Access for the disabled is focus

GGP representative meets with group on Town Center redevelopment

August 31, 2008|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,

When Harriet Fisher's son Jason graduated from Centennial High School in 2000, he could not climb onto the stage at Merriweather Post Pavilion during the procession with his classmates. Jason is a lifelong sufferer of cerebral palsy, and he and his wheelchair had to be brought in separately.

That story surprised Gregory F. Hamm, vice president of General Growth Properties. He assured Fisher, a member of the access committee of county's Commission on Disability Issues, that he is professionally and personally committed to involving the committee in planning for the redevelopment of Town Center.

But he hadn't known about the problem with Merriweather's stage.

"That's not a difficult fix," he said.

Hamm addressed the group of eight people on the access committee who met Wednesday at the county's Gateway Building.

"Accessibility is at the forefront of everything we've done," he said. "Town Center has to work for everybody."

Hamm said he is keenly aware of the issue: His wife has had limited mobility for the past five years because of a chronic illness.

"There is a whole world of people whose lives are severely impacted by the inability to get around," he said.

Hamm invited committee members to participate in the Transportation Management Association, a nonprofit group that General Growth is planning to create as the redevelopment plan progresses.

Hamm also revealed that the first steps in General Growth's 30-year plan might involve restoring and reforesting areas along the Little Patuxent River and around Merriweather, installing paths and extending the current pathway completely around Lake Kittamaqundi.

In addition, GGP would like to replace the three office buildings along Little Patuxent Parkway between Symphony Woods and the J.C. Penney store with a hotel-conference center and perhaps some residential units, if zoning allows. That would help connect the lakefront to the Merriweather area, he said.

The firm's plans also would call for height limits on buildings, he said, though proposals he exhibited still depict several 15- and 20-story structures. Hamm said his firm's request for the necessary rezoning to allow plans to move forward should be submitted to Howard County in the next few weeks.

Sheri Thomas, chairman of the disability commission and co-chairman of the access committee with Joanne Piersall, told Hamm that the group can help him - even save him money - by offering its insights as his firm develops plans for the new, more urban Town Center.

"When we can get involved, we can be very innovative," Thomas said. "The sooner we get involved, the more doesn't have to be redone later."

Thomas pointed to the AMC movie theater behind The Mall in Columbia as an example. Her group worked with the theater chain's officials to achieve disability access to seating, bathrooms and other services.

Piersall said she has found that while a handicapped parking space is nice, she must then often navigate manual door entrances to older shopping areas, something very difficult while using a walker. She and Richard Cohen, who is deaf, asked about having a shuttle bus, a tram or electric carts for people with mobility problems.

Hamm said a man who uses a wheelchair recently showed him how stairways and very steep bicycle ramps without handrails around the lakefront make it difficult, if not impossible, to get around the popular area.

Some things, such as the problem with access to Merriweather's stage, could be easily fixed when the venue is redesigned and renovated, Hamm said. Others, such as the lakefront, are more complicated because the Columbia Association, not General Growth, owns much of the land.

Andre Fontaine, an architect and access committee member, said the group welcomed Hamm's overtures.

"This is the first time we've been presented with a master plan of growth over decades," Fontaine said. "It's an opportunity."

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