When is town called urban?

Columbia confronts a future replete with benefits, ills

August 27, 2006|by a sun reporter

One can forgive those who are bewildered and, in some cases, incensed.

After all, the idea of adding 1,600 housing units in downtown Columbia, which sparked controversy and opposition in some quarters and, ultimately, was rejected by the county, has grown to 5,500.

That incongruity is just one of the issues joined to a sweeping proposal to transform Town Center into an urban area.

To be sure, some people believe it is the issue.

"It's all about housing," says Del. Elizabeth Bobo, who is also a member of a focus group studying the future of downtown. "The other stuff they can do already."

To others, the principal question is not how much additional housing but what the community receives in return.

"I'm comfortable with greater density as long as the proper tradeoffs are made," says Alan Klein, principal of Klein Consulting, who has attended most of the focus group meetings even though he is not a member. "Things like the developer paying for more affordable housing opportunities. An agreement that the development would be to green building standards. And set-asides and resources - money and land - for cultural and other artistic purposes.

"When Jim Rouse came in and had his vision, it was for a complete city and a city with certain values. Those values must be retained."

While the level of density and community improvements loom as large issues, they are hardly the only hurdles confronting officials as they proceed toward a final plan to turn downtown into a vibrant area. Among the others are:

Convincing the public that last year's charrette, which was the seedling of the downtown plan, was not, as many people now believe, a "charade."

Ensuring that the plan, in whatever final form it takes, represents not only the will of county officials but of all segments of the public.

Making sure the expected increase in traffic is not so extraordinary that gridlock becomes a part of the public's daily lifestyle.

Imposing height restrictions to prevent buildings from completely altering the character of downtown, such as many fear a planned 23-story luxury residential and retail tower overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi will do.

Having sufficient safeguards to ensure that General Growth Properties Inc., which acquired most of Columbia with its acquisition of the Rouse Co., will be an honorable steward of the community and not just the recipient of millions of dollars in additional revenue.

The plan for downtown is so sweeping that many people say its impact will be the most profound since the origins of Columbia more than four decades ago.

"The only question is: Are we going to be really good or excellent?" says Timothy J. Sosinski, another member of the focus group and a principal with ARIUM Inc., an architectural, engineering and planning firm. "If we can't do something spectacular, shame on us."

Marsha S. McLaughlin, the director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, which is spearheading the downtown plan, acknowledges she is engaged in a delicate balancing act.

"The question is whether we can come up with a big vision that is worthy of Jim Rouse and that will carry us into the future, or do we hang on to the '60s and '70s?" she says.

That said, growth is both necessary and inevitable, she says. "You can't just say we don't want any more housing," McLaughlin says.

In land-starved Howard County, there are only three areas that can accommodate significant growth: the rural region in the west, along the U.S. 1 corridor and downtown Columbia.

The first option is widely perceived to be off-limits. The west is the focus of the county's land-preservation efforts, and to prevent large developments there the county has drawn a seemingly inflexible boundary against extension of public and water and sewage.

The county's efforts are not driven simply by the desire for continued growth, though. Indeed, one impetus is the belief that downtown Columbia should evolve from an almost pastoral setting to a busy city, not unlike many parts of Europe, where people walk to work and to shop, and where there is high density, small shops and a thriving nightlife and cultural environment.

The key to achieving that is density, or the number of housing units per acre. And while there has been some support for that at both the charrette last October and in the focus group, there is wide disparity in what constitutes too many housing units.

Some, like Sosinski, do not object to the concept of adding 5,500 units downtown. "Density per se isn't the bogeyman," he says.

But many others are both confused and shocked at the prospect of that many new housing units. "I don't know where that figure came from," says Bobo. "The plan does not reflect what the 300-some people said on the first day of the charrette."

The public that day generally embraced more development downtown, but with low density and more cultural amenities, designed to encourage pedestrians and public transportation, Bobo says.

McLaughlin does not dispute that characterization.

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