Residents divided on Town Center plan

The Baltimore Sun

The county Planning Board is weighing conflicting visions of the fears and hopes generated by plans for a major urbanization of Columbia's town center as board members prepare to make their own recommendations.

The divide was clearly outlined in remarks at a Thursday night public hearing by Long Reach resident Russel Swatek and the Business Alliance, which represents 46 local business owners.

"Some don't want a city," Swatek, a five-year resident, said about the plans to urbanize Town Center.

"Congestion is not the same thing as vibrancy," he said.

In contrast, Lin Eagan, representing the Business Alliance, pointed to a 25 percent office vacancy rate in central Columbia that she said marks "the steady economic decline of Columbia Town Center."

"We are losing our competitive edge," she said.

Emily Lincoln, another advocate of the General Growth Properties plan, said redevelopment is needed to fulfill the original idea of town center as a vibrant business and residential area.

"Only those with very rose-colored glasses can fail to see we are approaching an irreversible downward slide into mediocrity and worse unless we take bold action," said Lincoln, who represents a group called Bring Back the Vision.

Several speakers urged a slower process and more iron-clad guarantees that amenities and infrastructure will be built.

Alan Klein, spokesman for the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown, said his 450 members support the basic concepts of the 30-year plan but criticized specifics like a proposal for 5,500 new homes and allowing cultural buildings in Symphony Woods.

Thursday night's hearing was the third Planning Board session on redevelopment plans for the town center but the first devoted to testimony from residents and citizen interest groups.

The 30-year plan submitted in October by GGP, Columbia's master developer, called for 5 million square feet of office space, 1.25 million square feet of retail space, the 5,500 homes, more hotels and cultural and environmental amenities.

GGP has since reduced the office space estimate to 4.3 million square feet and the number of proposed hotel rooms from 1,000 to 640, but is insisting on a three-phase process instead of six shorter phases county planners would like. The firm also offered to increase the percentage of housing for limited-income families from 10 to 15 percent, if it is allowed to drop 10 percent of housing for families with earnings between $80,000 to $120,000 a year.

The board must still discuss the various issues and testimony before making recommendations to the County Council, which will then launch new public hearings before a final vote on zoning changes later this year.

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