Columbia housing plan raises questions of density

Company, village boards to discuss adding units

February 23, 2003|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

The green country city of Columbia could be a little less green someday soon.

A proposal to build a senior apartment building in Oakland Mills village has triggered a communitywide discussion about changing the suburb's development plan to allow hundreds of additional residential units.

Dennis Miller, the Rouse Co.'s vice president and general manager of Columbia, is visiting each of Columbia's 10 village boards, informing residents about the town's density and asking if the villages are interested in permitting additional housing.

Rouse is authorized now to develop Columbia with a density of 2.35 residential units an acre, allowing for about 33,539 residential units on Columbia's 14,272 acres. About 900 of the allowed units remain, all of which have been committed to announced projects.

But Howard County's New Town ordinance allows residential density of up to 2.5 residential units an acre. If Rouse were to request and receive a change in density to the maximum, an additional 2,141 residential units could be built.

Developing the additional units could produce substantial economic gains for Rouse.

A focal point of Rouse's interest appears to be Town Center, the residential and commercial areas surrounding The Mall in Columbia at the heart of the city.

"I think that there's an abundance of merit to increasing the density in New Town," Miller said. "The general plan speaks of redevelopment and redevelopment of the downtown Columbia area. ... It seems like it will be a wise and prudent investment if there is some density adjustments."

A sensitive issue

But Rouse is treading carefully on the sensitive issue of housing density.

Miller said he hopes to meet with all the village boards by the end of next month. By that time, he will determine whether Rouse should petition the county Zoning Board for higher density for Columbia.

Vince Marando, a member of the Wilde Lake Village Board, said increasing residential density is a "paramount important issue" for the village boards to tackle, and he does not think the groups have had the chance to thoroughly consider it.

"I just see this one as a mega land-use issue in which volunteer groups are being asked to participate in something that may or may not be in their interests," he said. "I can see clearly that it's in Rouse's interest."

The discussion started in Oakland Mills, where a plan to revitalize the village center would require at least 96 additional residential units for a proposed apartment building to be constructed on the 1.7-acre lot that Exxon Mobil Corp. used to occupy.

Last month, the Oakland Mills Village Board unanimously voted to support the four-story apartment building for people ages 62 and older, proposed by developer Jeffrey C. Kirby, founder of J. Kirby Development LLC.

`Getting built out'

"It is true that this whole question came up because of the need in our village, but I assume that Columbia is getting ... built out," said David A. Hatch, chairman of the Oakland Mills Village Board. The extra units would be "an opportunity for villages who may need some rehabilitation, some revitalization to have a chance at it."

Of Columbia's 10 villages, Town Center is the only one that has room for significant residential development. For example, Ryland Homes is planning to build the Plaza at Town Center, a four- to five-story condominium complex, on the site that used to house the General Cinema near the waterfront.

The rest of the villages are virtually built out. However, Miller said the other villages could reserve additional units that would act as a "safety net," set aside for future redevelopment.

"Maybe it's an allocation, and they never use those units," he said. "I'm quite sure that all of us 10 years ago would have never identified the Exxon site as being a site ... for senior living."

Garry Chandler, chairman of the Town Center Village Board, described the board as "pro-growth" and said it is open to Rouse adding more units to Columbia's downtown. He described Town Center as having little residential growth, with residents living in noncontiguous neighborhoods.

"I think with the development of Town Center, commercially and residentially ... it's becoming more of what it was designed to be: [Columbia developer James W.] Rouse's dream - people walking to the library, walking to the mall," he said.

Other village boards are unsure how added units would affect Columbia as a whole or their specific village.

"Until [Miller] brought it up, nobody had given it much thought," said John Hannay, chairman of the Wilde Lake Village Board. "We were aware of the situation in Oakland Mills, but we had not had a lot of discussion."

Hannay said he could see potential benefits and pitfalls of increasing the density in Columbia, and he wants to further the discussion with other village board members and village residents.

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