Draft plan emerges from town visions

Weeklong charrette ends with design for downtown Columbia that stretches 30 years into future


At the beginning of the intensive design gathering about the future of Columbia's Town Center, residents were handed pens and paper and told to dream about their visions for the planned community's downtown.

They talked about better pedestrian access, more cultural amenities and a destination park.

Their dreams have been turned into a draft master plan that aims to transform Town Center into a bustling urban environment. And the county and Baltimore firm Design Collective Inc. are working to move that vision - unveiled to a crowd of residents last weekend - a few steps closer to reality.

"I don't want anyone to come away thinking we're done," County Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, said of the process, for which the county set aside $250,000. "The vision emerged, and it was a very specific vision, but codifying this is going to be a lot of work."

Design Collective Inc., which led the weeklong, county-sponsored process known as a charrette, put residents' ideas into a draft plan that looks 30 years into the future.

Though far from final, the plan, which would need approval from the County Council, lays the groundwork for:

An additional 3,500 to 5,000 homes throughout Town Center.

Turning Symphony Woods into a type of Central Park for Columbia.

Improved public transportation and pedestrian walkways intended to generate more foot traffic among busineses and homes.

An ornate civic center on Lake Kittamaqundi offering an open, waterfront vista.

A statue of town founder James W. Rouse at Little Patuxent and Governor Warfield parkways.

"It's starting to look like a real downtown, a vibrant place that hopefully Jim Rouse envisioned," Matthew D'Amico, a principal of Design Collective Inc., told about 200 Columbia residents Saturday at General Growth Properties' Columbia headquarters.

D'Amico showed a number of colorful artists' renderings of what eventually could come to be - a fountain in the middle of Symphony Woods; a grand staircase leading from The Mall in Columbia to Little Patuxent Parkway; people sitting at sidewalk cafes; a civic center with a cupola.

Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the county's Department of Planning and Zoning, cautioned that the draft plan is only the beginning of the process - officials still welcome public comment - and that not everything shown Saturday will be included in the final version.

The county will examine zoning and infrastructure needs and is aiming to have the plan go to the County Council for approval early next year. Even after that, McLaughlin said the plan will continue to evolve.

"No matter how much we refine it, we're never going to get everything nailed down," she said. "It probably is a plan that needs to be revisited ... to see what we're getting right and see what needs to be adjusted."

Much of the land that would be developed is owned by General Growth or by the Columbia Association, so the beginning of construction depends partially on them, McLaughlin said.

"Part of the dialogue over the next couple of months will be who owns what land and who is prepared to move forward on the next steps to achieve the vision," she said.

The draft plan mirrors some of the general ideas and themes in one that General Growth unveiled for its downtown property in May. The development company showed the public its ideas about additional roads and walkways as well as shops, homes and a hotel adjacent to the Merriweather Post Pavilion, which would remain an open-air venue.

The company created its plan after facing staunch opposition in 2003 over its proposal to build homes near Merriweather and enclose the popular concert venue into a year-round theater. That drawn-out community battle was what spurred the county's charrette.

The county's plan has one significant difference from General Growth's ideas, however: the potential to more than double the number of residential units the development company was seeking.

But Ulman said that 5,000 units is only an estimate of what the design team believed the area could absorb, and that the final number would likely be closer to what General Growth was seeking, which was about 1,600 units.

"No one should be scared that the numbers will be anywhere near 5,000," he said. "It's ludicrous to think it would approach anywhere near 5,000."

Dennis W. Miller, General Growth's general manager for Columbia, said he liked what he saw on Saturday and will be participating in the process.

"It's going to create a real unique and special Town Center," Miller said. "And that's the same thing that we've been talking about for a very long time, for over 40 years."

The plan breaks Town Center into different districts and suggests main uses of each district.

The Warfield Triangle, the residential area by The Mall in Columbia, would consist of residences and lifestyle shops, with buildings four to six stories tall.

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