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Howard planners: Parking reduction key to urban shift in downtown Columbia

Howard County Council considering a reduction in parking in downtown Columbia.

The Howard County Council is considering a parking reduction in downtown Columbia as part of the Kittleman administration's plans to redevelop the area into a vibrant, urban core.

The move, which changes a 2010 development plan for the town, reduces parking from 1.65 spaces to 1.3 spaces for new studio and one-bedroom units as the county grapples with how to create an urban environment in a largely suburban area.

Parking reductions are common incentives to help developers like downtown Columbia's master developer, Howard Hughes Corp., build affordable housing, said Carl DeLorenzo, the county's director of policy and programs.

The council is considering two competing proposals — one from the administration and one from Councilwoman Jen Terrasa — to incorporate affordable housing into the downtown area, where visionary Jim Rouse sought to create a community where janitor and CEO could live and work side-by-side.

Pinning down the specifics of that model is a key policy decision that will shape the future of downtown, council members said.

"If it's going to be a pain to park … people will just go somewhere else," said Councilman Greg Fox.

At the same time, too much parking in downtown can stifle the development.

"I don't want to see us build more parking than we need," Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty said.

The plan for downtown Columbia, passed in 2010 and now before the council for revisions, relies on a park-once and shared parking model.

County planners said the proposed parking reduction will meet the needs of the redeveloped downtown based upon the county's comparisons to other development projects such as the Rio, a mixed-use center in Gaithersburg, which has similar parking requirements.

But the county's parking comparisons are based on development projects in areas with far more developed options for public transportation, said Terrasa.

"The concern in downtown Columbia is not just that there is no metro, there is no other option other than cars at all," Terrasa said.

The head of the county's transportation office, Clive Graham conceded downtown Columbia has a "low-level system" and is working on a public transportation plan to manage traffic downtown.

The county plans a shuttle system for the reimagined downtown and a transit center that would service public transportation in the area, Graham said.

The transit center will likely sit at the floor of a Howard Hughes' project that can be built up to 20 stories high. Plans for both projects have not been finalized.

Parking itself is "not a science, it's an art," said Brad Canfield, Merriweather Post Pavilion's vice president of operations. For years, the outdoor amphitheater has embraced that art by relying on shared parking to accommodate guests for its shows.

The county plans to identify a site for the transit center by next summer. New electric buses will also hit Columbia's streets next year, an experimental technology that hints at the changing face of transportation overall, Graham said.

When the council passed the downtown Columbia plan six years ago, Uber, now a popular online transportation network company, was not considered since the company was just getting started.

New forms of transport will likely be a part of the county's transportation planning in the future, Graham said.

Merriweather is embracing that future. The pavilion aims to introduce a new parking system that would tailor parking spaces and routes based on the visitor's original location and preferences.

Howard Hughes is invested in ensuring there is enough parking in downtown, said Val Lazdins, director of the county's Department of Planning and Zoning.

"From the perspective of the development community ... no one is interested in providing a development where there isn't sufficient parking," said Lazdins.

The council will hear testimony on all downtown Columbia legislation at 6 p.m. on Sept. 22 in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

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