Making Columbia a pro-pedestrian town

The aim is to balance wants of walkers and drivers

July 01, 2005|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

As University of Maryland professor Reid Ewing studied the pedestrian friendliness of Columbia's Town Center, he walked around the area for five hours and then compared it to Bethesda -- a suburban downtown known for its walkability.

"In one minute in Bethesda, I passed more [pedestrians] than I did in five hours in Columbia," Ewing told a crowd of Columbia residents who had gathered to hear General Growth Properties' draft plans for pedestrian access and easing traffic congestion as it aims to develop Columbia's urban core.

Ewing's experience shows what most Columbians already know -- Town Center is largely a vehicle-driven suburban center. But General Growth and the county are planning to transform the area into a bustling urban center, which means the town is going to have to become more pedestrian friendly while also attempting to ease traffic congestion.

Creating a balance between the two could be a challenge.

During Ewing's presentation to nearly 400 residents at General Growth's Columbia headquarters Tuesday night, he routinely held up Bethesda as a model of a pedestrian-friendly town and showed how Columbia has a long way to go to get there.

Ewing pointed out that Columbia has a number of barriers that discourage walking -- low residential density, long blocks, wide streets, poorly marked crosswalks, buildings set far back from streets and no benches along the sidewalks.

"It's not walkable, it's very auto-oriented," said Ewing, an associate professor at University of Maryland's National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education. "It reflects the master planning of the time."

But General Growth aims to change that. The company wants to transform Town Center into an urban core connected with roads and walkways while adding shops, homes and a hotel adjacent to Merriweather Post Pavilion.

The crux of the plan is a mix of businesses, homes, parking and open space on a 51.7-acre, crescent-shaped property near Symphony Woods -- Columbia's largest chunk of developable land -- now partially used for amphitheater parking.

One scenario for the site includes a 24-story building, an 18-story building and an eight-story building. That trio could include 704,000 square feet of office space, 148,000 square feet of retail, 1,000 housing units and a 125-room hotel.

The plan calls for 1,852 additional residential units in Town Center's core, bringing that area's population up from 2,699 to 6,600.

If the plan comes to fruition, the company expects the buildout to be completed within 20 to 30 years, said Dennis W. Miller, General Growth's general manager for Columbia.

The plan -- which community leaders and Mahan Rykiel Associates, a Baltimore urban planning and landscape architecture firm, helped create -- addresses many of Ewing's concerns.

Tom McGilloway, an associate principal at Mahan Rykiel, told the crowd that the plan calls for a number of changes aimed at increasing pedestrian access, including shorter street blocks, street-oriented buildings, well-marked crosswalks and additional sidewalks.

But the other piece of the puzzle -- easing traffic -- could work against more pedestrian access.

Marty Wells, president of the traffic consulting firm Wells and Associates, told the audience that to ease expected congestion in the area, lanes could be added at the intersections of Hickory Ridge Road and Broken Land Parkway, as well as at Broken Land Parkway and Little Patuxent Parkway.

But Wells noted that adding lanes is counter to Ewing's suggestion of shorter intersections to encourage walking.

Wells suggested encouraging drivers to use the little-used South Entrance Road to get in and out of Town Center, instead of Broken Land Parkway.

After the meeting, Miller said finding the balance between pedestrian use and traffic will become a public policy issue.

"What are we really going to show priority toward?" he asked. "Is it going to be toward the pedestrians, so we can created a vibrant, walkable community, or is it going to be toward moving vehicles?"

That issue could be dealt with by the county, which also intends to create a master plan for Town Center that will incorporate infrastructure needs and take into consideration all of the land in the urban center.

The process will include a charrette -- an intense design gathering over consecutive days -- with experts, consultants and residents that the county is aiming to hold in September.

County Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, noted after the meeting that there's "an inherent conflict" between the fastest ways to move cars through a town and pedestrian-friendly access.

He said he does not believe that adding more lanes to the already wide streets would be an ideal solution. A strong pedestrian network that encourages people to get out of their cars could help ease traffic, he said.

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