Town Center might bloom

Rouse Co. to seek 2,100 more residential units

Maximum density the aim

Developer says downtown is to be real urban center


April 13, 2003|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

The Rouse Co. will petition Howard County to add more than 2,100 residential units to Columbia with many reserved for Town Center to make it a "community that's vibrant, having activity around the clock," said Dennis Miller, the development company's vice president and general manager of Columbia.

Miller told the Columbia Council that within about a week he will be asking the county for permission to develop the planned community to the maximum density allowed by law.

"The [county's] general plan is very clear. ... Downtown should be developed," Miller said Thursday night. "I believe it's going to be very beneficial to the county ... and to the Columbia Association."

The proposed units might create a more lively atmosphere downtown, which has a population of 4,265 but has yet to become a bustling urban center for the 35-year-old planned community.

The extra units also would provide a significant financial boost for Rouse and the 95,000-resident Columbia Association. The development company would profit by selling rights to build the units, and more residential development would lead to more property lien payments to the homeowners association.

Homeowners pay the association 73 cents per $100 of valuation on 50 percent of the fair market property value annually, and those residential lien payments are projected to contribute $17.6 million to the association's fiscal 2004 budget.

"The 2,100 units are an additional assessment stream ... in a community that already has an abundance of infrastructure in place," Miller said.

Donna L. Rice, the council's Town Center representative, said the possibility of Town Center getting more residents has been a "long time coming."

"I'm just thrilled," Rice said. "We've been begging for more units for a long time. Finally, it looks like there's a possibility that we will become a real downtown in Columbia."

Miller pointed out a few sites that likely would be prime for development in Town Center - the land behind Symphony Woods would "definitely be developed," and the Ridgely Building on Sterrett Place also is an ideal key spot for redevelopment, he said.

Other development projects are planned. On the site that used to house the General Cinema near the Lake Kittamaqundi waterfront, Ryland Homes is planning to build the Plaza at Town Center, a four- to five-story condominium complex. A 156-unit "active adult" apartment complex is being built on 5 acres near The Mall in Columbia, off Governor Warfield Parkway.

Other sites will remain similar to what they are now. Miller said the Merriweather Post Pavilion site would "never, never be residential" but always dedicated to some type of art or cultural center, and the 40 acres of Symphony Woods will "always remain open space."

Councilman Joshua Feldmark of Wilde Lake said he worried that an influx of residents to Town Center "would just add cars" because public transportation is limited.

But Miller said enhancing public transportation can't be accomplished until the residents move in.

Changing community

The idea to add more residential units surfaced in the fall when a developer proposed building a 96-unit senior apartment building in Oakland Mills Village Center on the vacant Exxon Mobil Corp. site. But there are no authorized units available for the project.

While the Oakland Mills project spurred the process, it was not the primary reason that Rouse is seeking to add more units, Miller said.

"The community over 30 years has changed. ... Lifestyles have changed," Miller said. "That's what's warranting the additional units."

Rouse is authorized now to develop Columbia with a density of 2.35 residential units an acre, resulting in about 33,539 residential units on Columbia's 14,272 acres. Of those, only about 900 remain and all of them have been dedicated to other projects.

Howard County's New Town ordinance allows a maximum of 2.5 residential units an acre. At that density, an additional 2,141 residential units could be built. Miller said petitioning for the maximum density is "the most logical way to approach this" while also getting "the critical mass to make downtown Columbia change."

The county Zoning Board, which consists of the five members of the County Council, would have to approve the petition, said County Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat.

Ulman said he is keeping an open mind about the possibility of adding more residential units and thinks it would help make Town Center a "more vibrant, exciting area, one that was originally envisioned by [Columbia developer] Jim Rouse."

"I think in general there can be some advantages to new density, which is revitalization and reinvigoration," he said. "Now, I also know there's quite a bit of sensitivity about developing the property that surrounds Symphony Woods. A lot of people don't know that there's a difference between Symphony Woods and the property behind it."

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