Central issues

Many questions still unanswered on changes to Columbia's hub

July 18, 2008|By Elizabeth Bobo

Last week, nearly three years after Howard County government sponsored a public forum to allow the community to express its views about development in Town Center, General Growth Properties offered what it called the final public presentation prior to submission of its proposal to county government for approval. The company showed many attractive photos and renderings - fountains and squares, outdoor restaurants and cafes, cultural and recreational areas. And yet, many crucial questions, some of which were presented by the community more than 2 1/2 years ago, remain unanswered.

* Schools. Where are the sites for the schools necessary to serve the 5,500 proposed new residential units, some of which were labeled during last week's presentation as "family residential"? What are the pupil-population projections of the county government and Department of Education? The existing Columbia villages of Wilde Lake and Oakland Mills combined have fewer than 5,500 residential units, and jointly contain five elementary schools, two middle schools and two high schools. Town Center will likely have fewer school-age residents, though with the promise of a significant amount of work-force housing, it should certainly have a considerable number.

* Affordable housing . What will be the amount and cost of the moderately priced housing termed "work force" that the community has called for so strongly?

* Traffic. How will the traffic from 5,500 units and likely 10,000 new residents, approximately 1 million square feet of retail space and 5 million square feet of new offices be accommodated?

* Planning and Zoning. When will the county government fulfill the planning responsibilities assigned to it in the county charter, and when will we learn the specifics of the zoning process it intends to use?

* Phasing. What guarantees will be given to the people that the development will proceed in a balanced fashion, phasing in residential, retail and commercial with amenities for the community and clear targets relating to the environment, traffic, and other quality-of-life indicators?

* Community benefit. What do the people of Columbia and Howard County get in return for a tremendous increase in value to the land owner from the rezoning process?

* Amenities. Will amenities like a cultural center and open spaces be required up front, and who will pay for them?

* Environment. How can the removal of about two-fifths of the trees in Symphony Woods in order to accommodate buildings be reconciled with the current emphasis on "green"? Has the Columbia Association, which owns this land, agreed to this?

* Infrastructure. Who will pay for the necessary infrastructure of roads, water, sewer, stormwater management, and parking facilities? Forty years ago, at Columbia's inception, the Rouse Co. paid for all of this infrastructure and additionally donated land for more than 20 schools, fire stations, and 35 percent of the new town's considerable open space.

* Design excellence. Finally, given the distinguished planning team hired by General Growth more than a year ago, there is great anticipation in the community of bold, creative public spaces like those that have won many awards for these companies. Where are the grand designs that excite the spirit and capture the soul, becoming material for textbooks to train future architects and planners? Columbia, Mr. Rouse's "next America" and arguably the most successful new town in the world, is a perfect home for them.

Some have labeled those who raise these questions as anti-growth and afraid of change. Looking around at the many examples of development gone awry, I call these voices wise. We must realize that as much as Town Center can be improved through well-planned and well-executed development, it could also be seriously damaged by poor planning. In Columbia's Town Center we have the opportunity to plan thoroughly and well, and we have the responsibility to do so as a model others can follow.

General Growth has clearly put much effort into its proposals. In doing so, it has also reopened to the public the beautiful Spear Center in its building overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi. I am grateful for this. Now, we need a plan for the first five years of development that could be well monitored from a social, environmental and economic perspective.

There has been much discussion, and some disagreement, in Columbia of late about who represents our beloved Jim Rouse's vision. One of his many meaningful quotations comes to mind now: "What ought to be, can be, with the will to make it so."

Smart answers to the questions above can "make it so" for Town Center if we neighbors and friends work together respectfully for our community to be a model of inclusion and excellence.

Del. Elizabeth Bobo represents Howard County in the Maryland General Assembly. Her e-mail is elizabeth.bobo@house.state.md.us.

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