2 Town Center plans coming

General Growth, county to offer Columbia visions

County plans multi-day charrette

Company to hold multiple sessions involving public

April 13, 2005|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

General Growth Properties and two Howard County councilmen are competing to create master development plans for Columbia's downtown and address the fate of the most debated tract of land in the town -- the 51.7 acres adjacent to the Merriweather Post Pavilion.

General Growth is scheduled to hold three work sessions this week with about a dozen community leaders to put together its plan for Town Center. General Growth held its first meeting yesterday and announced that its plan includes keeping Merriweather as an open-air concert venue.

Councilmen Guy Guzzone and Ken Ulman announced Monday that, at their request, County Executive James N. Robey is including up to $250,000 in the county budget for a community-based master plan to lay out how Columbia's urban center will be developed.

Guzzone said the county process differs from General Growth's because the development company -- which bought the Rouse Co. in November -- can't plan for other property owners in Town Center or plan for infrastructure improvements that the county would have to provide or grant easements for.

The county process will also involve a broader base of public opinion, Guzzone said. The county is planning a charrette -- an intense gathering over consecutive days -- with experts, consultants and residents.

"I think what [General Growth is] doing is good for what they can do," said Guzzone, the council chairman and a North Laurel-Savage Democrat. "But we have to do more to give it the kind of complete legitimacy that I think it's going to need to get the ultimate support of the community and the council."

The desire to create a master plan for Town Center comes after the Rouse Co. submitted plans to develop the crescent-shaped property adjacent to Merriweather that includes the pavilion's parking space.

The county Zoning Board turned down the company's request to increase Columbia's housing density -- which would allow construction of lucrative residential units on the parcel -- in January 2004. When issuing its decision, which the company has appealed, board members spoke about a desire for a more detailed development plan.

The company is also seeking to develop office and retail buildings on the property in a proposal before the county Planning Board. The board has concluded public testimony and is scheduled to meet May 26, when it could rule on the petition.

General Growth's meetings this week come after the company hired the Baltimore consulting firm Mahan Rykiel Associates to interview a group of community leaders in February about Town Center, and many spoke about desires for a more pedestrian-friendly atmosphere, traffic solutions and a mix of housing and business to be built on the undeveloped land next to Merriweather.

At General Growth's meetings -- scheduled for yesterday, today and Friday -- local leaders will work on a draft plan for Town Center that will later be shown to the community, said Dennis Miller, General Growth's general manager for Columbia.

The ideas will be incorporated into a plan, and then another series of three meetings will be held, culminating with a public meeting to gather even more ideas. Miller hopes to schedule the community meeting in May and to have the master plan finished that month.

"It allows this leadership group, which I believe represents the view of the community, to have an opportunity to hone in on something before we can go out and show it to the community at large," Miller said.

"I'm trying to listen to the community; they said they want this, they want more details," Miller said. "I'm trying to show them more details."

The county's process will be open to public opinion from the beginning through the charrette, to be held after July 1.

At the end of the charrette, a master plan will be developed, and the County Council will introduce legislation to create a downtown district in Columbia, covering Little Patuxent Parkway, Governor Warfield Parkway, the land behind Merriweather and possibly extending to Howard Community College.

Guzzone and Ulman hope to have the master plan set by the end of the year, showing in detail how the urban center will be developed -- what type of building should be constructed where and the location of streets, pathways and open space.

The process will also serve as a model for future development plans in the county, possibly eliminating its 10-year cycle of comprehensive rezoning.

Guzzone said he does not know the exact cost of the planning process, but the money in the budget will be used to pay consultants and experts to help develop the plan. The county budget -- which will be introduced Monday and must be approved by the County Council -- will take effect July 1.

Ulman said the community planning process will replace the former, somewhat flawed planning and zoning methods: a developer submits a plan, the community protests it at a number of Planning Board or Zoning Board hearings, and then the losing party appeals.

Under the new process, residents at the charrette can offer their opinions about what should be built before a developer submits a plan, and there should be no surprises about what is built.

"It will defuse a lot of the animosity just by engaging people early," said Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat. "So much of the animosity stems from feeling like you were blindsided."

The county's charrette will take the place of the community gathering that the Columbia Association was attempting to create.

Columbia Association President Maggie J. Brown said she was pleased that the county is taking the lead on the charrette and is proud that the Columbia Association took the initiative to come up with the community meeting idea.

Columbia Association Board Chairman Joshua Feldmark said the association will still be involved in the process, and officials will attend the meeting.

"CA obviously has a huge stake in downtown," he said. "We're still looking out for what's best for the people in Columbia."

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