Dispute on downtown Columbia

The Baltimore Sun

General Growth Properties has agreed with all but three county-recommended changes to its 30-year redevelopment plan for Town Center Columbia, but the disagreements are over key points.

Still, Columbia General Manager and General Growth Properties Senior Vice President Greg Hamm told county Planning Board members Thursday night that his firm wants to work out the disagreements and go forward.

"A collaborative community process yields better communities," he said, as a crowd of about 75 people listened at the Bain Senior Center in Harper's Choice.

"The package you have before you is like nothing I've ever done," Hamm said. "It's a remarkable thing. It's not a first draft."

Jacque Robertson, an urban planner and architect, said the idea is to complete the concept that the town's founder James W. Rouse envisioned more than 40 years ago. Use Smart Growth urbanist principles to connect the car-centric parts of Town Center and create a more pedestrian-friendly, dense environment that can sustain more transit, commerce, recreation, open space and living spaces all in one general area, he said.

"This is the finishing, the next round," Robertson said.

County Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat who represents Town Center, pointed out that the original plan for Columbia approved by Howard County's commissioners May 17, 1965, took nine pages.

"As we think about the enormity of this project, we can think about nine pages," she said.

Hamm noted the planning for downtown's redevelopment has already consumed nearly six years and involved about 100 public meetings.

Hamm and a group of six consultants each spoke about different conceptual aspects of the overall plan, including transportation, environment, housing and economic viability. But the specific answers to county planners' points were listed in a three-page, point-by-point response to 33 recommendations that were distributed to those at the meeting.

The town's master developer wants to stick with three 10-year phases for the project instead of the six five-year phases proposed by Howard County planners. Also, there is no agreement on the percentage of moderate-income housing.

General Growth wants a more flexible plan for below-market housing with about 10 percent for people earning $80,000 a year or less. County planners want a 15 percent requirement.

Another disagreement is over the former Rouse Company headquarters building on the lakefront. County planners want it preserved, while GGP officials want the ability to redevelop that waterfront site.

In other issues, the company agreed:

* To ensure Merriweather Post Pavilion's renovation in the first phase of development.

* To have the County Council adopt downtown-wide design guidelines.

* To provide 1 acre of new parkland for every acre of Symphony Woods where new buildings are planned.

The session was devoted entirely to hearing General Growth's presentation. Public testimony will come in later hearings, starting at 6 p.m. Jan. 22 at the same location.

General Growth's plan calls for up to 5,500 new housing units, 5 million square feet of commercial space, 1.25 million square feet of retail, 250,000 square feet of cultural buildings, plus extensive environmental rehabilitation of the Town Center area around Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Despite the severe financial problems now faced by a debt-laden General Growth, both county and company officials have said they want a Master Plan adopted for central Columbia to guide and control any future development in the area.

"I obviously don't know what our future is," Hamm told the five-member board at one point. But he added that "we have very solid assets," and said the tough economic times could be a blessing in that "they force us to look at worst-case scenarios."

The GGP plan was submitted to county officials in October. In November, county planners recommended approval, if a long list of changes were adopted.

One was to require 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 divides Town Center into five neighborhoods surrounding The Mall in Columbia.

The Planning Board began hearings on the issue last month.

Once hearings are completed, the board will make recommendations to the County Council, which will then hold more hearings before a final vote later this year.

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