Columbia breakthroughs

April 14, 2005

Finally, there's some welcome news for the future of downtown Columbia. Yesterday's Sun carried reports of two related breakthroughs that could foster the creation of a more cohesive and livable town center worthy of America's premier planned town - moves that come none too soon.

First, there's the laudable turnabout by General Growth Properties Inc. - the successor to the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer - in dropping its insistence that its outdoor music theater, Merriweather Post Pavilion, be downsized into a smaller, enclosed arts facility. This paves the way for the unique music venue to be purchased and upgraded by Howard County - as suggested by a county advisory panel only if the pavilion remains open-air.

That sale shouldn't be a given, though. The advisory panel said the county would have to invest a lot of money - $19 million - over the long term to repair and improve Merriweather, so Howard needs a fire-sale price, if not an outright donation, from General. This deal also cannot be struck by the county in a vacuum: There must be a workable plan to address Merriweather parking and pedestrian-access issues that are growing more complex as downtown Columbia approaches final build-out.

All of which brings us to the second, much more important piece of good news: the decision this week by Howard elected officials to fund and take the lead in devising a detailed master plan for all of Columbia's downtown, now a rapidly changing and much too disconnected collection of buildings around the central shopping mall.

The Columbia Association, a homeowners' body, had initiated that planning. But, as we recommended last week, this really has to be the county's job - because it must culminate in the county rewriting Columbia's special zoning to include the downtown master plan. Only then would residents be assured that General and other landowners would finish developing downtown Columbia as a cohesive, pedestrian-friendly mix of places to live, work, shop, eat and have fun - in other words, a true downtown.

The county's next task is to follow through expeditiously. General, downtown Columbia's largest landowner, launched this week its own private planning effort, which some fear is a public relations cover for the company to move ahead with development that may not fulfill the town's larger interests. Only the county can head that off - and foster something remarkable at Columbia's core.

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