Meeting access called flawed

Columbia Association, charrette leader spoke of possible plan to raze lakefront CA building


The county-sponsored, weeklong charrette for the future development of Columbia's Town Center was billed as an all-access pass for residents to be involved with planning the vision for the community's downtown.

But a meeting behind closed doors with the Columbia Association and one of the design team members - during which the idea of tearing down the association's current building was discussed - has some crying foul.

On Thursday, Columbia Association Board Chairman Joshua Feldmark hastily called a meeting of the group with a Design Collective Inc. contract worker to discuss the future of the association's headquarters.

Although it was an open meeting, the board never notified the public or the media.

Feldmark's explanation: "It just happened too quickly."

That's not good enough for Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat and a champion of open meetings.

"That is an unacceptable answer," she said. "That is a completely unacceptable answer."

Although the association is not a government agency covered by the state's open-meetings law, it is covered by the state Homeowners Association Act, which has rules for open meetings.

The association's lease on its downtown lakefront building, which is owned by General Growth Properties, expires in August 2007.

At Thursday's meeting, the design team member talked about the possibility of letting developers compete over buying land for a new headquarters and constructing the building.

At the board's Sunday prebudget workshop, Feldmark said the group agreed to explore such a competition.

Should the association vacate its headquarters, that could lead to the possibility of tearing down its building, which also is home to Clyde's Restaurant and the Tomato Palace.

The design team put such an option into its draft development plan, but it was never discussed during the final meeting of the charrette Saturday in which Design Collective unveiled a draft master plan.

The only clue the public got was an artist's rendering of a set of stairs leading from The Mall in Columbia to Little Patuxent Parkway. A vista on the other side of the street leads to the lake and takes the place of the Columbia Association building.

"I think there is a very distinct attempt to hide that," said board member Barbara Russell, who does not support tearing down the building and who said she believes the board's closed meeting violated the Maryland Homeowners Association Act.

County Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, said the design team felt the building blocked the view of the lake.

But Ulman cautioned that is a decision that would have to be made by the developers.

"No one is talking about Clyde's shutting down," he said.

Dennis Miller, General Growth's general manager for Columbia, said the option of tearing down the building is something that has to be studied. "What you've seen in the plan, that's one option, but there have been no concrete determinations," he said.

Bobo said a consensus emerged during the charrette that the lakefront is the heart of Columbia, and "don't mess with it."

"Then to hold an unannounced meeting and talk about tearing down the building, I think this is really serious, and it's deeply troubling," she said.

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