General Growth keeping low profile on plans for Columbia

But Rouse successor has quietly sought input from community

March 02, 2005|By William Wan | William Wan,SUN STAFF

General Growth Properties has kept a low profile since November when it acquired the Rouse Co., which founded Columbia, and its properties. Company executives have declined invitations to speak to local business groups, answered most questions with a "no comment" and spoken only when necessary at public meetings on planning and zoning issues.

But quietly, the company has begun interviewing community leaders to get their input on proposals for developing downtown Columbia.

"In a sense, it's the first time they've reached out since they moved here," said County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat. "It's a positive thing."

General Growth hired Mahan Rykiel Associates, a Baltimore consulting firm, to conduct hourlong interviews last month with a group of community leaders.

Lee Richardson, chairman of the Town Center Village Board, has spent months attending meetings and collecting letters opposing a current General Growth proposal to develop office and retail property downtown. He was surprised by a consultant's telephone call.

"He basically just asked what I thought, so I let it all out," Richardson said.

Richardson and many of those interviewed talked about the need for a more pedestrian-friendly atmosphere, solutions for increased traffic and a mix of housing and business to be built on the undeveloped land next to Merriweather Post Pavilion.

The interviews have many wondering what caused General Growth's apparent change in diplomacy.

Dennis Miller, General Growth's general manager for Columbia, could not be reached for comment. And the consulting firm declined to answer questions, redirecting media questions to Miller.

"I assume it's to convince us that they've got a great vision for downtown," said Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat. "They seem to have come from the point of `No, we won't give any details' to `We understand the need for a plan and we're working on something.'"

Richardson believes the interviews also might be a strategic move for General Growth.

"They may want to come up with a plan before a plan is dropped on them," Richardson said, referring to several existing public deliberations about downtown developments.

The County Council is discussing changing new-town zoning, a set of rules that governs development in Columbia.

And the town's governing body, the Columbia Association, also is planning to hold an intense summit over consecutive days - called a charrette - to come up with a master plan for downtown.

General Growth, however, has refused to participate in the charrette. The recent interviews and refusal to participate have cast doubt for some about the success of holding a charrette.

"If they're not going to be involved," asked Columbia Association board member Tom O'Connor, "how do we know we're not just going to throw a lot of money at something, get people excited about it and not have any positive results?" O'Connor also questioned the secrecy surrounding the association's recent meeting and interview with General Growth representatives.

In January, association board member Jud Malone met with Miller to talk about the charrette. Miller told him General Growth would not participate, but Malone did not tell the board about it until almost two months later - after the board had voted to allocate $125,000 to hold the charrette this year.

Malone declined to comment.

Others who have been interviewed by General Growth's consultant also declined to talk about their meetings. They said they feared being shut out of discussions with General Growth.

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