With the struggle over how to rezone central Columbia for transformation into an urbanized downtown fast approaching a final Howard County Council vote, the thorny issue of affordable housing remains in dispute.
The two zoning bills, amended with requirements for lower-cost housing and a way to locate a new school if needed, were the subject of a final council public hearing Tuesday night at school board headquarters, but the session was so crowded the council held a second session Wednesday night. The amended legislation now requires 15 percent of new housing be affordable to those with incomes of $80,000 or less, which many speakers supported because it matches current county requirements.
But a group called the Full Spectrum Housing Coalition wants some units available for people making $40,000 or less, and League of Women Voters President Grace Kubofcik told council members that she and others have been negotiating a potential compromise with Ulman administration officials.
"We think you can do more," Kubofcik told the council Tuesday night, adding that she was surprised to learn that night that details of the potential deal had not been shared with council members though fewer than two weeks remain before a final vote. Her group believes people with higher incomes can afford rents unaided in what are expected to be relatively small urban apartments, while lower wage workers without cars need help.
"I'm an optimist and a realist," Kubofcik said, adding that she hopes a deal on a new version of the housing amendment can still be struck.
"If we don't do it now, when will we do it?" asked Tim Sosinski, an architect and another coalition member, who spoke Wednesday night.
But while the Full Spectrum Housing Coalition is pushing for lower-income units, a second group, the Interfaith Coalition for Affordable Housing, wants to add requirements for some so-called "middle-income" people earning from $80,000 to $120,000 a year - something county planners recommended. The council is to discuss the issue again at a work session Monday. A final vote on both bills is scheduled for Feb. 1.
The General Growth Properties plan aims to transform the town center with up to 5,500 new housing units, 4.3 million square feet of commercial and office space, 1.25 million square feet of retail space, hotels, high-rises and new public spaces and streets, creating a more urban style environment.
Testimony at the hearings showed again the division between those who want some redevelopment, but not at the price of Columbia's suburban ambience, and a larger group that yearns for the excitement and attractions of a true city.
"I came here when I was 30 years old with the promise of a Rouse city," said Bob Russell. "I've lived here 35 years with a Rouse suburb." The General Growth Properties plan would bring the city he's been waiting for, he said.
"Columbia, in this 30-year revitalization process, has the opportunity to rise to the cutting edge," said Emily Lincoln, founder of a group called Bring Back the Vision. The two bills, she said, "can end the downward slide of a special city."
Business leaders and other groups such as the New City Alliance and Columbia Tomorrow say growing office vacancies in central Columbia show that a thorough makeover is needed. After more than five years of public debate, waiting any longer is harmful, they argue.
But others, including the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown and the Columbia Association board, say change is needed, but not on such a large scale without sufficient enforceable safeguards.
"The proposed density will overwhelm the infrastructure and impose costs on the taxpayer," said Bridget Mugane, who heads the Howard County Citizens Association.
"Look beyond the allure of short-term gains," said Alan Klein, spokesman for the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown. Stephen Meskin warned that 20-story buildings near his town center home would "blot out the setting sun" he can see each afternoon.
"What brought people here to Columbia to live and work?" asked Jay Bonstingl, a critic of the General Growth Properties plan. "For me, it was the opportunity to live in a socially progressive community where the community's leadership knows what makes a community attractive: good schools, good people, open space, clear vistas, buildings that are on a human scale."
Opponents of the GGP plan say congestion would be intolerable and high-rise buildings would block out the sky.
The two amendments on affordable housing and potential need for a new school are the only ones that would substantially change the bills first introduced in November. That means a public hearing was required on the amended bills under county law. Another 19 smaller changes might be introduced as amendments after the council's work session Monday on the two complex redevelopment zoning bills.