Rouse bristles at critics of recent developments

November 28, 1993|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

Rouse Co. officials worked hard this month to show they are not resting on their laurels to doubting members of the county Planning Board.

"I think that what we're doing today is as good as what we did five years ago, 10 years ago, and 20 years ago, and maybe better," says David E. Forester, Rouse Co. vice president and senior development director.

In the eyes of Planning Board member Theodore F. Mariani, the Rouse Co. is straying from the cutting edge of the residential development industry.

"I think that it's important, that they, being the premier developer in Howard County, be held to a higher standard," Mr. Mariani said several weeks ago in explaining his concerns over a subdivision plan.

He and board member Dale Schumacher have questioned several new developments in Columbia -- where the Planning Board wields its greatest authority -- and two weeks ago managed to stop one temporarily.

"I think that something's been lost in the development of Columbia," Mr. Mariani told Rouse executives during a work session two weeks ago intended to work out their differences.

"Some of the things look like they came out of developer Joe Blow's handbook," he said.

Those who run Howard Research and Development Corp., the Rouse subsidiary that oversees Columbia's development, are troubled by such remarks.

While they have no quarrel with meeting higher standards than most developers, they bristle at the thought that newer Columbia subdivision plans are uninspired or run-of-the-mill.

As a result of the concerns of two board members, the Rouse Co. last week altered the way it presents plans and interacts with the board. But the change should be seen as voluntary, in light of county government lawyers' advice to board members that they cannot consider creativity or inspiration in accepting or rejecting plans.

Subdivision blocked Nov. 10

The problem came to a head Nov. 10, when approval of plans for a 55-townhouse Ryland Group subdivision was blocked.

Mr. Mariani abstained and Mr. Schumacher voted against the plan in the Kendall Ridge neighborhood of Long Reach village.

The development is sandwiched between a 120-unit apartment complex on Dobbin Road and a group of 95 townhouses.

"The issue, primarily, was the knitting together of the three different projects," said Mr. Mariani, a practicing architect and development planner for 35 years.

Because the projects were not properly integrated, there were problems such as townhouses facing a trash bin in the apartment complex, and a poor connection between open space in the subdivisions and green spaces to the south, Mr. Mariani said.

The rejection of the plan hastened the scheduling of a meeting between four Rouse Co. vice presidents and the board on Nov. 18 to discuss the problem.

Board members heard an overview of the development of Columbia, combined with figures on density of development and expressions of faith from Alton J. Scavo, senior vice president and general manager of Columbia development.

Mr. Scavo also showed slides of old and new developments in an attempt to dispel the notion that the Rouse Co. has been backsliding from its cutting-edge development principles.

"There's always been the perception that things were better yesterday," he said.

People comment that Columbia's older subdivisions were greener, their homes were not as densely packed onto the sites, the buildings were larger and the architecture was better, he said.

Columbia's open space, for instance, has increased from about one-quarter of the land to well over one-third. Newer villages, such as Kings Contrivance and River Hill, are half open space.

Regarding density in the townhouses, Mr. Scavo said his analysis since Columbia was dedicated in 1967 showed little change in density, fluctuating between an average of nine units and 10 units per acre.

Discussing the differences seems to have paid off so far for both sides.

Presentations on subdivisions offered at Tuesday's board meeting were more detailed, and gave more information on how each subdivision related to neighboring projects.

Rouse representatives also put in an appearance in addition to presentations by the builders, something they had not done recently.

Because only three of the five board members were present, Mr. Mariani had the opportunity to prevent the approval of the site development plans -- which requires a minimum of three votes -- but he voted for them.

He said he was satisfied that his earlier concerns about the 55 townhouses had been dealt with.

"We didn't ask them to do a major revision; we asked them to fine-tune the thing a little bit, which they did," Mr. Mariani said.

"We also tried to send a message to them that when they bring their projects in, they have got to show a better rationale of why they do their projects and how they are taking into account the surrounding neighborhoods," he said.

Neither lives in Columbia

Some observers have noted that the two Rouse critics do not live in Columbia.

Mr. Mariani lives in the west county community of Daisy, and Mr. Schumacher lives on property he shares with the Belmont Conference Center next to Patapsco Valley State Park.

One member of the board who staunchly defends the Rouse Co.'s recent work in Columbia is Joan Lancos, who lives in the Sebring neighborhood of Hickory Ridge village.

"I don't think that the Rouse Co. has slacked off over the years," she said during the meeting with company representatives.

She noted that during the recession of the early 1980s, the Ryland Group built very ordinary single-family detached subdivisions that pale next to more recent neighborhoods.

Although not on the cutting edge, those homes were more affordable, and allowed people with modest incomes to move to Columbia.

"Since 1976 I have chosen to stay in Columbia because I like the way it has developed," she said.

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