Columbia Bill Still Up In The Air

Village Center Redevelopment, Affordable Housing Unresolved

July 19, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

Consensus appears elusive as Howard County Council members prepare for Monday night's public hearing on changes to a complex bill on redevelopment of Columbia's village centers.

After a nearly three-hour work session last week at school board headquarters, issues such as parking, affordable housing and village center boundaries were unresolved, and at least one member appeared uncertain of how the bill addresses basic goals.

No further discussions were scheduled before the 7:30 p.m. hearing. The council is to discuss the bill once more, on July 27, before a vote July 30.

Instead of winnowing a list of issues Monday, the discussion ranged far and wide, mostly because of questions from Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat.

"At this point, we really need to work on the broader issues," she said at the session's start.

She expressed concern that latitude in the redevelopment process that would be created under the bill could hurt laudable qualities of the planned town and requested recommendations from county planners on issues such as affordable housing.

Other council members and planning director Marsha McLaughlin noted that the bill would enable owners of property in village centers to apply directly to the county for zoning changes that would allow major redevelopment such as added housing without going through General Growth Properties. Since Columbia was founded in 1967, such zoning requests had to go through the town's master developer.

At the same time, supporters say, the measure would keep residents better informed about village center redevelopment and enable them to have more say about what is approved.

"It's a flexible vision that could apply to different villages," said Calvin Ball, an East Columbia Democrat who represents Long Reach and Oakland Mills.

"One of the most striking things I've heard is that each village sees itself as an individual. It's important to come up with criteria that can be used for all of them," said council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a West Columbia Democrat whose district includes four of the centers.

McLaughlin said the process would assume the role performed by General Growth and, before that, the Rouse Co., as a gatekeeper for all changes to the neighborhood residential centers.

"It gives the zoning board a tremendous amount of discretion to say 'yes' or 'no,' " she said, warning against setting density and height limits that would then become goals for developers.

"Once you set density, it becomes a kind of target for developers," McLaughlin said.

Watson said she didn't want to see Columbia's retail centers turn into the sort of commercial jumble seen along U.S. 40, for example, in her district.

The issue arose because of the half-empty Wilde Lake Village Center, Columbia's oldest. It is one of six centers owned by Kimco Realty, which initially proposed to demolish it in favor of midrise apartment buildings and some retail convenience stores. Kimco officials now say they are not sure what to do with Wilde Lake until the recession eases.

Wilde Lake residents sharply objected to the first plan, and want the return of a grocery store. The small Giant at Wilde Lake closed in 2006.

The County Council was unable to agree Monday even on whether all village boards should be notified when a center property owner wants to redevelop one.

Greg Fox, a Republican, said that was duplicative and the boards could request information if they want it, but Councilwoman Jen Terrasa strongly supported wide notification.

Terrasa pushed an amendment that would require developers to give village boards at least 60 days to develop their own village center plan before the first community information meeting is held. That would allow residents to come up with a proposal before having to react to a developer's plan, she said.

McLaughlin suggested allowing minor changes in village centers, such as a store expansion, using the current process through General Growth and employing the new process for major redevelopment that introduces a new element, mainly substantial housing.

But that confused Ball. And Watson called it "hypocritical" to keep the old process when the effort had been undertaken to remove General Growth from the gatekeeper's role.

Others said the new process would have many more safeguards for residents and should be used in all cases.

Despite the lack of agreement, at evening's end, Watson declared it a "good discussion." She said members could propose amendments for public comment and a council vote.

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