14-story height limit mulled

County considering the restriction for new construction in downtown Columbia

September 01, 2006|By a sun reporter

Responding to broad public concern, a height limitation of 14 stories for new buildings in downtown Columbia is under consideration by the county.

That has been one of thorniest issues confronting a sweeping proposal to convert downtown into a dense city, and it has become even more contentious with the approval of a 275-foot-tall luxury residential and retail complex overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi, which would be the tallest structure in Howard County and far taller than any in Town Center.

That project, by Florida-based WCI Communities Inc., would be exempt from any height limitation because it has passed through the regulatory process and received county approval.

Whether 14 stories would be an unconditional cap, or simply a general target that could be exceeded in some instances, has not been determined.

There remains the possibility that a final plan might propose the limitation but make it flexible so developers could construct taller buildings in return for public improvements, such as new roads, constructing "green," or environmentally responsible, buildings, and cultural or civic centers, said Elmina J. Hilsenrath, division chief of Environmental and Community Planning.

A draft of the plan for downtown, released to the public in February, had included a limitation of 20 stories.

Hilsenrath acknowledged the sensitivity of the issue by noting that some people "really are very concerned about height," while others advocate no limitations.

"We've been dancing around the issue for many, many months," Hilsenrath told a focus group studying the future development of Town Center. But, she said Wednesday, a computer analysis showed that virtually the entire plan could be achieved by enacting a lower height limitation.

That would permit 5,500 additional housing units, 3 million square feet of new commercial offices and 750,000 square feet for retail.

Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, which is spearheading the downtown plan, said no decisions have been made. "You could lay this out a lot of different ways," she said.

A final plan is not expected to be completed until early next year. But the results of the analysis are certainly an indication of the form the final plan may take. It includes, by district:

Warfield Triangle: 500 housing units, 100,000 square feet of new office space and 300,000 square feet for retail. The height limitation would be six stories, or 80 feet.

Corporate Boulevard: 300 housing units, 2.2 million square feet of commercial offices and 100,000 square feet of retail. A height limitation of 14 stories, or 180 feet, would be imposed in that area.

The Lakefront: 2,200 housing units, 200,000 square feet of new office space and 175,000 square feet for retail. In addition, that area could include 300 hotel rooms or a conference center. A restriction of six stories, or 80 feet, would be enacted.

Columbia Mall: 300 housing units, a prohibition on commercial development, 100,000 square feet for retail, and 125 hotel rooms. A 14-story height limitation would be imposed.

The Crescent: 2,200 housing units, a prohibition on commercial development, 100,000 square feet for retail, and 125 hotel rooms. In addition, Hilsenrath said, the county is considering a new library, school, fire station and community center on the site.

The issue of height divides the focus group.

"Don't give away [to developers] the maximum and then negotiate up," said Alan Klein, principal of Klein Consulting. Klein was asked to sit in for an absent member.

But Timothy J. Sosinski, a principal with ARIUM Inc., an architectural, engineering and planning firm, said greater heights and density than proposed may be appropriate.

The motivation for the plan is twofold. First, there appears to be broad appeal for converting downtown into an urban center, which encourages pedestrian use, civic and cultural activities and offers a wide assortment of retail shops, restaurants and offices. Second, it is viewed as a prime location for growth in a county that is land-starved.

McLaughlin addressed the latter point Wednesday, when she told the focus group that the county's general plan, the blueprint on where and how development should occur, has imposed sharp restrictions on growth in the western, and largely agricultural, region of the county.

"But we don't sprawl everywhere," she said. So the county also has identified several mixed-use developments, in which the greatest density is considered appropriate. Those include Waverly, Turf Valley, Emerson and Maple Lawn, Maryland.

"We're often seen as the bad guys," McLaughlin said, "because we're supporting the general plan."

Downtown Columbia also can accommodate "additional growth," she said. "We're looking at what happens long term. That needs to be the central point of the county's growth."

Despite Wednesday's presentation, several key issues are unresolved. Perhaps the greatest are: Will the traffic generated by the plan result in unacceptable congestion; working out the details of a new road system; and who will pay for the millions of dollars in improvements?

Several focus group members said the plan, in whatever final form it takes, must reflect the vision of the late James W. Rouse, the founder and principal architect of Columbia.

Douglas M. Godine, an executive of General Growth Properties Inc., the primary landowner and developer of Columbia, said, "What you miss is, that vision is here. Jim Rouse's vision is alive everyday. ... Our commitment is to Columbia and to the citizens of Howard County."

Godine said he is confident that the final plan will "make [Columbia] a better place. A place you will enjoy even more."

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