Eighth hearing held on rezoning

Rouse hopes to build 2,141 residential units

Many residents oppose plan

Meeting likely to be last round of public testimony

Columbia

November 04, 2003|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

In what was expected to be the final round of public testimony on the Rouse Co. petition to add thousands of new residents to downtown Columbia, its representatives reiterated to the Howard County Zoning Board last night that Columbia was always intended to have a bustling urban center.

During a PowerPoint presentation on behalf of the Rouse proposal, John Gosling, director of planning and urban design for RTKL Associates Inc. in Baltimore, laid out characteristics that he said echoed Howard County's General Plan for Columbia: areas for farmers' markets and street fairs, pedestrian access and a variety of retail.

"Successful town centers have to have more than a 9-to-5 existence," he said. "In that way, you attract the ranges of uses that make the area vibrant."

A diversity of housing is key to a successful downtown, Gosling said. "You're in an urban center. ... This is not a leafy green suburb."

Rouse is petitioning the county to increase the allowed density for Columbia, which would create an additional 2,141 residential units.

Hearings began in July, and at the Oct. 20 meeting, board Chairman Ken Ulman pledged that last night's session - the eighth - would be the final one on the matter, promising that the board - composed of the five County Council members - was committed to staying as late as necessary. The hearing was continuing late last night.

The majority of the additional units, about 1,600, would be developed in the 60-acre, crescent-shaped property behind Symphony Woods in Town Center. Rouse is anticipating that the estimated 2,352 additional residents those units would bring to Town Center - which has a current population of 4,265 - will create a vibrant urban center that company officials say has always been the plan for Columbia.

But Rouse has faced fierce opposition from residents, who claim that the company has not provided sufficient detailed information about the proposed development. Critics also fear that the extra residents will burden the town's infrastructure, including roads and schools.

Tanya Nagle of Kings Contrivance questioned Gosling last night on how he expected mom-and-pop shops to survive while competing with the nearby Columbia mall. Gosling said that such small businesses "engage" customers and become successful. "There's a really powerful trend now for an open-air type of experience," he said.

If the board approves the company's plan, the site by Symphony Woods also could have mid- or high-rise mixed-use buildings with 400,000 square feet of office space and 100,000 square feet each for big-box stores and other retail.

An economic impact study prepared for Rouse by Tischler & Associates Inc. shows that the county would receive $78.8 million in net revenue from the development if the site had residential units, with 10 percent of them being age-restrictive and 5 percent dedicated to affordable housing.

But opponents have also taken that study to task, with one resident claiming that the residential development would cause a deficit that could be as much as $30 million.

The proposed development area - which is now zoned for commercial use - surrounds the 9-acre Merriweather Post Pavilion site. That issue has caused many residents to protest Rouse's plan, fearing that the development would cause the end of the amphitheater, which was built in 1967 as one of the community's original amenities.

Rouse has announced that the amphitheater will be converted into a year-round enclosed venue, claiming that the open-air facility is no longer suitable for Columbia nor economically solvent.

If Rouse's petition is approved, two villages in addition to Town Center are also slated to receive extra residential units.

Oakland Mills would receive 150 units, mostly for a proposed senior apartment building on a vacant 1.7-acre lot owned by Exxon Mobil Corp. in Oakland Mills Village Center. Kings Contrivance would receive 100 units, although the village has not decided what type of project they would be part of.

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