A clear vision of future sought

Skepticism greets meetings to plan downtown Columbia

October 24, 2007|By June Arney | June Arney,sun reporter

With just two of the county's planned public meetings remaining, clarity, scale and skepticism of the vision for Columbia Town Center are on the minds of residents and public officials.

"This is not a clear vision," Michael Cornell, a Columbia Association board member who represents River Hill, said Saturday. "A vision should very clearly paint a picture of what we want our community to look like in 20 or 30 years. If we want to continue to be a model city, we need to be creating some vision."

Cornell's comments came at a presentation by the county's Department of Planning and Zoning to the Columbia Association and village boards held in the George Howard Building.

The county's final two presentations are scheduled tomorrow at Wilde Lake High School and Tuesday at Oakland Mills High School. Both will start at 7 p.m.

Others shared Cornell's concern over the fuzziness of the language in the framework document "Downtown Columbia: A Community Vision," released last month by County Executive Ken Ulman.

"Would have, should have, could have is still all through this document," said Cynthia Coyle, a Columbia Association board member representing Harper's Choice. "I would really like to know if we're going to make a commitment to environmental issues and all these other things. Unless you say, `We're going to do it,' it won't happen."

The language has been left intentionally vague, county officials responded.

"If we say, "It has to be done exactly like this,' we're not going to get anything creative out of this," said Marsha McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning.

Ray Donaldson, a Fulton resident, said the vision's shortage of details leaves room for trouble.

"I don't think GGP can be trusted to do the best for Columbia," he said. "I think they will do the best for GGP." General Growth Properties Inc. is the Chicago-based company that is Columbia's downtown's largest property owner.

But county officials reminded the audience that the economics will have to work to make revitalization possible.

"I hear very loudly and clearly the distrust of developers in general and GGP in particular," McLaughlin said. "Somebody is going to have to pay for all the amenities and infrastructure."

The question of scale also is important in improving the atmosphere downtown, others said.

"Broken Land Parkway is not a pleasant place to walk," said Suzanne Waller, a member of the Town Center Village Board. "Everything is much larger and faster than I am. People need to feel more part of what's going on. I don't have an answer to this, but I would hope you would all be thinking about scale."

Columbia Association board member Evan Coren from Kings Contrivance is worried not only about the proposed location of road extensions but also increased traffic.

"I am concerned about changing the acceptable level of congestion downtown," Coren said. "I don't think this reflects Rouse's idea of good planning."

Residents have until Nov. 16 to offer their thoughts on how to improve Town Center. People can submit comments by e-mail, by letter or in person to the Department of Planning and Zoning.

GGP has said it will hold at least a half-dozen meetings of its own on the downtown vision. Meeting dates have not been announced.

Last week, at the second of the county's six meetings, residents criticized a study that maps out traffic growth because it did not consider the number of people who will travel into Town Center in the future.

The traffic study, done by Sabra, Wang & Associates Inc. projects an additional 3,300 peak-hour vehicle trips in the morning and 4,500 new peak-hour trips in the afternoon by 2014.

Town Center resident Stephen Meskin urged caution in making changes.

"Everyone's trying to create this faux downtown," he said. "I'm not sure we want a downtown that looks like a movie set."

june.arney@baltsun.com

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