Letters to the Editor


January 15, 2006

Pictorial fairy tale for Columbia

The current version of the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning (DPZ) plan for downtown Columbia more closely resembles a pictorial fairy tale with a happy ending than a solid planning document that presents a reasonable picture of what can be achieved, given the existing economic and political constraints and social needs. It provides a pastiche of the physically most attractive features of the "New Urbanism" school of town planning, conjuring up a "vibrant" self-contained, downtown community without regard to the ability or inclination of our local and state governments to finance the needed infrastructure improvements (mainly roads and parking structures) or the likelihood of attracting sufficient interest and capital from the private sector to make it work.

How feasible is it to build multitudes of 10- to 20-story buildings (both residential and office) in a community that will lack the population density necessary for the development of dedicated right-of-way transit systems, even assuming these buildings are fully occupied? The existing road system is already choked with traffic. The plan's viability is premised on the bold but dubious assumption that a new "vibrant" downtown Columbia can attract a "critical mass" of residents by competing successfully with a rapidly gentrifying Baltimore, a city with far more cultural and entertainment attractions located only 20 miles to the north. Moreover, this plan overlooks the difficult issues of incorporating the desires of Columbia residents as expressed in the recent charrette for a more pedestrian-oriented environment, more transit availability, and the provision of affordable housing.

The main proponents of this downtown plan, General Growth and Properties (GPP), the huge shopping mall developer that owns the Columbia Mall, and DPZ have asserted that the plan is essential if Columbia is to realize its full potential as the "Next American City" instead of becoming just another bedroom suburb. The pictures on the DPZ Web site are very suggestive of a Bethesda-like setting with a few charming European-style touches thrown in, including fountains and neatly manicured open spaces. This expectation is totally unfounded and even laughable.

The plan's supporters have convinced themselves the projected creation of thousands of new jobs at the National Security Agency at Fort Meade will provide sufficient demand to absorb a large portion of the 5,000 high-end rentals and condo units (exceeding $500,000) targeted toward young highly paid professionals envisioned by the downtown plan. The likelihood that neighboring Anne Arundel County (where Fort Meade is located) will probably also attempt to attract developer interest in housing these employees has apparently not been considered.

Even assuming that such optimism is warranted, could Columbia still realize its potential as a "vibrant" urban center that can "connect people with one another?" Wouldn't the downtown plan have a better chance of satisfying this ambitious goal if more schoolteachers and other employees of Howard County, who may feel more committed to remain in the area, could afford them?

Wouldn't moderate-income families, for whom the plan would reserve only 10% of the housing units, be more likely to use public transit? Would Jim Rouse approve of this strategy, which appears to accord a higher priority to the tenuous prospect of reaping a financial windfall for both the county's and the Columbia Association's coffers than to alleviating a severe affordable-housing deficit? Officials of the Columbia Association have opportunistically jumped on the development bandwagon to support this unrealistic and misguided plan.

The county should attempt to achieve a reasonable balance between commercial interests and the general community rather than relying on appeals to civic pride, platitudes and elegant drawings to convince the community that it is being responsive to its desires as expressed in the charrette. It is providing a major financial reward to GGP by allowing a level of density that would far exceed any other development in the county.

Substantial public spending on infrastructure (parking garages, road modifications, possibly schools) will also be required. What is Howard County receiving to merit such a windfall for the developer, at the risk of having to divert capital funds away from more pressing needs, including school construction and road improvements?

Even if the plan is financially successful, the chief beneficiaries would be the new residents who are able to afford high-end condos and apartments at a choice address, while the rest of the community is forced to subsidize such luxury living arrangements with their tax dollars. A loophole in the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance also creates the potential for a substantial increase in traffic congestion and consequent harm to the environment.

Joel Yesley


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