Deal possible on tower

Ulman says compromise would limit height and move high-rise

April 15, 2007|By Gerald P. Merrell | Gerald P. Merrell,sun reporter

In hopes of resolving the bitter fight over the proposed 23-story luxury high-rise in downtown Columbia, a compromise is being considered that would involve building the project elsewhere and reducing its height.

County Executive Ken Ulman said it is vital that a settlement be achieved so that officials and the community can focus on developing a master plan for the growth of the downtown area.

"We're having conversations with all the parties in this to try to get a compromise," Ulman said in an interview Friday in his office. "I want to move past this issue and get on with Town Center."

Ulman's office and Douglas M. Godine, vice president and general manager of Mid-Atlantic operations for General Growth Properties Inc., the principal land owner in Columbia, have been spearheading the settlement talks.

Godine declined to discuss the substance of the talks, but he said, "I feel we're working toward a compromise that will be mutually satisfying to all parties."

Ulman said the key elements of the proposal include:

Moving the site of the tower less than a half-mile from Wincopin Circle, just off Little Patuxent Parkway, to the lower or upper level of what now are parking lots on the south side of GGP's regional headquarters.

Reducing the height of the project from 23 stories to between 23 and 14 stories, but perhaps closer to 18.

Permitting the developer to construct a parking garage at ground level for residents of the tower, instead of the planned four-level underground facility.

Fifteen months ago, the Planning Board approved the site development plan by WCI Communities Inc. to construct The Plaza Residences at Columbia Town Center, a 275-foot-tall tower that would include 160 luxury condominiums and ground-level retail shops.

That decision is being challenged by four county residents, in part because of the height of the building.

But their attorney, E. Alexander Adams, has also claimed that the Planning Board illegally permitted residential uses on the site of the proposed tower because the property was zoned for commercial use and that county regulations "constitute an unlawful delegation" of authority by allowing the Planning Board to determine the height of buildings in downtown Columbia.

The Zoning Board or County Council, Adams contends, must make such decisions. The litigants also claim that the number of residential units approved vastly exceeded what is permitted in downtown Columbia.

The case is before the county Circuit Court.

Adams said Friday that neither Ulman's office nor GGP have contacted him about a settlement.

"I haven't had any discussions with anyone," he said.

But talks have occurred with representatives of WCI and other residents who have objected to the tower, Ulman said.

He said there has been "heightened intensity" in those discussions during the past several days.

There is increased interest in finding a settlement because of the controversy generated by legislation, introduced by Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, aimed at retroactively stopping WCI's project.

Sigaty's bills would amend zoning laws, imposing a height limit of 150 feet, about 14 stories, smaller if the final plan for converting downtown Columbia into an urban center is more restrictive. The other would render any formal decision and order by the Planning Board as "pending" and not final if approval of a project were challenged through the county's regulatory process or the courts.

Godine and many in the business have criticized the legislation and warned that, if enacted, Howard County's business climate would suffer.

The Planning Board is scheduled to hold a hearing on Sigaty's legislation Tuesday night.

Ulman said that the county has retained Cy Paumier, a senior planner for the former The Rouse Co. and a founding partner of LDR International Inc., a land planning consulting firm, to assist in the preparation of a master plan for downtown.

Paumier also has been involved in the settlement talks on the tower.

He characterized the 23-story project as "bigger than most buildings being built in downtown areas." But Paumier said that by moving the project to a larger site and eliminating a few stories, "it wouldn't be quite so visible. I think people could be much more accepting."

Paumier said he believes the new property under consideration would be "a much better site. The tower would not be so much in your face."

It is unclear whether WCI would accept the compromise. Nevertheless, Ulman said he is "optimistic" that a settlement will be reached.

WCI executives could not be reached for comment.

Ulman said he is eager for the county to prepare a master plan to create a "vibrant Town Center" with more density, shopping and entertainment and cultural venues.

But he acknowledged that the effort has "gotten bogged down" by the prolonged dispute over the WCI project.

"My No. 1 focus is to create a positive solution, so we can move on," Ulman said.

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