The conceptual portion of the complex plan to remake Columbia's downtown over the next three decades has won county planning board approval after five months of discussions among the volunteer members.
The board must now tackle changes to the second part of the package - specific zoning regulations that give the policy goals legal force.
The plan calls for up to 5,500 new residential units, 4.3 million square feet of office space, 1.25 million square feet of retail space, new hotels, parking garages, environmental and roadway improvements and new cultural buildings. It would slowly transform the vast parking lots around the Mall in Columbia into a maze of garages, offices, shops and walkways, and tall residential buildings might rise on parking lots for Merriweather Post Pavilion closer to Route 29.
Still, what actually is built and when is more subject to General Growth Properties' financial viability and general economic conditions than to what is in the plan. GGP is in bankruptcy protection, though officials have said that won't interfere with planning the town center's rebirth.
Another key factor could be whether a new interchange with Route 29 near the southern end of Lake Kittamaqundi can be built to help handle increased traffic, and whether such a connection could extend to Oakland Mills east of the highway. The board recommends allowing 5,500 homes only if added infrastructure can support them.
"Kudos for hanging in this long, for everyone," county planning director Marsha McLaughlin said Thursday night after applauding the final vote in a meeting room at the county's temporary offices in Columbia.
Board members said they hope reviewing the zoning regulation amendments won't take as long.
The board's final votes on the General Plan Amendment came after more than nine months of review, hearings and discussion by county planners, residents and the board's members.
GGP, the town's master developer that requested the plans, submitted them to the county Oct. 1. Once the board is completely finished, General Growth will submit legislation to the County Council for final approval, opening the way for final planning and construction if the financing can be arranged.
"I think the hard part was absorbing the volume of material," McLaughlin said.
Once the board makes all its recommendations on the huge 30-year plan, General Growth may still choose which ones to incorporate into the bill submitted for County Council approval.
Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat who has attended most of the board's deliberations, said council members could review and study the materials for a period before any legislation is introduced to give itself more time. The county charter limits the council to a maximum of 95 days between any bill's introduction and a final vote.
Sigaty said she'll likely wait until the entire package is ready for council action before taking it up.
"It would be a real advantage for the county to have both to consider at the same time," she said.
Some who favor GGP's vision have criticized the board's slow pace, though others, wary of developers, have urged caution; and, with a recession under way, they see no need to rush. Last week, GGP itself turned up the pressure for quicker action, issuing an electronic newsletter pointing out that another new urban-style community called Konterra is being planned in Prince George's County only about 15 miles from Columbia.
Much of the board's discussion has been driven by two of its five members, Tammy Citaramanis and Linda Dombrowski, who often question details and individual words as well as major concepts.
Board member Gary Rosenbaum tried to move the discussion along at a meeting Wednesday night.
"I think we're getting caught up on semantics on some of this," he said on a telephone hook-up from his home, where he is recuperating from an illness.
Major changes in GGP's original plan were recommended by the board and by county planners, who last November turned in a 76-page technical staff report.
The project's phases would allow a range of new construction measured by specific progress markers on amenities and infrastructure, not by time. The county also wants a significant amount of the new housing to be for people with household incomes less than about $80,000 a year. The planning board wasn't sure if that should be 25 percent or less.
Another major change to GGP's original plan involves Symphony Woods, which is owned by the Columbia Association. The woods are next to Merriweather Post Pavilion, and CA rejected General Growth's suggestion that several cultural buildings, perhaps including a new central library, be built in the often-deserted area to both fill it with people and connect it to The Mall in Columbia and the office buildings along Little Patuxent Parkway.
A GGP official and several consultants watched the board's discussion Thursday night but had no comment on the board's progress.