Columbia issue at impasse

Parties fail to compromise on height of tower

October 07, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

The dispute continues over the height of a planned 23-story condominium tower in central Columbia after a three-hour meeting failed to produce a compromise, increasing the likelihood that the contentious issue will affect work on the master plan for Town Center redevelopment.

"I think everyone gave it a great try, and we weren't able to come to an agreement," said Barbara Lawson, the recently retired director of the Columbia Foundation, who acted as moderator.

Nearly 20 people from county government, the developers, business and community interests participated in the session Friday morning at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City, and everyone who emerged from the closed meeting reported there was no significant progress. No more meetings were scheduled.

FOR THE RECORD - An article published in Sunday's Howard Sun about the failure to resolve a dispute over the 23-story tower under construction in Columbia incorrectly described Barbara K. Lawson's title and employment status.
She is president and CEO of the Columbia Foundation, and expects to retire from that post later this fall, but no exact date for her departure has been set.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Tower boosters and opponents said after the session that they felt the other side was intransigent.

"I think it's fair to say there's a lot of frustration in the room," County Executive Ken Ulman said as he left after two hours. The Plaza Residences is to rise 275 feet on a small site near Lake Kittamaqundi, with 160 condominiums in 22 stories above one level of retail stores and underground parking.

Tower critics argue that the building will be too tall, overshadowing everything else in Columbia, and should be considered as part of the planning for a major redevelopment of Town Center.

They want General Growth Properties Inc., Columbia's developer, to buy the tower site back to allow it to become part of that planning process. But officials and lawyers for WCI Communities, the tower's developer, argued that they have too much money invested in the project, which is under construction, to back away.

Meeting participants said the firm wants an end to legal action against the project in return for reducing the height to perhaps 18 to 20 stories, but some residents say that is still far too high.

Alan Klein, spokesman for the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown, said he might reluctantly agree to consider a height up to 180 feet, but he said the developers are still in the 210-to-240-foot range. More important, he said, is making the site part of the downtown planning process.

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, whose husband, Lloyd Knowles, walked out to protest the closed-door nature of the meeting, agreed with Ulman.

"I came with the understanding that we were going to consider a possible buyback" of the tower site, but that idea was quickly dismissed by WCI Communities and General Growth Properties, she said.

Douglas M. Godine, senior vice president of General Growth and Columbia's general manager, said, "There's no resolution, and it's a shame," as he left the meeting. Albert H. Small Jr., president of WCI's Mid-Atlantic region, declined to comment.

County Council Chairman Calvin Ball, who attended along with Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, also said the group reached an impasse.

"I think it was unfortunate for the future of the county. This dispute, if it continues, could adversely affect the downtown planning process," said Ball, an east Columbia Democrat. Terrasa, a Kings Contrivance Democrat, declared herself "a ridiculous optimist" at meeting's end, adding that "I still think there's some room for compromise."

The County Council tabled two bills Monday night sponsored by west Columbia Democrat Mary Kay Sigaty that seek to limit the height of buildings in Columbia, including the proposed tower.

The hope that Friday's meeting could lead to a compromise settlement was the major reason Sigaty gave for asking that the vote on her bills be delayed. One measure would impose a temporary 150- foot height limit in Columbia until the county adopts a master plan for redeveloping Town Center. The other would allow new regulations to affect projects already granted building permits and under construction - such as the tower - if the case is still under appeal.

The county's business community strongly opposed both measures, saying they would retroactively affect any project that has gained approval from county government.

Alec Adams, attorney for four residents who have gone to court to try to force the county Board of Appeals to reconsider the issue, said that reducing the 23 stories to 18 would not make much difference. "When you're looking up, can you tell the difference? How can you have a comprehensive downtown plan without this in it?" he asked.

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