Howard planners give conditional OK to GGP proposal for Columbia

November 16, 2008|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

Howard County government planners have recommended approval of a proposal to redevelop downtown Columbia - as long as the developer accepts dozens of suggestions.

In a 76-page report, the county's Department of Planning and Zoning praises developer General Growth Properties' ideas as "interesting and innovative." At the same time, the department asks that the company meet certain requirements, such as for affordable housing, before moving to the project's next phase.

"We'll be reviewing the report very carefully and will continue to work with the county and community to bring forth a great plan," said Greg Hamm, GGP's regional vice president and general manager for Columbia.

GGP's proposal - three years in the making and hundreds of pages long - lays out a master plan for what would be the first large-scale makeover in the planned community's three-decade history. The plan calls for more than 5,000 housing units, 1.25 million square feet of new retail space, 5 million square feet of new office space, and a wide array of new cultural amenities, all to be completed in three phases over the next 30 years.

The Howard County Council will ultimately rule on the proposal.

GGP submitted its plan Oct. 4. Since then, the Chicago-based company, the nation's second-largest mall owner, has faced some of the worst financial news in its history. In little more than a year its stock has plunged from $50 a share to less than a dollar, and last week the company warned it might be forced to file for bankruptcy if it can't refinance its debt.

Hamm said Friday that none of GGP's financial woes affect the company's intentions to complete planning for the Columbia project, adding that if county approval is granted GGP will explore "a wide variety of financing options," including the possible addition of partners.

Still, the company's financial difficulties have caused some jitters on the Columbia Association board. At a meeting of the organization's planning committee last week, a proposal that CA cut off negotiations with GGP because of its financial problems was narrowly voted down.

The county Planning and Zoning Department recommended conditional approval of the GGP plan, and of the company's proposed zoning amendment. The amendment would, among other things, alter laws that limit residential density in Howard County, making GGP's vision of a more densely populated but better planned downtown possible.

The staff report, issued Thursday, praised the company for proposing to contribute $5 million toward the creation of affordable housing. But it called for more accountability by dividing the project into six phases, not three, and restricting additional development unless benchmarks on "cultural and other community amenities" and "environmental, affordable-housing and traffic-migration goals" are met.

Citizen watchdog groups, including the 400-member Coalition for Columbia's Downtown, have been calling for such greater accountability.

The report will be distributed to residents, the Howard County Planning Board, and the five-member County Council for review. The Planning Board will hold the first of what will likely be several public hearings on the measures Dec. 11 in Columbia. The County Council can act on them no earlier than mid-January.

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