Columbia proposal criticized

The plan for downtown called rushed, incomplete

March 01, 2006|By A SUN REPORTER

A proposal to transform the heart of Columbia into an urban downtown drew polite support in general but also pointed criticism as officials faced the public for the first time with a broad blueprint on how to achieve the plan.

The response was not unexpected, but it may nonetheless force officials to abandon their time schedule for enactment of legislation that is critical for the plan to advance.

Indeed, that schedule was a principal point of contention during a 3 1/2 -hour presentation and discussion Monday night.

Planning officials prefer to submit the plan to the Planning Board in April and the County Council by midyear. But numerous members of the public complained that the process is being rushed.

Alan Klein reflected that consensus when he urged officials to "pull back hard. Whoa! Slow down."

The plan is an outgrowth of a weeklong charrette - or brainstorming session - in October and several meetings of a county-appointed focus group on the future development of downtown Columbia.

The 30-year plan envisions a hybrid of old-town America and new, with promenades, a new but slower road system as well as a network of walkways, more land preserved as open space, parks and community events, small retail shops, an improved transit system and higher density (housing units per acre) by permitting structures in some areas of up to 20 stories.

It would also splinter the downtown area into five districts, each with distinctive characters.

The Department of Planning and Zoning presented its draft at a public forum held at the lakefront Columbia office of General Growth Properties Inc., which acquired the 14,000-acre planned community from the Rouse Co. about two years ago. An estimated 200 people attended.

"We have tried to be faithful to the vision that came out of the charrette," said Steve Lafferty, deputy director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, before the meeting. "We're striving to make it more of a community in which people can get around. Where people can interact with each other ... and be in proximity to other activities."

The draft, he said, "is a broad vision." And while it has undergone several changes, Lafferty said, the department realizes further adjustments will be necessary after reviewing the public's comments and suggestions.

No concern was more prevalent than the speed at which the county is proceeding.

The plan is "flawed in its narrowness of its vision," said Julian Levy. "More time is needed for more [public] input. Let's get it right."

Dorothy Freedman said: "We're being rushed, and I don't see why. ... There is so much we don't know."

The hope of officials to win quick approval of legislation to allow the plan to proceed is based in large part on this year's election. Law prohibits the Zoning Board, which is made up of the five County Council members, from rezoning property after summer during an election year.

But Marsha S. McLaughlin, planning director, said after the meeting that the time schedule might have to be adjusted.

"We have to look at that," she said. "We have to keep answering questions. I'm not suicidal. I don't want to take something to the Planning Board or the Zoning Board that's going to be a big shouting match.

"Either it will happen this summer, or it will happen next year under different council people."

While the pace was widely questioned, several other issues elicited sharp comment. Those for which there appeared to be a consensus included:

Provisions to assure housing for middle- and moderate-income earners, which were dismissed as inadequate. Officials were accused of ignoring low-income families.

The failure to have traffic, road and transit studies completed before the draft report was written.

The absence of specificity on how improvements would be financed and the likely impact on taxpayers.

Concern over escalating housing costs and the resulting effect of Columbia becoming increasingly exclusive were a major theme of the meeting.

The county's plan includes a provision to require developers to set aside 10 percent of all housing units in downtown Columbia for moderate-income families and 5 percent for middle-income earners.

"We're trying to accommodate different housing needs," Lafferty said before the meeting. "Jim Rouse had that as part of his commitment" when he envisioned the creation of the planned community decades ago.

But numerous members of the public said the county's plan would be inadequate.

Resident Sherman Howell criticized officials for ignoring families whose income is even lower - a group, he said, that includes teachers, firefighters, police officers and those working at retail and service businesses.

"No one wants to touch the $34,000 and below [wage earner]," Howell said.

He said the county is promoting an exclusive community and complained that employees will be "unable to live here."

Klein complained: "In all of this focus on moderate- and middle-income housing, what is being lost is a focus, or even a thought, to low-income housing.

"Jim Rouse's view was that those who work in Columbia ought to be able to afford to live in Columbia. We owe him, ourselves and the next generations of Columbians no less."

McLaughlin acknowledged that there are many unanswered questions.

But Lafferty pointed out: "This is a 30-year plan. A lot of people tend to lose sight of that."

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