GGP is set to unveil plan for Columbia

Developer to hold meetings to detail vision for Town Center based on county's framework

October 03, 2007|By June Arney | June Arney,Sun reporter

General Growth Properties Inc., the Chicago-based company that controls most of Columbia's downtown real estate, will hold at least a half-dozen meetings with stakeholders on its vision for downtown, a spokesman said yesterday.

That news comes on the heels of the release of a plan titled "Downtown Columbia: A Community Vision" by Howard County government last week, which will feature its own set of public meetings, starting Oct. 10.

"The purpose of our meetings is to present in more detail the vision for Town Center that builds on the framework that the county has presented," said Chuck McMahon, vice president of development for General Growth. "Because the county released an advanced document a year and a half ago, we've had a real head start in analyzing the vision and needs of the community."

The meeting dates have not been decided, but McMahon said he hoped they would begin this month. He said one of the meetings would be open to the general public. General Growth hopes to schedule the meetings so they do not overlap with the public meetings planned by the county, McMahon said.

"We're very pleased with the framework that they've established," he said. "We've got some very ambitious plans that we hope will result in an extraordinary redevelopment effort."

Those meetings will reveal General Growth's ideas on where residences and businesses would be located and how such urban planning elements as streetscapes and public art would be worked into the plan, McMahon said. In the past, General Growth has talked about seeking zoning changes to authorize construction of thousands of housing units, 3 million square feet of commercial offices and construction of 750,000 square feet for retail.

The 51.7-acre crescent, the area next to Merriweather Post Pavilion, is the largest parcel of undeveloped land downtown.

General Growth hopes to submit necessary amendments to the Planning Board and the County Council by year end, McMahon said.

The county's framework report says new development should form well-defined districts within downtown, create a pedestrian-friendly environment and establish height limits appropriate to each district's character.

It advocates building parking garages to reduce or eliminate surface parking lots and recognizing Symphony Woods and Merriweather Post Pavilion as Columbia's "Central Park" area, with the pavilion converted to an indoor-outdoor facility for year-round use.

"We are pleased that Executive Ulman is doing it this way, having the county come up with the framework and having the developers fill in the details with a proposal," said Alan Klein, a spokesman for the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown.

Klein said his organization has not yet fully analyzed the traffic study component to see if there are holes in it.

The county's framework report includes a traffic study that recommends road extensions and intersection improvements and the creation of a countywide transportation management center.

"It really is traffic that's going to decide how many residents are going to fit," he said. "The most important thing for us is that Columbia get back to being designed with a real plan in mind."

Columbia Del. Elizabeth Bobo said she thought the proposed framework contained many good ideas.

"Obviously, we'll see what General Growth comes up with for the plan," she said. "One part that I'm curious about is including Wilde Lake and Oakland Mills in the downtown area. I'm interested in the rationale behind that."

The draft also says that Columbia should include housing for low-, moderate- and middle-income families and that "green" environmental technology should be used where possible.

Creation of Columbia's vision included a weeklong planning charrette held in October 2005, in which hundreds of people discussed the future of Columbia, a planned community of about 100,000 people founded by James W. Rouse. General Growth brought the Rouse Co. in 2004. Columbia celebrated its 40th anniversary this summer.

The release of the framework is the first of three steps outlined in the report. The second step is for General Growth Properties to create a proposal for a master plan and request an amendment to the county's General Plan and petition for necessary amendments to zoning regulations.

Under the final step, proposed amendments will be reviewed by the public and presented to the Planning Board and County Council for action.

The framework includes three key components: amenities, such as interconnected sidewalks, public art and attractive streetscapes; development, both residential and commercial; and transportation improvements that would support all the new amenities.

Grace Kubofcik, a community activist who lives in Ellicott City, said she believes the framework draft covers all the elements that the public wanted to see included.

"General Growth needs to come forward," she said. "I would like to have that as a Thanksgiving gift, but I'll settle for the end of the year."

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