Civic groups criticize Rouse plans Zoning Board to meet tonight on preliminary proposal

March 25, 1998|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

The Rouse Co.'s preliminary plan for its Columbia-style development in North Laurel is not drawing the same kind of praise that accompanied James Rouse's vision for Columbia three decades ago.

"It's looking like any other development. It's very generic," says Greg Fries, who chairs the Southern Howard Land Use Committee, an umbrella organization of at least a dozen civic groups that is fighting the proposed village. "You expect something more innovative from Rouse."

The initial sketch of what Rouse would do on the 517-acre tract -- the so-called preliminary development plan (PDP) -- will be voted on by the county Zoning Board in a work session at 7 p.m. today.

Rouse got the zoning change it needed to proceed with the mixed-use development from the board -- comprising the five members of the County Council -- last month after 14 contentious hearings over five months.

As they turn their attention to the PDP, some board members have said that they want more businesses and fewer homes in the mix than Rouse is proposing. The board must make a decision tonight, but if its plan is turned down, Rouse could resubmit it with modifications.

Though the plan includes such Columbia-like touches as circular pedestrian-only parks surrounded by cul-de-sacs -- designed to bring neighborhoods together in a common area -- many of the development's neighbors contend that Rouse has lost its imaginative flair over the past 30 years.

"It's somewhat disappointing to see them resting on old ideas and not presenting something new and different," says Michael Ratcliffe, president of the King's Woods Townhouses Association, who has studied mixed-use sites throughout the country.

Alton J. Scavo, senior vice president of Rouse, bristles at the suggestion that the company is losing its touch.

"We haven't built our reputation by doing things that are not appropriate," Scavo says. "We stand behind the products we do, and we're very proud of our products."

If the plan faces opposition from the members of the Zoning Board -- who approved the re-zoning in a 3-2 vote -- it will not likely be over its aesthetics, but over its economics.

Residential/commercial mix

Under Rouse's proposal, the community would feature 1,395 single-family homes, townhouses and condominiums on the site, which straddles Interstate 95 and is bounded by Route 216 to the south and Gorman Road to the north. It would also include 88 acres of employment and retail space and 182 acres of open space.

But at the meeting that approved the rezoning, board members Darrel E. Drown, Mary C. Lorsung and Dennis R. Schrader -- concerned about the county's need for more business development -- said they want to slice the number of residential units in half and increase the commercial acreage.

For the residents who have long opposed the Rouse plans, this represents their last hope of stopping the project.

According to residents who were at the last hearing, Drown -- who sided with Rouse on the rezoning issue -- indicated that he would be willing to vote against the developer's plan if it is not amended to his satisfaction.

Drown could not comment further. Because the question has not been resolved, board members are prohibited from discussing the case.

Loop road

Under the Rouse PDP, the two sides of the development would be somewhat united by a loop road that would run from Route 216 on the southern end of the eastern parcel, wind northward to Gorman Road, snake through the western parcel and link with Route 216 again.

The four neighborhood parks, about an acre in size, would each be surrounded by two "pods" of homes. Each pod would consist of about 11 cul-de-sacs, some abutting the park.

Some parks would have "play meadows" -- open fields for soccer or football -- while others would feature walking paths and picnic tables, Scavo says.

The purpose of each park is to "bring an identity and ownership and sense of pride to each community," Scavo says. "It would be a common recreational facility for the community."

The plan seems to draw some influence from Columbia -- including names for the neighborhood pods and the use of cul-de-sacs -- but Scavo says the scale is completely different.

"This is not even the size of a village in Columbia," he says. "And at each neighborhood [in Columbia] would've been a school or a pool. What we recognize here is that that wouldn't make it because of the size. The fundamental principles are here, but the applications are obviously quite different."

The plan calls for construction of residential units concurrent with the employment areas. During the hearings, Scavo pledged that open space would make up 45 percent of any residential or business development.

A retail center with a supermarket and a tennis or pool complex would be at the southwest corner of Interstate 95 and Gorman Road, according to the plan. Also, the old Stephens home would be converted to a meeting place or a restaurant.

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