Coalition critiques Columbia plan

Citizens group offers comment, alternatives to General Growth's 30-year plan for downtown

November 02, 2008|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

A month after General Growth Properties submitted its long-awaited plan for redeveloping downtown Columbia, a citizens group offered the first formal public critique of the 82-page document and applications for zoning changes.

The meeting held Wednesday by the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown took place with the possibility of the County Council voting on the plan as early as Dec. 1, which would set in motion a chain of events that would shape life in the city for decades.

"We appreciate many aspects of GGP's plan," Alan Klein, president of the coalition, told a crowd of more than 100 at Slayton House in Wilde Lake village. "But we have a variety of concerns."

Klein and others offered pointed criticisms and alternative plans for downtown.

The two-year-old group accepts the need to redevelop downtown, Klein said, but it wants it carried out in a manner consistent with Columbia's founding principles: affordable housing, sound environmental practices and keeping development "on a human scale."

The group, which has more than 400 members, according to Klein, sees positives in the GGP plan. A series of slides singled out the developer's attention to affordable housing, pedestrian connectivity, building height, arts and culture and the environment.

"There's much to like," he said. "But we do have concerns. ...We don't think what [GGP] is proposing is going to get [us] there."

The discussion at the meeting dealt with several issues:

Zoning: The plan calls for adding 5,500 residences. Klein said the county should increase accountability by granting rezoning in stages, not all at once and up front.

Library: GGP suggests razing Columbia's library to make way for a road - and creating a state-of-the-art facility elsewhere in town that would, it says, offer visitors more interactive experiences. "The first rule of sustainability is 'use what you've got,' " Klein said. "Let's put our good ideas into the library we have."

Phasing: GGP wants to carry out its plan in three 10-year phases. Greg Hamm, the company's regional general manager, says that would echo the vision of James W. Rouse, whose plans for Columbia fit a 30-year span. Klein said that in today's volatile economic environment, the phases should be five years long.

Congestion: GGP called in traffic experts to study this issue, but Klein said its plan "has faulty assumptions," predicting that 5,500 new residences would "overwhelm our street grids."

Symphony Woods: By removing 40 percent of its trees, the plan would "destroy, not restore" this area, Klein said, advocating children's parks and interactive fountains rather than new buildings.

Klein asserted that the General Plan Amendment "is not a plan at all" but rather a guide. If the county approves the zoning amendments GGP has submitted, he argued, citizens would have no way of forcing GGP or subsequent developers to follow through on what it proposes.

"We want [any plan] to be enforceable," he said.

Hamm, who was unable to attend the meeting, said GGP continues to seek and respect the input of concerned citizens, including the coalition.

"From the beginning, we have never assumed we have all the answers," he said.

But he disputed some of Klein's conclusions. He called GGP fully accountable.

"The language in the zoning amendment gives teeth to the General Plan Amendment," he said in an interview. "We see them as very much linked. The notion that there's some kind of sleight-of-hand there is inaccurate."

He also questioned the zoning-in-phases idea. The General Plan Amendment, he said, "front-loaded" as many of the major initiatives as possible.

"We want to do as much of it as we can as soon as we can," Hamm said. "In many respects, that issue is going to resolve itself."

Emily Lincoln, a spokeswoman for Bring Back the Vision, which advocates "a downtown in keeping with the needs of the 21st century," said it would be "bad business" for GGP to allow itself to be saddled with stop-and-start phasing.

"At a certain point, you have to have a long-term plan and get moving," she said.

The speaker at the coalition meeting was Cy Paumier, an urban designer who worked with Rouse in the late 1960s.

Paumier and former partners have helped generate alternative ideas to those in the GGP proposal, especially for the lakefront and Symphony Woods areas, which the Columbia Association owns. While GGP calls for creating some new buildings as high as 10 or 15 stories, he said modern planned communities worldwide have shown that new buildings can inject the vibrancy and style GGP is after without going above five stories.

Paumier also showed artist's conceptions of Symphony Woods. He called the pastoral area just south of Little Patuxent Parkway crucial and advocated its development as user-friendly parkland, not as additional parking for an upgraded Merriweather Post Pavilion.

He also showed slides of a reconceived lakefront area, including more usable and attractive pedestrian access across U.S. 29, more cafe seating near the water and an amphitheater with a terraced lawn.

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