Downtown plan in question

Traffic study suggests Columbia proposal may be too ambitious


A county-commissioned traffic study warning that downtown Columbia's street network is near capacity calls into question a county plan that would turn downtown Columbia into a bustling urban environment with added homes and businesses.

The study by the Orlando, Fla.-based Glatting Jackson consulting firm also suggests reducing the number of new residential and commercial units planned for Columbia's Town Center -- a vision in sharp contrast to the recommendations that emerged from a county-sponsored community design session in October.

"The study is highly significant, even perhaps shocking," said Bridget Mugane, a Columbia resident and member of the community focus group the county put together for feedback on the plan. "That has tremendous implications for the type of downtown that is feasible."

On Wednesday, the traffic study is scheduled to be presented to a 23-member focus group at The Other Barn in Oakland Mills Village Center.

"We're going to get input from the focus group, then respond to that," said Bill Mackey, the county's planning supervisor.

The county draft development plan -- which was created after a weeklong charrette in October during which residents brainstormed about what they would like to see developed in Town Center -- lays the groundwork for 3,500 to 5,500 more homes.

The 30-year plan also recommends turning Symphony Woods into a kind of Central Park and improving public transportation and pedestrian walkways to generate more foot traffic among businesses and homes.

However, the traffic study states that the plan's street system can support "little growth beyond the existing level of development in the Columbia Town Center."

According to the traffic study, the charrette master plan's street system calls for extending South Entrance Road into Corporate Boulevard at the Mall in Columbia; a new street aligned along Corporate Boulevard that would extend to Broken Land Parkway; a new street near the lakefront that would extend from Little Patuxent Parkway; and a new road behind Merriweather Post Pavilion.

"This system cannot handle the amount of development that's been proposed," said Alex Hekimian, a Columbia resident and traffic engineer who analyzed the traffic study. "And it's going to have a hard time handling much development at all, unless there are a lot of transportation improvements."

To better accommodate the traffic, the study suggests turning South Entrance Road into a full interchange with U.S. 29 and adding lanes at the Governor Warfield Parkway/Little Patuxent Parkway intersection, as well as lanes between that intersection and U.S. 29.

The study also suggests reducing the number of residential units from 5,500 to 3,200. It calls for reducing office space from 5.2 million square feet to no more than 2.55 million square feet and reducing retail space from 750,000 square feet to 425,000 square feet.

Mugane said she is disappointed with the study's conclusion and would like to have seen more density if the road network could support it.

"I think a vibrant downtown will improve our quality of life," Mugane said. "It will be fun; it will make it even more enjoyable to live here for the entire county. But this set some severe limits."

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