Bringing town center into focus

Members of the group charged with shaping the future of Columbia's downtown have divergent views

October 15, 2006|By [BY A SUN REPORTER]

The focus group studying the future development of downtown Columbia is widely diverse, ranging from devout environmentalists intent upon preservation to developers equally eager to build. Despite that, the 25-member group has over a year's time moved surprisingly - if slowly - toward broad consensus on the shape Town Center should take.

Perhaps no two members of the focus group illustrate that better than Timothy J. Sosinski, a principal with the architectural, engineering and planning firm ARIUM Inc., and Del. Elizabeth Bobo.

Both support greater density downtown, new venues for the arts and other cultural events, a design that encourages pedestrians and housing that serves all economic classes, from low-income to the wealthy.

They disagree, however, on other issues and on many specifics, as do many others on the panel.

"I so much want to be positive," says Bobo, " ... but I'm finding it difficult."

Says Sosinski: "I think [the county] has kept in the forefront what the community said should be in the plan."

While the broad consensus is an advantage to county officials, the divide is a potential landmine as they put the final touches on a plan to convert downtown into an urban center.

The focus group will not formally endorse any plan, but if the final proposal, expected early next year, fails to balance the divergent views, winning broad public support will be far more difficult.

That support is critical. Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, which is spearheading the plan, acknowledged as much in January when the first draft of the downtown project was released to the public.

"We don't want to force anything on the community that it doesn't want," she said.

Bobo expects vigorous debate once the final plan is revealed. "The community, I think, will be very organized on this," she says. "They will not simply acquiesce to what the county and the developers want."

The plan, as it exists now, would, among other things:

Permit the construction of 5,500 housing units, mostly on property now zoned for commercial uses, including the Crescent, the last large, undeveloped parcel in Columbia and adjacent to the outdoor Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Authorize the construction of 3 million square feet of office buildings.

Allow 750,000 square feet of retail space.

Impose a general, but not an absolute, height limitation of 14 stories.

It is an ambitious 30-year plan that would prompt the most profound changes to Columbia since the planned community was announced more than four decades ago.

The plan is so sweeping that Christopher J. Merdon, the chairman of the County Council, urged recently that it be shelved for a year to give officials and the public more time to weigh the consequences and not rush the deliberations and planning process.

Sosinski and Bobo reflect the divergent views of the focus group as a whole as well as the equilibrium the Department of Planning and Zoning must attempt to achieve.

On two of the most contentious issues - height of new buildings and density - the two have sharply different views.

Sosinski is comfortable with the concept of adding 5,500 housing units downtown and believes the concerns over the height of buildings are misplaced.

"The question is: What do you get in return?" he says. "You tell the developers, `If you want that density, you have to pay for it. You have to give back to the community.'"

Bobo, on the other hand, insists that number of units is excessive and endorses an absolute limit on height.

"I don't know what the right number is," she says. "Maybe it's half that, or 3,000, but 5,500 units is too much."

Expectations vary sharply as well. That is illustrated by the reactions to a document prepared by the Department of Planning and Zoning and submitted recently to the focus group. The panel did not adopt the paper - a summation of the feedback the group has provided over almost a year - but it is important because under the heading of "DPZ response," the department indicates how it is leaning on a number of critical issues.

"I give them an A," Sosinski says, even though he faults the document in a couple of areas. "In general, I think it's terrific. It covered pretty well the broad range of issues."

Bobo, however, criticizes the document as unnecessarily ambiguous. "These responses are very vague," she says. "I think they're going in the direction of being less specific than they were a year ago."

Both fault the department's avoidance of "phasing," or what would initially be built when and where. Nowhere is that question more important than the Crescent.

Sosinski and Bobo side with those who prefer minimal development at first and want the Crescent preserved until much later.

"The development should be infill first," Sosinski says. "Do a little place and see if we like what we get. If we do, then give us another piece of the pie."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.