Company seeks to build public trust in a plan to transform Town Center

General Growth official's task: create a new vision for Columbia

August 30, 2006|By A Sun Reporter

Twelve years had passed since Douglas M. Godine had last seen Columbia. But as he drove along Little Patuxent Parkway a few months ago, he was bothered.

"I thought, `What the heck happened to downtown Columbia?'" he recalls. "It never got developed."

That response might surprise some. After all, there's a hotel, shops, offices and restaurants overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi, and a mall and an assortment of commercial buildings across the street.

But by now, Godine thought, the downtown area would have evolved with higher density, more people and an accrual of cultural and retail venues to serve people living there and to attract others.

That explains, at least in part, why Godine has thrown himself and his new employer so firmly behind the county's concept of transforming downtown Columbia into an urban area.

"We're trying to take the leadership role of producing a concept of what Town Center should be over the next 30 or 40 years, and in that process to make it a much more contributing place to live, to work, to recreate," says Godine, who in April was brought out of retirement by General Growth Properties Inc. to, among other things, oversee Columbia, which was among the properties the Chicago-based company picked up two years ago with its acquisition of The Rouse Co.

Godine has retained two national architectural firms - New York-based Cooper, Robertson & Partners and Sasaki Associates Inc., which has offices in San Francisco and Boston - to review the county's plan to determine "how it relates to the Town Center zone."

There is wide expectation that the county's draft proposal will soon be modified. But Godine knows that helping fashion the details of a final plan is not his biggest task.

There is, he admits, suspicion among many about General Growth's intentions, both short- and long-term.

Those doubts have been voiced by the general public as well as some members of a county-appointed focus group, of which Godine is a member, which is studying the future of downtown Columbia.

At their most basic level, those doubts suggest that GGP is not devoted to the late James W. Rouse's overarching social philosophy of Columbia, and that the company hopes to pocket millions of dollars by developing downtown and afterward might even pull up stakes and leave the community.

Godine, 71, who worked many years with Rouse, acknowledges the suspicions, but insists people are wrong.

"We're trying to create a visionary plan for Town Center, like Jim Rouse did in the early '60s, when there was nothing but vacant farmland," he says. " ... We've got to make this plan conducive to the nature of man. That's very important. That's one of our goals."

Saying that, though, is not the same as having people believe him, Godine says.

"One of the big challenges is to build up trust," he says. "We're a Chicago company who bought Rouse. ... One of my tasks is to build trust that we're a company that's committed not only to creating the vision but to execute the vision that the people of Columbia and Howard County and the governmental legislative process approves."

In addition to Columbia, Godine points out, the company owns three other planned communities - Bridgeland and The Woodlands, both outside of Houston, and Summerlin, near Las Vegas.

That segment, he says, is "a major contributor to the earnings of our company ... [and] the Mid-Atlantic operations of GGP are located right here in Columbia."

The Columbia office also oversees 24 regional malls from North Carolina to Delaware.

Godine acknowledges that some people will never be convinced of the company's good intentions, but says without reservation: "We're staying here. We're here for good. [GGP] wants to grow this office. They don't want to shrink this office, because they see the East Coast as being fertile grounds for future development for mixed-use communities or regional malls."

He also says that the plan for downtown, no matter its final form, will not be GGP-dictated, even though the company controls most of the undeveloped land in Columbia.

That is relative, though. The downtown area is roughly 500 acres, but only about 75 acres are undeveloped, according to the Department of Planning and Zoning. Of those, GGP owns 66 acres.

Godine says the final plan will hinge on the support of elected officials and the public.

"It's not going to happen without the county's approval," he says. "And it really won't happen without the majority of the people accepting new development. ... It's got to be done in unison with the community."

By the public, Godine does not simply mean those people who attended last year's charrette on downtown or the members of the focus group. It is vital, he says, that the process involve younger people, whom he describes as the future of Columbia.

"How do you get to those people and understand what they want? How do you get them involved?" he asks. I don't know. I don't have the answer on how you get to that young group."

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