GGP backing off closed meetings

Developer cancels private discussions on redevelopment of Columbia

December 12, 2007|By June Arney | June Arney,Sun reporter

In full-page newspaper ads depicting closed doors, a union representing about 9,000 janitors and security employees in the Baltimore area recently blasted General Growth Properties Inc. for holding private meetings about redevelopment in Columbia.

The ads, taken out by Service Employees International Union, show a pair of closed doors labeled as "GGP's Columbia Master Plan Meeting," with a sign hanging from the doorknob announcing that the event was "closed to the public."

Chicago-based General Growth, which controls most of Columbia's downtown real estate, has been criticized in recent weeks by community leaders and associations for holding a variety of invitation-only meetings for specialized groups that were not open to the public.

"Closed door meetings may be business as usual for Chicago-based General Growth Properties, but Columbia residents want a say in changes to their town," the ad said.

As part of an announcement of leadership change, General Growth said this week that it was canceling a meeting previously scheduled with Columbia's village boards and managers, and the discussion will instead become part of the public process.

"SEIU has been throwing mud like this all around the country," said James W. Graham, director of public affairs for General Growth. "They look for any issue they can, whether they have to find it or invent it, to embarrass a company. The whole closed-meeting thing has been unfortunate, because we fully intend to participate in an open way. I know we intend to be very open about how we redevelop Columbia."

The issue of private meetings has concerned some community and association leaders. Some, including the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown, have turned down invitations to such events, because they were not open to everyone.

"The whole notion of encouraging elected officials to attend closed-door meetings is playing with fire," said Alan Klein, a spokesman for the coalition. "I'm not surprised, and I'm pleased that SEIU is helping to keep people focused on important issues."

A union spokesman said the discussions should be open to taxpayers and residents. Janitors represented by the union are involved in a labor dispute with GPP and cleaning contractors.

"The process should be open to all stakeholders in the community to plan for a good and prosperous future," said Kevin O'Donnell, a spokesman for SEIU.

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