County's plan to be `basis' for downtown

General Growth won't seek Columbia development beyond current blueprint

April 22, 2007|BY A SUN REPORTER

Although General Growth Properties Inc. is not expected to release its plan to turn downtown Columbia into an urban center until summer, it has made a fundamental decision not to seek development beyond that currently advocated by the county.

The strategy is designed to make it easier to build political and community support by exercising discretion, rather than pushing for everything the company might believe is desirable.

"We're using the county's plan as our basis - that is the foundation which we are working off of," Douglas M. Godine, vice president and general manager of Mid-Atlantic operations for the company, said in an interview. "We are using their numbers."

Assuming GGP does not change its mind, and that is not anticipated, the basic structure of its plan would include:

Seeking zoning changes to authorize construction of 5,500 housing units.

3 million square feet of commercial offices.

Construction of 750,000 square feet for retail.

Development of the lakefront and the crescent, the area next to Merriweather Post Pavilion and the single largest parcel of undeveloped land downtown.

The plan, first expected this month, probably will not be released until August, Godine said. Even then, he said, some aspects of the company's plan might not be final.

Godine said the plan also will include "position papers" on several issues that have generated strong community interest. Among them will be work-force housing, traffic, arts and culture, environmentally responsible, or "green," buildings, open spaces, pedestrian access, the environment and nature.

Some issues are more difficult than others, Godine said. One of them is the area immediately around Lake Kittamaqundi.

While wanting to develop the lakefront, Godine said, it must be done so carefully.

"It is a very important and sensitive area," he said. "It's a real asset. We're developing a program on what should be on the lakefront, but we're not there yet.

"We want to bring culture there, bring restaurants, residential units and some offices and really make it an exciting area. Make a vibrancy that's not here now."

Even more problematical, he said, is providing housing for low-income and moderate-income families. Several organizations and civic leaders have said work-force housing must be a component of any final plan for the development of downtown Columbia.

GGP's plan will include provisions to address that need, but such units typically do not produce a profit for homebuilders, Godine said.

The company is working with Enterprise Community Partners Inc. to determine how best to provide the units.

"The secret to work-force housing is financing," Godine said. "How do you finance it, because it's not a profit generator? It's a very, very difficult thing to understand and get our hands around."

And he cautioned that the company's plan "will not solve the issue. ... Nobody is going to solve it. Not here, not in the country."

A key element of the plan will address traffic and the infrastructure needed to respond to it, he said.

"It's a major issue," he said. "We've got to come up with a plan that says, `If we build this, the roads should be able to handle it.' Obviously there will be more traffic coming in and out."

But the plan probably will not address the village centers, Godine said.

Some people have said that it is vital that the village centers be a central component of the plan because they will be affected by what happens downtown.

Godine, like the county, said the centers pose complex issues that perhaps should be examined separately.

The concept for the village centers was a good one, Godine said, but the retail sector and people's shopping habits have changed radically.

"We're discussing it," he said. "It's a challenge. It's difficult to do."

The county's current plan proposes 5,500 housing units be built downtown, with 2,200 each at the lakefront and the crescent.

However, that plan is scheduled to be revised, and there has been considerable pressure on the county to abandon the idea of authorizing 5,500 units.

County Executive Ken Ulman has said he is more "comfortable" with about 1,600 units overall, although he has not committed himself to a specific figure.

Density is the key to the plan on two levels. First, it takes people to create a vibrant downtown. Second, density determines how much developers can earn and thus give back in the form of community amenities, such as venues for the arts and culture.

Although General Growth Properties is using the county's current figures, it is possible that the company and the Ulman administration might find themselves at odds if the county severely cuts the number of housing units to be permitted downtown.

Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the county Department of Planning and Zoning, said recently that the county's revised plan might be ready by late spring.

Godine said he believes the company's plan will benefit all residents and lure even more to Columbia.

"We'll propose things that make it [downtown] a community, as opposed to just having a big structure - a concrete mall," he said.

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