Columbia's future on table

Residents, designers are meeting in a weeklong charrette to create a plan for Town Center's core.


Large sheets of white paper filled with Columbians' visions for Town Center line the hallway leading to the Spear Center at General Growth Properties' downtown headquarters.

Written in red, black, blue and green markers, they list the hopes and concerns residents expressed at the start of the weeklong intensive design gathering that began Saturday and will result in a master development plan for Columbia's downtown.

A few samples:

"We don't want giant office buildings outlining the crescent area - we want award-winning architecture!!!"

"Need place for young adults"

"Columbia needs more culture, restaurants, urban setting"

The design team leading the county-sponsored process, known as a "charrette," were to fold such ideas into a plan that residents could comment on throughout the week and that will turn into a final plan to be revealed Saturday.

It is an unprecedented move for Howard County, and public officials have invited all residents to share their views about the future of downtown Columbia. The pressure is on Baltimore firm Design Collective Inc. to satisfy the residents that their opinions have been heard and considered.

On Monday, Matthew D'Amico, a principal of Design Collective, showed a room of about 150 residents the first draft of what the design team had put together. Some in the audience wanted to know why the draft plan didn't include all the ideas that the residents had come up with at the beginning of the process Saturday.

"I'm very concerned about where the charrette is going and how much influence the people ... are going to have," said Barbara Russell, an Oakland Mills resident who sits on the Columbia Association board of directors, noting that the cultural amenities that residents had expressed were not in the plans.

D'Amico said the design team is considering those aspects and will make a stronger effort to incorporate them into the plan during the week. He and other team members cautioned that the sketches and maps were just a first attempt.

"They're all ideas," D'Amico said. "Nothing is carved in stone."

The meetings are focusing on the 570 acres that make up Town Center's core. Issues being discussed include mixed uses, the feasibility of walking, the balance between pedestrians and cars, diverse and affordable housing, and the environment.

In the first discussion of the plan Monday, ideas for improving road connectivity were: extending Twin Rivers Road to the plaza by The Mall in Columbia; turning Wincopin Circle into a street that reaches South Entrance Road; transforming Little Patuxent Parkway into a pedestrian-friendly street with four lanes, trees and sidewalks.

For the 51.7-acre, crescent-shaped property near Merriweather Post Pavilion, the design team has sketched a loop of 10- to 15-story buildings surrounding the area behind Symphony Woods.

Density disputed

Whether homes should be built on that chunk of land was in dispute Monday night. Some residents welcomed a denser residential Town Center. Others feared that people buying pricey condos on the land would grow annoyed by Merriweather concerts and have enough clout to cause the pavilion to close.

"Eventually, there's going to be enough people who will complain," said Evan Coren, 26, who grew up in Owen Brown and lives in Kings Contrivance. "It's going to be a slippery slope."

D'Amico said it is clear that the community consensus is for the pavilion to remain open-air, and any developer that builds on the area will have to expect that Merriweather is going to stay.

"It creates noise, and it creates noise, D'Amico said. "And we're not going to stop that."

Other residents wanted to know why the planners did not include ideas on connecting Town Center with the villages of Oakland Mills, Owen Brown or Long Reach, explaining that Columbia is a divided community.

D'Amico suggested that the charrette process could be used for future projects to address the rest of Columbia's needs. He said his team has a limited scope and is supposed to focus on Town Center.

"We just can't keep getting bigger and bigger," he said.

On Saturday, the opening day of the charrette, the nearly 300 participants were divided into groups of eight to 10 people, given a few colored markers and a large map of downtown Columbia and told to "dream" about the future of the town.

Accessibility is key

Many of the groups said they would like to see more transportation options to make Town Center more accessible. Ways of making foot travel around downtown safer and more pleasant were also commonly suggested.

"It's not a very walkable place," said Joel H. Broida, a workshop participant. "The pedestrian needs to be protected."

Broida said his group came up with many ideas, including a trolley system, an outdoor market downtown and an arts center near Merriweather.

Other suggestions were developing more mixed-income housing close to downtown, bridges to connect sections of the town separated from downtown by large roads such as U.S. 29 and a convention center to bring in revenue from outside Columbia and provide a place for local events.

Caution expressed

Many groups expressed caution as well as enthusiasm for revitalizing Columbia's core. Many people applauded when one presenter said her group didn't want retail shopping in Columbia to be dominated by "big box" stores.

Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, said downtown will continue to evolve "whether it's planned or just happens.

"People want it to be an exciting urban place, but it's still a suburb. We're trying to get an idea of how urban people want to go," she said.

The charrette will continue today at 6:30 p.m. at General Growth's Spear Center and conclude there at 2 p.m. Saturday. Information: 410-313-2350.

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