Plans under way for a main street

Conversion: Changes to Little Patuxent Parkway could make it more pedestrian-friendly.

July 04, 2004|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Despite efforts to remake Columbia's Town Center into a bustling downtown, it remains a vehicle-driven suburban center that is not particularly pedestrian-friendly.

But Howard County is considering giving Columbia a key component of most downtowns: a main street.

County officials are floating an idea to transform Little Patuxent Parkway with a main street atmosphere. The parkway, which loops around The Mall in Columbia and acts as a barrier to attractions on the other side of the thoroughfare, could be converted with on-street parking and pedestrian walkways to link the commercial and residential areas.

The project is in preliminary planning phases, but County Councilman Ken Ulman said it could happen as early as this fall. It would serve as a defining entrance to the downtown area of the planned community, he said, alerting drivers traveling on Route 175 as it becomes Little Patuxent Parkway that they are entering a town.

"Nothing ever tells somebody as they leave [Route] 175, `Hey this is no longer a freeway, slow down, you're in Town Center, there's going to be people walking around,' " said Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat. "On-street parking gives that feeling."

The Columbia project comes as other suburban communities, such as White Marsh and Hunt Valley, are creating their own main streets in the form of outdoor shopping malls with sidewalk cafes and wide pedestrian promenades that encourage leisurely strolling.

Six-lane Little Patuxent Parkway would be tamed by converting one lane in each direction into on-street parking, said James M. Irvin, the county public works director. The 35-mph speed limit might also be lowered, he said.

Irvin acknowledged that traffic jams may be one of the trade-offs for on-street parking, but he said the area is "not really choked up with traffic right now."

"The issue is whether you want to have a vehicle-oriented Town Center, or do you want to have a pedestrian-oriented Town Center," Irvin said. During the holiday season, when traffic is heaviest around the mall, "you could have 10 lanes and still not have enough," he added.

Little Patuxent Parkway - which encompasses the mall, a movie theater, office buildings and new townhouses - has few pedestrian crosswalks and one sky bridge that is awkward to reach, making it difficult for people to get from the mall to Symphony Woods, Merriweather Post Pavilion or the restaurants along Lake Kittamaqundi.

There are homes inside and outside of the parkway, contributing to the area's population of 4,265. Inside the mall area, the Governor's Grant townhouse project is under way and will add 127 homes, with prices that start in the $300,000s. A 156-unit "active adult" apartment complex is being constructed nearby.

On the other side of the parkway are the Archstone Columbia Town Center apartments and a planned four- to five-story condominium complex near Lake Kittamaqundi. Nearby, a high-rise that could be 25 stories with luxury condominiums and 10,000 square feet of commercial space is proposed.

Ulman said the retail shops in the high-rise could be directed toward Little Patuxent Parkway, contributing to the main street feeling. The on-street parking could run from Sterrett Place at one end of the mall entrance to South Entrance Road at the other end.

Ulman said that walkways are needed to connect the area's "pieces of vibrancy."

"You start thinking, `Wouldn't it be nice if people in the townhomes by the movie theater could walk [across the parkway] to Clyde's?' " he said.

Many of the sites along Little Patuxent Parkway are set back from the road because of a 30-foot-wide grassy area that runs parallel to the parkway from Sterrett Place to the entrance to Symphony Woods. That area was set aside for a never-realized Columbia Association minibus route.

The American City Building - a prime example of a typical downtown building, with a coffee shop, art gallery and post office - suffers from that setback, tucked away far from the edge of the road, Ulman said.

The Columbia Association land could be turned into a pedestrian parkway, linking the Lake Kittamaqundi area, central library, Symphony Woods and Merriweather, said Jud Malone, who represents Town Center on the Columbia Council.

"I think it's pretty important that the Columbia Association start to get involved in downtown development issues," Malone said.

The lack of pedestrian access was a major concern that Ulman raised when the Rouse Co. petitioned Howard County to increase Columbia's residential density with the goal of building 1,600 residential units in Town Center in an effort to create a vibrant urban core.

This year, the county Zoning Board unanimously turned down the company's petition to add more than 2,000 residences to the 60-acre, crescent-shaped property behind Symphony Woods because the company did not submit detailed plans showing what the development would look like.

Dennis W. Miller, a Rouse vice president and general manager of Columbia, said that any discussion of transforming Little Patuxent Parkway is premature and that he is unsure what role Rouse would play in the process.

"I would envision that if anything were to come to fruition that it would be a collaboration, and I'm sure Rouse would participate in that collaboration," he said.

Ulman said he wants people to park their cars in Town Center and be able to walk around the area, like they would in any other city's downtown.

"I want people to come spend the evening in Town Center ... we're going to eat and go to a movie, go shopping, instead of having to get in our car and do those things," Ulman said. "That's what I think we've been missing. It's really hard to cross a six-lane highway."

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