Hearings on tract at an end

Planning Board may be nearing a decision on land near pavilion

April 10, 2005|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

The disposition of the undeveloped land adjacent to Merriweather Post Pavilion may be nearing a conclusion, as the county Planning Board has heard all testimony on General Growth Properties' proposal to build retail and office buildings there.

The public hearings that began in October wrapped up Thursday night, and the board set a work session for May 26, when it could rule on the company's petition to develop the 51.7 acres in downtown Columbia.

However, when the Planning Board does reach a decision, unanswered questions about the land and Merriweather's future may still remain.

General Growth is awaiting a ruling by Howard County Circuit Court Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr. on its appeal of the county Zoning Board's 2004 denial of the company's petition to increase Columbia's housing density. The extra density would allow construction of lucrative residential units on the parcel.

And Howard County Executive James N. Robey is waiting to begin negotiations with General Growth about buying Merriweather after a citizen panel recommended that the county purchase the pavilion and preserve it as an open-air concert venue.

General Growth has maintained that it would sell the pavilion only if it is converted to a smaller, enclosed facility.

On Thursday night, residents asked the board to deny General Growth's petition and spoke about their fears of increased traffic, negative environmental effects and the impact on Merriweather.

Many residents fear the development will lead to the demise of the pavilion, as it would create a loss of about 4,600 on-site parking spaces that are used for the venue. But residents were not allowed to plead for the future of the pavilion because the board has kept discussion focused on the crescent-shaped plot around the concert site.

Frank Martin, an Ellicott City resident, decried that decision Thursday, telling the board, "There is no property more affected by this proposal than the future of Merriweather."

But General Growth attorney Todd Brown said the impact to the concert venue is outside of the scope that the board should be considering. He said it is not the landowner's responsibility to provide parking for a regional concert theater.

General Growth's proposal includes construction of a road cutting through the property to connect Broken Land Parkway and South Entrance Road, a gas station at Broken Land and Hickory Ridge and walkways that would link Howard Community College to the central library.

Justin Carlson, a founder of the grass-roots organization Save Merriweather, told the board he was disappointed that the then-Rouse Co. - before it was bought by General Growth in November - submitted the proposal that he called "questionable and incomplete" and left him "queasy."

"For decades the Rouse Co. had vision and did fantastic things here," Carlson said. "Today, as Columbia enters its redevelopment phase, Rouse no longer exists, and Columbia's complexities warrant a more detailed approach to all of New Town, but especially to its core in Town Center."

Carlson said he fears the development will turn Town Center into a "gridlocked parking lot." He told the board that because he works in Washington and Northern Virginia, he is familiar with congested intersections, and he expects better from Columbia.

"From its inception, Columbia was intentionally designed to be smarter and better than that, to avoid the problems - like snarled traffic - that plague other urban areas," he said.

Martin said he envisions some commercial development on the property - possibly a promenade with restaurants and offices - but he wants Merriweather to remain an open-air venue.

He asked the board to delay a decision until a master plan is developed or a charrette - an intense summit over consecutive days - can be held to addresses the overall development of Columbia's downtown, including any renovations or demolition of older buildings.

Martin urged the board to wait until the "new" Rouse Co. "comes out from behind its closed doors and talks to the county executive, the County Council and the citizens who have to live here after [the company] leaves for the next development opportunity."

Brown told the board that the plan to build commercial structures on the property should not come as a surprise because the property has always been approved for such development. He said the development would allow the company to build shops and restaurants that residents desire and would also economically benefit the county.

Bridget Mugane of Columbia, a lawyer spearheading opposition to the plan, noted the community's strong disfavor - Columbia's 10 village boards oppose it, and only one resident spoke in favor of it.

"The traffic impact, the aesthetic impact will probably mar a downtown for the rest of the lives for those of us sitting here," she said.

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