Debate over 22-story tower focuses on height

Some opponents of Columbia proposal overestimate authority of workshops recommending 20-story limit

December 23, 2005|BY A SUN REPORTER

Precisely how Columbia's Town Center will evolve remains under debate, but two things are becoming clearer: Many residents oppose a planned 22-story tower overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi, and many of those same people appear to have an inflated view of the weight of the recently completed workshops on the future of Columbia's heart.

Opponents of the tower have linked the two issues, and that poses a problem for county officials, especially as they enter an election year when land-use policies seem destined to dominate the debate.

Those on the firing line first are members of the Planning Board, who are volunteers and are appointed. They will make the initial determination of whether the 275-foot-tall residential and retail complex should be approved as proposed or whether significant modifications to the project should be recommended.

Revisions would mean reducing the size of the structure by as few as two stories to perhaps as many as 10.

The developer, Florida-based WCI Communities Inc., is seeking approval of a site development plan to construct the tower - which would be the tallest structure in the county - on 1.46 acres on the northwest side of Little Patuxent Parkway and Wincopin Circle, across from The Mall in Columbia.

The project would include 160 condominium units, a four-level underground parking garage and 10,697 square feet of retail space at ground level.

A key question for the Planning Board is whether it can or should seek height restrictions.

Richard B. Talkin, an attorney for the developer, told the board at a hearing Wednesday that the project complies with county requirements and that any restrictions would therefore be improper and could undermine the economic underpinning of the development.

His client, Talkin said, has "done everything that has been requested of us" by the Department of Planning and Zoning.

WCI has "done an excellent job" in designing the tower, he said, adding, "It's a very, very exciting project that would be a tremendous addition" to Columbia.

The Planning Department has recommended approval of the project.

Critics sought a postponement of Wednesday's hearing, saying there had been insufficient time to study the plan and noting that a county notice of the meeting in The Sun said the board would convene Wednesday night. At least one other notice correctly said the meeting would be in the morning.

No postponement

The Planning Board denied the postponement but agreed to permit members of the public to file written comments through Jan. 6 because of the county's error.

With that battle lost, opponents said, they were worried about parking in the area if the project is built and that the tower would be too tall and would be incompatible with the neighborhood.

At the heart of many of their arguments on height is a proposal that emerged from the county's brainstorming sessions in October on how best to develop downtown Columbia. That process came up with the suggestion that no tower be taller than 20 stories.

Bridget Mugane, representing the Howard County Citizens Association, said the developer "has been sensitive to the parameters of the charrette, except on the number of floors. ... The height should be consistent with the charrette."

She said a 22-story tower would be "too big" and described it as "inhumane."

Ben Kleinberg, a resident of Columbia, said the tower would be "an anomaly" and a "solitary symbol of overdevelopment."

Numerous people testified against the tower as it is proposed. Some said they understood that suggestions from the charrette were not binding, but others said the county is obligated to follow those recommendations.

None opposed the structure outright, and complimented the design of the building.

Linking the tower to the charrette poses at least two problems.

No weight of law

First, the brainstorming sessions in October have no weight of law. Although the county might enact some recommendations from the workshops, it has not done so.

A draft of proposals is not expected to be completed until at least next month, said Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of planning and zoning.

Second, even if officials are hesitant to deviate too far from ideas produced by the charrette, WCI filed its plans for the tower well before the workshops and adhered to zoning regulations, which do not establish height limitations.

"The charrette," Talkin said, "is not a plan" and his client's project therefore should not be subject to proposals that the workshops produced.

The Planning Board is scheduled to consider the developer's site plan Jan. 18.

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