Rouse moves ahead on project

Developer: Approval is sought for a commercial complex of offices and stores near Merriweather Post Pavilion.

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

Thwarted in its attempt to build a residential development behind Merriweather Post Pavilion, the Rouse Co. is moving ahead with plans for a commercial complex of offices and stores on land that includes the parking area for one of the region's most popular concert venues.

Rouse wants to sell the Columbia amphitheater and favors it being converted into a year-round enclosed concert hall.

The company has filed a request with the county to assign a designated use to the 51 acres and has indicated that the development would include 800,000 square feet of office space and 400,000 square feet of retail space.

In a traffic impact study prepared for Rouse by Wells and Associates, the store space was assumed to include 100,000 square feet for general retail, a 150,000-square-foot home improvements superstore and a 150,000-square-foot discount store. However, it is unclear if those details are actually Rouse's plans.

Dennis W. Miller, a Rouse vice president and general manager of Columbia, is on vacation and could not be reached for comment.

The county Planning Board is scheduled to review the plan Sept 16.

Rouse filed the application in February, a month after the county Zoning Board denied the company's petition for a high-density development that would have added 1,600 residences in an attempt to create an urban atmosphere for Columbia's Town Center.

Rouse has appealed the decision to Howard County Circuit Court, but it is unclear whether the company is still interested in this residential development.

`Unacceptable'

The possible big-box plans concern County Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat who heads the Zoning Board. Ulman has not talked to Rouse officials about their plans - he was also unsuccessful in reaching Miller - but said the type of big-box development indicated is "absolutely unacceptable."

"I will absolutely do anything in my power to prevent that, including putting in regulations into [Columbia's] New Town zoning to limit the sizes of retail establishments in Town Center," he said. "There is no place in Town Center for big-box retail."

Ulman also questioned whether Rouse officials were serious about the big-box proposal. "It may be a scare tactic because I can't imagine that the Rouse Co. really believes that that's an appropriate use for that property," Ulman said of the company's new request.

Ulman is among the county officials who are attempting to transform Town Center into a bustling urban core by giving Little Patuxent Parkway - which loops around The Mall in Columbia and acts as a barrier to attractions on the other side of the thoroughfare - a so-called main-street atmosphere with on-street parking and pedestrian walkways to link commercial and residential areas.

Ulman also has a desire to convert Symphony Woods, a 40-acre site that surrounds Merriweather, into a destination park, similar to New York's Central Park.

Rouse is requesting that the Planning Board designate the land for commercial employment center use and also open space. The designation would permit planned office research use, which would allow for banks, offices and restaurants and age-restricted housing.

The land is zoned New Town and has no designated use, said Harold T. Bernadzikowski, a county planning supervisor.

The land forms a crescent shape around Symphony Woods, which encompasses Merriweather. Rouse owns the concert pavilion and has offered to sell it to the county. The county is preparing to study the feasibility of purchasing the amphitheater and preserving it as a performing arts venue.

Traffic issues

In a memo, Charles F. Dammers, chief of the county's development engineering division, wrote the proposed commercial development "creates a magnitude of traffic" for the area. The traffic study concludes that to handle the traffic, the third southbound lane on Broken Land Parkway at its intersection with Hickory Ridge Road - currently used as a shoulder - should be opened for vehicles.

However, the State Highway Administration reviewed the traffic study and is not recommending the plan for approval. The agency pointed out that even with road improvements, the intersection of Broken Land Parkway and Hickory Ridge Road is expected to reach a "failing level of service."

In January, the Zoning Board turned down Rouse's petition to increase Columbia's density, a proposal that would have resulted in an additional 2,141 residential units. About 1,600 of those units were to be developed behind Merriweather, adding 2,352 residents to Town Center, which now has a population of 4,265.

The company also proposed mixing the residential units with mid- or high-rise mixed-use buildings with 400,000 square feet of office space and 100,000 square feet each for a big-box store and other retail.

`Get their attention'

The Zoning Board was uncomfortable granting the petition without a detailed, comprehensive draft plan of what the development would look like. The board is planning to do an in-depth analysis of Columbia's New Town zoning regulations, which were drafted in the 1960s, and plans to hold public hearings on the review in late summer and early fall.

During the Zoning Board hearings, some board members expressed their opposition to big-box stores, and E. Alexander Adams, a Glenwood attorney who was one of Rouse's primary opponents, said the company can "certainly get their attention by trying to put big-box stores in there."

"I'm sure [Rouse] has not lost its focus, that it wants to get residential zoning for Town Center," he said.

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