Affordable River Hill homes sought Resolution introduced by Columbia Council

March 28, 1997

The Columbia Council wants the Rouse Co. to build more affordable housing in west Columbia's wealthy new River Hill village -- saying at a meeting last night that doing so would honor the spirit of Columbia during this, its 30th year.

"The whole idea of Columbia was that we would live together, work together and learn together," said Wanda Hurt, who represents Owen Brown village on the Columbia Council, an elected body that oversees Columbia's open space areas and recreational facilities.

Only 5 percent of River Hill's housing is apartments and townhouses, a much lower percentage than in Columbia's other villages. The rest of River Hill is detached houses -- many costing more than $300,000.

Hurt introduced a resolution last night calling on Rouse to make "every effort" to build additional "moderate and affordable housing" in River Hill. The council showed broad support for the resolution and is expected to finalize the resolution at an April 10 meeting.

Part of the discussion on the resolution could focus on River Hill's development history.

Eleven years ago, the Rouse Co. asked the Howard County Zoning Board for more affordable housing in River Hill -- but the Zoning Board granted only part of the request.

However, according to Rouse's original plans 32 years ago, the real estate giant never intended to develop River Hill like most of Columbia -- known for its variety of apartments, townhouses and expensive homes.

In 1965, Rouse called for only single-family houses in Columbia's two fringe villages -- known today as River Hill and Kings Contrivance -- according to a Rouse planning map and Robert Tennenbaum, Rouse's chief architect-planner for Columbia in the 1960s.

"The plan [then] had nine villages around a town center, townhouses and apartments strung out along the minibus route that linked seven village centers together," Tennenbaum wrote recently in a new book, "Creating a New City, Columbia, Maryland." "Most neighborhoods and villages were medium density. Only two remote villages were entirely low density [as] requested by residents in existing subdivisions."

Since then, Rouse has refined its plans for Columbia.

Rouse built Kings Contrivance in southeastern Columbia closer to Columbia's Town Center, for example, and developed apartments and townhouses in that village.

As for River Hill in west Columbia, Rouse officials in 1986 asked the Howard County Zoning Board to alter land-use designations.

At the time, Rouse had no acres designated for apartments and townhouses in River Hill, according to Zoning Board records.

Rouse wanted to develop 90 acres with apartments and townhouses "to provide a greater variety and wider price range of housing so that an adequate housing choice is available," according to county records.

A number of community organizations supported Rouse's request, including the Columbia Council.

But the five-member Zoning Board refused most of Rouse's request -- giving the company only 33 acres of apartments and townhouses in River Hill, according to county records.

"We were not particularly excited about that" decision, Alton Scavo, a Rouse senior vice president, said yesterday. "But that was their wish. We looked at it and said, 'Fine.' We moved on."

Scavo said the company had promised Trotter Road residents -- who opposed the River Hill apartments and townhouses in 1986 -- that Rouse would live with whatever decision the Zoning Board made.

Today, River Hill houses are among the most expensive in Columbia. As of December, the average price of 10 homes on the market and one recently sold was $319,142 -- ranging from $214,850 to $429,900, according to a real estate advertisement in the River Hill Village Board newsletter.

River Hill's housing breakdown is certainly different from that of the rest of Columbia.

For Columbia as a whole, 29 percent of all housing acreage consists of apartments and townhouses; detached houses make up the rest, according to statistics provided by the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning.

Of River Hill's 654 residential acres, only 33 are allocated for apartments and townhouses -- about 5 percent, according to the Planning and Zoning Department.

If River Hill's large tracts of open space are factored in, only 1 percent of the village's space is set aside for apartments and townhouses, according to county records.

Moreover, River Hill's village center -- in contrast to older village centers built near the actual centers of their villages -- will be constructed along the western edge of River Hill, on Route 108. Early Rouse plans show the village center in the middle of River Hill.

Last night, the Columbia Council addressed only the apartments and townhouses in the new village.

"What we are asking is for the Rouse Co. to try again," said David Berson, who represents River Hill on the council. "If we could get even a little more, I think that's positive and progressive."

Also at issue is exactly how the 33 acres of apartments and townhouses will be developed in River Hill. In other parts of Columbia, government subsidies allow low-income residents to live in apartments.

Scavo said Rouse would not actually build the apartments or townhouses.

He said he did not know if the builders would set aside low-income units.

"I don't have the slightest idea," Scavo said.

Asked if Rouse should push for such housing, Scavo said that is not necessarily the company's role.

There is less government support for such programs these days, he added.

Said Scavo: "We are not a substitute for programs at a federal level, at a state level and at a local level."

Pub Date: 3/28/97

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