A downtown re-vision

Ulman releases modified Columbia plan, which falls short for some

December 30, 2007|By June Arney | June Arney,sun reporter

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman has released a slightly modified downtown vision plan -- the final version of the framework document that will guide development of Town Center.

At 58 pages, the document is slightly longer than the original version issued in September, after being tweaked throughout and altered more substantially in six specific areas, county officials said Friday.

"We wanted to let people know that we heard them and that we appreciated their input," said Kimberley Flowers, deputy director of the department of planning and zoning. "We wanted it to be even more reflective of stakeholders' values and desires."

Among the areas in which the county made modifications were: expanding the discussion of green technology, incorporating Jim Rouse's original four objectives in the introduction, identifying Howard County Community College and Howard County General Hospital as civic facilities and amenities and acknowledging the need to have pedestrian connections to them, making reference to a downtown public square, expanding the section on transportation by including a paragraph on the possibility of expanding rail transit into Columbia and including a new chart describing the master planning and zoning process.

The new document, released Friday, also contains more and larger pictures, with labeling of where the pictures were taken, Flowers said.

"It's the same end game," Flowers said. "We're just more specific in some areas. This document has been enhanced based on information we received from stakeholders during the public comment period."

The document, "Downtown Columbia: A Community Vision," was the subject of six public meetings in October in which the community and public officials shared their thoughts and ideas.

General Growth Properties Inc., which controls most of downtown Columbia's real estate, has announced it will reveal its meeting schedule to discuss a plan for downtown development next month.

The developer will create a master plan proposal and request an amendment to the county's General Plan and then petition for necessary amendments to zoning regulations. Proposed amendments then will be reviewed by the public and presented to the Planning Board and County Council for action.

Last month, the Columbia Association board sent a four-page letter to Ulman suggesting that the county's vision be rewritten to specify requirements for developers, identify sources of money for traffic improvements and state clearly how many homes can be built before more public services are needed.

That letter was put together based on ideas expressed by residents at CA's own public hearing about the framework document.

In the letter to Ulman, the Columbia Association also requested that the plan list amenities and services that the developer and county must provide, and address conservation of open space and inclusiveness of all ages and economic levels.

But in a return letter, Ulman told the group that he did not view the framework document as the appropriate place to set specific requirements.

"It is my hope that initially defining our goals as broad visions rather than specific regulations will encourage General Growth Properties to be creative and ambitious in meeting these goals," he wrote in a letter dated Dec. 3.

Columbia Association Board members reacted in a draft response to Ulman: "We are disappointed that you have decided not to make changes in the vision document to include the recommendations that were submitted by our Board."

The Coalition for Columbia's Downtown was also discouraged by Ulman's response to citizen input.

"We were quite disappointed by how Executive Ulman is choosing to handle this," said Alan Klein, a spokesman for the group. "It lets [General Growth] lead the way in too many areas and doesn't give them enough guidance about what the county wants. I was hopeful that he would see that the Columbia Association, as a major player in this, had grave reservations in this and not just say, `That is how we're doing it.'"

The revisions made to the framework didn't go as far as Columbia Association board members and others had hoped, but at least one group thought that Ulman had done a good job.

"I think he remains, and accurately so, married to his plans that GGP will present the specifics," said Emily Lincoln, a spokeswoman for Bring Back the Vision. "He chose to say in abstract vision terms these are things we'd like to see. I think General Growth is going to do a terrific job with this plan."


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