Columbia developer agrees to lower-cost housing

January 25, 2009|By Larry Carson

General Growth Properties has agreed to county planners' request to provide 15 percent of new housing in a redeveloped downtown Columbia for people who make $80,000 or less annually, but company leaders are resisting another key county suggestion.

The firm's executives went before the county Planning Board on Thursday evening at Wilde Lake High School to answer questions raised during the company's presentation two weeks ago and to listen to testimony from residents.

"It's all the crossing of i's and the dotting of t's, as you would expect," said Greg Hamm, senior vice president and Columbia general manager for General Growth, Columbia's developer.

Hamm agrees with the county's suggestion of supplying lower-cost housing for limited-income families in the way the county wants. But he has not completely abandoned the idea of charging developers to create a Moderate Income Housing Unit fund that would be administered by a nonprofit. In exchange for increasing the percentage of moderate-income housing from 10 percent to 15 percent, General Growth would eliminate a proposal for 10 percent middle-income housing for people with incomes from $80,000 to $120,000. Another change would reduce the amount of new office space from 5 million to 4.3 million square feet over 30 years.

Hamm said he is committed, however, to finishing the project in three 10-year phases, rather than the six five-year phases that planners want. Hamm said approving plans for a neighborhood at one time should provide the kind of comprehensive approach and controls the county wants.

"Five-year phases simply won't work," he said.

The board will have other specific ideas to sort through.

Alan Klein, spokesman for the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown, prepared testimony that said his group believes the county should take more time to examine the proposal and that General Growth's proposal on housing and development in Symphony Woods is unacceptable. Klein also criticized the proposal for up to 5,500 new homes and what he termed a lack of guarantees that GGP's promises will be kept.

Jud Malone, a former Columbia Association board member who helped found a group called Columbia Tomorrow to push for the changes, wants the homeowners association to turn Symphony Woods over to the county to become a public park. That, Malone said, would eliminate private restrictions on how the area is used and provide more resources for park maintenance and care.

County Council members plan to have joint discussions with Planning Board members before holding their own hearings and voting on zoning changes.

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