Differing views on Town Center

Columbia residents speak out at 6 hearings on redevelopment

November 02, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

Jay Bonstingl looks at Columbia and is pleased by its livability. Caroline Sherman, however, sees "lackluster public spaces" and a need for "vibrancy."

Their sharply differing views came at the last of six public hearings held by Howard County on Town Center redevelopment and illustrated some of the conflicting concerns that officials must weigh as they make plans for Columbia. About 50 people attended, and 24 spoke.

"What drew me to Columbia was not downtown skyscrapers, not vibrancy," said Bonstingl, a longtime resident who came to Oakland Mills High School Tuesday night to have his say. Wolfger Schneider, who moved to Columbia in 1969, agreed that "Manhattanizing downtown" is a bad idea.

Bonstingl said he loved that "I couldn't find a gas station" because covenants required unobtrusive signs. "I see an emerging city I'm not particularly comfortable with," he said.

Others aren't comfortable either, but for different reasons. They said they believe that Columbia needs more housing that working families can afford, better amenities, environmentally friendly structures and added attractions in Town Center.

Sherman, among others, said, "I'm excited about the future and welcome the changes." She said she is not in love with "sentimentalized, dated, mediocre architecture."

More testimony will be accepted in writing until Nov. 16, and the Columbia Association scheduled a hearing for last night.

County planner Bill Mackey said a revised framework for the county's 30-year plan, called "Downtown Columbia: A Community Vision," will be released in late December.

In addition, General Growth Properties Inc., the firm that owns most of the property in Town Center, plans to hold a series of hearings after it reveals its master redevelopment plan, though no dates have been announced.

John Slater, a landscape architect who worked for the Rouse Co., Columbia's original developer, said the community is not finished.

"I came to work to build a city, not a village. If you want a village, go to Vermont," he said at Tuesday's hearing.

General Growth purchased the Rouse Co. in 2004.

Bill Erskine, a lawyer who said he was speaking for himself and the county Chamber of Commerce, said that as a high school student in 1974, he could have never imaged that the Giant Food supermarket in Wilde Lake where his family shopped would one day be obsolete and close.

"If we don't fill in details to ensure the vibrancy in downtown, it may become obsolete in the marketplace," he said.

Already, said Lin Eagen, owner of a title company in Town Center, newer buildings in Gateway, along Route 100 and in Maple Lawn are making those areas the hot new business locations.

"Town Center is becoming a has-been location," full of partly empty, older buildings, she said.

Other speakers wanted to know who would pay for infrastructure improvements to accommodate new streets, plazas and buildings.

When Columbia was founded, Barbara Russell reminded everyone, James W. Rouse had his company provide all the roads, sewers, lakes and public areas without burdening taxpayers. Russell, chairwoman of the Columbia Association board of directors, said she was speaking as an individual.

A group of people attended from the Service Employees International Union and Hae Lin Choi, their spokeswoman, accused General Growth Properties of profiting nationally from property tax cuts and public subsidies.

"General Growth doesn't need public subsidies," she said.

Andre J. De Verneil, who spoke for the Interfaith Coalition for Affordable Housing, said the downtown needs "mixed types" of housing and commercial uses.

"We're talking full spectrum," he said, with housing for low-, middle- and high-income families intertwined with retail businesses and offices.

Sherman Howell, speaking for the African American Coalition, favored the maximum 5,500 housing units that many others oppose as too many.

"It increases the opportunity for people who work here to live here," he said, because the more homes built overall, the more subsidized homes there can be.

In addition, more density means better chances of getting mass transit. State Del. Elizabeth Bobo said state Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari told her that Columbia is not likely to be linked to a Metro Green line extension to Laurel or BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport for up to two decades.

George Barker, a 35-year Columbia resident, said he wants more development. He is an IMBY - In My Back Yard - not a NIMBY, or Not in My Back Yard, he said.

Jud Malone, the final speaker, said "hard choices" are to be made before the County Council adopts changes to Columbia's zoning next year.

He said Howard residents spend too much time driving vehicles rather than walking in Town Center. Adding pedestrians would inevitably produce more congestion, but that is not necessarily bad, he said.

"If you don't want traffic and you don't want congestion, go to Nebraska."


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