Bringing people back downtown

Columbia leaders, residents come together to share ideas about revitalizing the community

October 12, 2007|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN REPORTER

The county's first of six forums to discuss its vision for downtown Columbia drew an enthusiastic crowd anxious to find ways to infuse energy into the community.

Ideas discussed included bringing back paddle boats, making the area more walkable and building a school downtown, as about 75 people joined the Columbia Downtown Focus Group on Wednesday to share ideas on "Downtown Columbia: A Community Vision," which was released last month.

"What it really needs is a word called vibrancy -- an excitement," said Douglas M. Godine, vice president and general manager of Mid-Atlantic operations for General Growth Properties Inc., which became the primary landowner and developer of Columbia with its acquisition of the Rouse Co. in 2004. "People. That is missing in downtown."

Godine talked about the rebirth of Fells Point in Baltimore through new restaurants and businesses once the city realized the potential for that area about 15 years ago.

"You can bring people back to downtown and create a vibrancy, and that's what we plan to do in Town Center," Godine said.

General Growth will hold its own set of at least a half-dozen meetings, with various groups and members of the public on its vision for downtown. Dates have not yet been announced.

"I don't know if we can ever go back to the beginning, but in the beginning there was an energy -- an excitement," said Toby Orenstein, a member of the focus group. "I'm trying to find that energy again."

Making "a special place" is one of five themes around which the Columbia vision is organized -- and one that some speakers found particularly challenging.

"I think a special place is not beige," said Chris Tsien, a focus group member. "I think what we have is beige."

The vision's other themes include: moving and connecting people; sustaining the environment; balancing and phasing growth; and involving everyone.

Several people talked about the importance of being able to walk in the community.

"When I think about the places I've been, the ones I remember most are the places I had half-a-day to walk," said Lee Richardson, a focus group member. "Right now, I live a half-block from Sears, and I mostly drive to it. I'm looking for the day when we have that real walkability downtown, and I feel a part of my hometown."

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.

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 charet held in October 2005, in which hundreds of people discussed the future of Columbia.

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.

During 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

Several speakers injected a note of caution into the dreams for the future.

"I think we have to be honest with ourselves," said Stephen Meskin, who spoke from the audience. "[Columbia founder] Jim Rouse made some mistakes. He didn't get everything he wanted. We have a lot more people here now. When we talk about the Rouse vision, we have to realize we're in a different place."

june.arney@baltsun.com

Additional meetings are planned for:

Oct. 20: Presentation of "Downtown Columbia: A Community Vision" for the Columbia Association and village boards. Banneker Room, George Howard Building, 3430 Courthouse Drive, Ellicott City, 10 a.m. to noon.

Oct. 20: Open house. Banneker Room, George Howard Building, 3430 Courthouse Drive, Ellicott City, 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.

Oct. 25: Open house. Wilde Lake High School, 5460 Trumpeter Road, Columbia, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Oct. 30: Public forum. Oakland Mills High School, 9410 Kilimanjaro Road, Columbia, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

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