Group fighting plan for town

Critics say details of Columbia model contradict charrette

October 18, 2006|BY A SUN REPORTER

Claiming that the county has veered too far from the public's wishes, as well as from the principles on which Columbia was founded, a new coalition is planning to fight the current plan to transform the downtown area into an urban center.

The group largely supports the concept of transforming downtown by permitting denser housing and building more commercial and retail outlets and entertainment venues.

The conflict is over the details, and Alan Klein, head of the coalition, promised a vigorous fight over them.

Klein said the county has drifted profoundly from what the general public embraced a year ago during a charrette, or brainstorming session, on the future of downtown development.

At Monday's ceremony announcing formation of the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown, Klein said members intend "to be advocates for the clear values that were so eloquently expressed by the public during the charrette" and work to ensure that the county officials and General Growth Properties Inc., Columbia's developer, adhere to those values.

The ceremony, which took place in front of the statue of The Hug overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi - which symbolizes Columbia's embrace of "all people" - drew about 50 people, including Del. Elizabeth Bobo and County Councilmen Christopher J. Merdon and Ken Ulman, both of whom are running for county executive.

The coalition was formed, Klein said, because "those with real authority have been relatively silent, and so we have realized that it is the citizens who will have to be the standard-bearers for that vision and those values.

"It is our intention to provide a platform from which citizens can speak with one, clear, powerful voice and hold those in authority accountable," he said.

The group faulted the county's current plan on numerous fronts:

Density: While the public expressed support for density of "reasonable proportions," the coalition said the plan advocates 5,500 new housing units downtown - three times more than the Rouse Co. sought two years ago.

General Growth acquired Rouse and its holdings, including Columbia.

Height: The plan endorses a general cap of 14 stories on new construction, though developers could build higher in return for providing public improvements and amenities.

During the charrette, the public sought a maximum of 10 to 12 stories, Klein said.

Housing: The county's plan excludes housing downtown for low-income families, Klein said, in contrast with Columbia founder James W. Rouse's original demand that Columbia be an inclusive city.

"The county's plan tells us that truly affordable, low-income housing in downtown is an impossibility, and that instead we will have to make do with provisions for moderate- and middle-income housing," he said. "That is, for those making $50,000 to $110,000 per year, with nothing for lower-income residents."

Traffic: The county, the group said, has failed to adequately address traffic issues and thus presented a plan that "called for traffic levels which earned a failing grade, according to the standards of the county itself."

The Department of Planning and Zoning has been spearheading the plan for downtown.

It already has revised the plan, in large part because of reactions from the general public and a diverse county-appointed focus group to study future development in downtown Columbia.

Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of Planning and Zoning, has said that another draft should be ready by early next year, and that it will include further refinements.

Klein acknowledged that, and noted that Merdon "has put forth a fairly comprehensive set of principles for guiding downtown's completion."

Nonetheless, Klein criticized elected officials for neglect.

"We wonder ... where our elected officials have been and what guidance, if any, they have provided to those who work, after all, for them and at their behest," said Klein.

Merdon said that the debate over density, which is perhaps the most volatile issue, misses the point.

"I don't have a number," he said after the ceremony.

"It's what the infrastructure can handle. Why are we guessing at the number?" added Merdon.

The number of housing units, he said, should be decided only after determining what would result in gridlock.

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