Official, Rouse at odds over big-box retailers

Land near amphitheater is slated for offices, retail


August 12, 2004|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

If the Rouse Co. moves to build a Home Depot or Wal-Mart on land near Merriweather Post Pavilion, at least one Howard County councilman said he will try to block the big-box development.

Howard County Councilman Ken Ulman said he is optimistic the county can work with Rouse on developing the 51-acre, crescent-shaped parcel that includes the parking area for the Columbia amphitheater. But Ulman said that if Rouse insists on building big-box stores, he will submit legislation that would limit the size of retail establishments in Town Center.

"Wal-Marts don't have a place in that community," said Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat. "I'm looking forward to see if the Rouse Company and the county can work together.

"But I haven't lost any of the willingness to be ... tough if need be and introduce legislation if need be," he said.

Rouse plans for the site to include 800,000 square feet of office space and 400,000 square feet of retail space, which could incorporate big-box stores. A traffic impact study prepared for the company assumed the retail space would include a 150,000-square-foot home-improvement superstore and a 150,000-square-foot discount store.

Dennis W. Miller, a Rouse vice president and general manager of Columbia, said those big-box figures were prepared for the purpose of the traffic study, but he said, "Clearly, I have the rights to do all of those things."

Miller said the site has always been identified for commercial use, and that's the option Rouse is pursuing after the county Zoning Board - whose members consist of the County Council - in January denied the company's attempt to add residences to the area.

Rouse sought to increase Columbia's density and planned to add 1,600 residences to the land around Symphony Woods - 40 acres surrounding Merriweather - in an attempt to create an urban atmosphere for Town Center.

Rouse owns Merriweather but has offered to sell it to the county, which is preparing to study the feasibility of buying the amphitheater and preserving it as a performing arts venue.

The company favors turning the amphitheater into an enclosed, year-round theater.

Rouse has appealed the Zoning Board's decision to Howard County Circuit Court, and Miller said he is pursuing the appeal.

"I went through an arduous process in an effort to bring a mixed-use development to Town Center. It was not received nor desired by the Zoning Board," Miller said. "I always had the rights to develop commercial, that's why I'm advancing with the opportunity to develop commercial."

Miller said he believes the commercial development will be a "great economic engine" for the county.

"But on the same note, I believed a mixed-use development would be a great economic engine for the county," he said. "It's just very simple. I asked for mixed-use, they said no, so I'm doing commercial."

Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican, said the council should not try to block Rouse from building big-box stores. Rouse owns the land and has the right to develop it commercially, which could financially benefit the county, he said.

"The Zoning Board could have given them the extra density to pursue those [mixed-use] plans but we decided not to," Kittleman said. "So what do we expect them to do?"

To accommodate the expected traffic spurred by the development, Rouse's plan calls for opening the third southbound lane on Broken Land Parkway at its intersection with Hickory Ridge Road that is now used as a shoulder.

A road would also be constructed to connect Hickory Ridge Road at its intersection with Broken Land Parkway to South Entrance Road.

On Sept. 16, the county Planning Board is scheduled to review Rouse's proposal that asks the county to designate the land for commercial employment center use and open space.

The designation would permit planned office research use, which would allow banks, offices, restaurants and age-restricted housing.

Ulman said Rouse's plans are among the issues that the public can discuss during two forums Sept. 13 and 23 before the council to discuss Columbia's New Town zoning.

The council is conducting an in-depth analysis of Columbia's New Town zoning regulations, which were drafted in the 1960s. The move was spurred by the Zoning Board's denial of Rouse's density request.

Wilde Lake resident Mary Pivar, who objects to Rouse building residences or big-box stores on the site near Merriweather, is not opposed to the area being commercially developed.

But she believes the retail should complement the pavilion and that Rouse should be more creative about what is built there.

"You can go to Wal-Mart anywhere, you can go to a Home Depot anywhere," Pivar said. "[Developing the land] is a chance to do something original and give a signature to Columbia that's more than just a commercial hub."

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