Everybody's always complaining that you can't find anything in Columbia, what with all the trees and berms meant to cut down on "visual clutter."
Well, downtown Columbia has suddenly come into view.
About 7 1/2 acres of 80-foot trees that used to camouflage The Mall in Columbia were mowed down in the center of town recently to make way for a luxury townhouse development.
Washington Homes, a division of K. Hovnanian Cos., is building 127 three-story townhouses - the last residential project planned for Columbia's Town Center. They will be some of the most expensive townhouses in Howard County, starting at $279,990.
The yellow poplars and red oaks cut down a few weeks ago for the project were part of a canopy so dense that it created a tunnel effect along Governor Warfield Parkway.
The tunnel is still there, but now it is stopped short by Twin Rivers Road. The shade gives way, and suddenly the view is of dirt and earth movers and just beyond, the mall's triangular skylights, parking garage and Nordstrom department store.
Even folks who acknowledge the developer had every right to chop, who knew the project was coming and the trees were goners, say they get a jolt when they pass by.
"In Columbia, we put a high price on aesthetics," said Columbia Councilman Joshua Feldmesser of Wilde Lake, who works as a program director with the Center for Environmental Citizenship.
"Having a road in the middle of downtown that was so forested, and now you feel like you're in the middle of a condo complex, it's kind of a shock to the system," he said.
The real surprise, perhaps, is that the 60- to 80-year-old trees stood so long in a busy town center, lending a strangely lush, rural air to a stretch of road beside a large regional mall, office buildings and apartments.
The parcel has been slated for development since Rouse Co. began building the town in the 1960s, said David E. Forester, senior vice president and senior development director of Howard Research and Development Corp., a Rouse affiliate that sold the land to Washington Homes.
But instead of building Columbia like most cities - from the core out to the fringes - Rouse held off on developing a couple of Town Center parcels until recently.
The other big project under way is a 531-unit luxury apartment complex going up behind Howard County's central library in Town Center. The first tenants moved into Archstone Columbia Town Center about a week ago.
Construction is expected to be completed in September 2002.
"We had to get to a certain level of the maturation of Columbia before high-density living in downtown would be sought after," Forester said. "It wouldn't have been appropriate years ago. This was the right time to do it."
Officials with Rouse and Washington Homes have met with residents of Town Center and nearby Wilde Lake in recent years to discuss the townhouse project, which is named Governor's Grant. In response to community concerns, the companies made changes to preserve more of the 69-foot-wide canopy than originally planned, village officials said.
Washington Homes also hired professional arborists, who recommended fencing, root pruning, fertilization and other measures to protect the trees left standing. About an acre of trees remain as open space on the development site.
At the arborists' suggestion, the developers relocated a sidewalk that would have disturbed the roots of three trees, said arborist Edward Kowalski of Zimar & Associates Inc. of Manassas Park, Va.
"This was not just sprung on the community," said Gail Hare, speaking on behalf of County Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung. Hare, who is Lorsung's special assistant, said the process of public notice and input worked well in this case.
"This is part of the governor's whole Smart Growth initiative. We're doing `infill,'" Hare said. "People basically don't like change. That's always difficult. But there's nothing nefarious about it."
Howard County Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. said the need for proper drainage and grading, as well as a deceleration lane leading into the development, meant some trees had to be lost.
"It's not what we like to see, but what does the law require?" Rutter asked rhetorically. "So there are tradeoffs on the development. It's always an issue when a larger wooded area goes down, but at the same time a lot of that was secondary growth."
Rutter said he thought the developers did a good job, though he agrees the center of town looks a lot different now.
"When you go from the trees to barren dirt, it's brighter," he said. "When the buildings are there and you've got some brick and some landscaping in front, it will help close that in a little bit."