Divergence on Columbia

Group's plans for downtown likely to spark debate

March 02, 2007|by a sun reporter

A citizens coalition is proposing a series of steps that diverge profoundly from the county's plan to transform downtown Columbia into an urban center.

The group's recommendations are likely to provoke debate, but they also illustrate the fight that seems unavoidable in the next several months as the public, county officials and developers seek the upper hand in determining the future of downtown.

While embracing development, the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown parts significantly from the county's plan in many respects, and it advocates restrictions that almost certainly will be opposed by developers and perhaps by county officials.

"We were value-driven," says Alan Klein, a founder of the coalition. "We want people to look at those values to see if we can get agreement on them and on the vision" for downtown Columbia.

The group's proposals are contained in a 39-page position paper. The key recommendations include:

Limiting new housing to 1,600 units, an almost 70 percent reduction from the 5,500 units proposed by the county.

Providing a full spectrum of housing, from units for the low-income to the wealthy, but requiring that at least 20 percent of those units be "work force" housing.

Restricting the height of buildings to 150 feet, as well as the number of buildings that could be that tall. Unlike the county, which has recommended a general, but flexible, limitation of 14 stories, the coalition says the number of feet should determine the cap "since `floors' may be constructed with many different heights."

Modest development in the 51.7-acre crescent, the area next to Merriweather Post Pavilion, and the single largest parcel of undeveloped land downtown. In the county's plan, it is earmarked for 2,200 residential units.

Creation of a design review board to analyze all proposed downtown development to ensure compatibility and the best uses for parcels.

Changing zoning regulations to require that site development plans be subject to approval by the Zoning Board, and not only the Planning Board.

Acquisition of Merriweather Post Pavilion by the county, which, in turn, would enter into a long-term contract with a private firm to operate the entertainment facility.

Designating the lakefront area as a historic district, which would include and thus protect the regional headquarters of General Growth Properties Inc., the developer and largest landowner in Columbia, the visitors center, the American City Building and the Teachers Building.

Requiring that buildings be constructed to so-called "green standards" promulgated by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

The coalition advocates requiring developers to finance an array of community improvements, such as spaces for the arts, entertainment and intellectual pursuits, and provide amenities such as bandstands, plazas and fountains.

It proposes a comprehensive traffic study be required before the final master plan for downtown is approved, and it says that road improvements and new streets should be completed within the first three years of the redevelopment process.

"We favor the continuing development of downtown, but there are many models of diverse and vibrant downtowns," the coalition's position paper says. "We offer Georgetown and Annapolis as examples of communities that do not rely on high density to provoke an exciting sense of place. These locations are especially interesting and they exude excitement - even though their skylines rarely exceed four stories. It is important to remind ourselves that [James W.] Rouse's dream was to create the next America, built to a human scale, not another version of existing urban development."

Although there are several potential battlegrounds in fashioning a final plan for the development of the downtown area, none perhaps is more volatile than the question of density, or the number of housing units per acre.

The greater the density, the greater the financial rewards for developers. Millions of dollars - perhaps hundreds of millions - are at stake.

The county's current proposal calls for 5,500 housing units, but that could change when it releases a modified plan.

The pressure to cut that number is intense in some circles. Even County Executive Ken Ulman has called 5,500 units "ludicrous," and indicated he is more comfortable with a figure closer to 1,600, although he has not publicly fixed a figure.

Klein says it is misleading to focus on the difference between the county's figure and the 1,600 units endorsed by the coalition because on the land in question, no residential development is permitted under existing zoning.

"One thing to remember," he says, "is any additional housing in Columbia is over and above what is allowed currently."

But the proponents of 5,500 units are not limited to developers.

Timothy J. Sosinski, a principal with ARIUM Inc., an architectural, engineering and planning firm, says urban areas are supposed to be dense, and the higher the density, the more amenities the community can extract from developers.

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