about 30 members of the public looked on.
The public meeting was a milestone in a lengthy process that began more than three years ago, when Howard County sponsored its first "charrette," a weeklong series of meetings with interested residents in which community members, working with county staff members, defined what they would like to see in a revamped downtown.
Over the next year, that dialogue culminated in a document called "Downtown Columbia: A Community Vision," which created a framework within which GGP would create its proposed plan.
The plan completed by the developer, which is hundreds of pages, calls for up to 5,500 new dwellings in downtown Columbia, 1.25 million square feet of office space, 1,000 new hotel rooms, a range of new cultural and recreational amenities, and many other features aimed at creating a livelier, more pedestrian-friendly downtown over the next three decades.
GGP submitted its plan to the county Oct. 1. A week later, county zoning officials presented a staff report that praised the plan's creativity while also expressing a number of concerns. Among them: The county department wanted six phases, not three; clearer benchmarks by which the developer could be held accountable for its progress; and greater specificity on how the projects would be funded.
Mackey described the staff's recommendations as offering "the view from 30,000 feet."
The "Community Vision" document was consulted, Mackey said. Officials compared the details of GGP's proposal to the themes the document spelled out.
For the most part, Mackey and colleagues saluted GGP's effort to stay within the framework. He highlighted ways in which the developer sought to realize the vision of James W. Rouse, Columbia's creator, of "a comprehensively balanced community" that would also operate at a profit. He praised the developer's stated goals of preserving parkland and open space, dividing downtown into distinct neighborhoods and spending $5 million toward establishing affordable housing. All represent key elements of the urban ideal as Rouse saw it.
Mackey made it clear, however, that as GGP fine-tunes its proposal in the coming months, the county hopes it will get more specific. For instance, the company proposes the creation of several new business entities to help implement its plans but did not clearly define those entities. It offers few specific performance benchmarks, he said, and did not adequately assess the potential impact of downtown's growth on the surrounding villages in Columbia.
After reviewing the company proposal and the department's report and holding public hearings, the Planning Board will make recommendations to the County Council, due to vote in the spring.
At Thursday's meeting, Planning Board Chairman David Grabowski asked whether the developer's ideas for funding were realistic. Board member Linda Dombrowski asked Mackey - and Planning and Zoning Director Marsha S. McLaughlin - by what standard the public would know whether GGP had met its "benchmarks."
"I don't know if anybody's good enough at 'crystal-balling' to be able to know everything ahead of time," McLaughlin said. "But what we want very much to do is to monitor developments closely over time."
GGP will make a presentation Jan. 8. Residents may speak at a public hearing three days later. The staff analysis of the GGP proposal can be found at howardcountymd.gov. Comments may be e-mailed to PlanningBoard@howardcountymd.gov.