Columbia to undergo urban transformation

Howard County council OKs bills to overhaul town center

February 02, 2010|By Larry Carson | Baltimore Sun reporter

Columbia, the planned Howard County town known for decades as a national model of rational suburban growth, is now poised for an urban heart transplant.

The legal framework for a three-decade plan to transform central Columbia -- from an auto-dominated, disconnected series of aging buildings and a shopping mall into a lively urban downtown -- was unanimously approved late Monday by the Howard County Council. The votes follow more than 52 hours of formal hearings and work sessions over three months.

The final action on rezoning caps more than five years of often-heated public discussion intended to produce a plan rejuvenating the center of the 43-year-old planned town. The plan calls for up to 5,500 new homes, 4.3 million square feet of office space, 1.25 million square feet of retail stores, and hotels.

"It is our opportunity to make this place for people, to make this place for us," said Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a Democrat who represents the downtown area. "Each and every voice helped shape this," she said.

Many residents who pushed the five council members to approve the plan want the dense, new urban scene that developer General Growth Properties hopes to build. But others fear congestion and oppose the loss of the community's more relaxed ambience.

County Executive Ken Ulman, who had recently called the decision "one of the most significant votes in Howard County history," said he was thrilled that a plan was approved: "After six years of community dialogue and hearing from thousands of people, I'm just really pleased."

For GGP's massive redevelopment plan, the legal framework is contained in two bills: one that changes the county's General Plan, and a second that rewrites zoning regulations. In addition to the housing, offices, stores and hotels, the three-phase plan would include buildings up to 20 stories high and environmental improvements, and require a series of cultural and infrastructure amenities ranging from the renovation of Merriweather Post Pavilion to a potential third interchange connection to U.S. 29.

The idea, GGP officials said, is to fill in The Mall in Columbia's vast parking lots and other unused or underused sections with public plazas, apartments, offices and stores mixed and linked together so the lakefront, Merriweather, the mall and surrounding neighborhoods become integrated into one large, walkable downtown. Despite Columbia's more than four-decade existence, the town center remains its most lightly developed area.

Even with approval of the zoning, no actual construction is expected for at least a few years, after reams of county requirements are satisfied, detailed plans approved and, most importantly, if economic conditions have improved enough to make capital available.

Gregory F. Hamm, GGP's general vice president and Columbia general manager, said the result of Monday's three-hour voting session is "fantastic. I would say by early 2012, subject to market conditions, we should be ready to break ground."

Ulman and other county officials have argued that the recession is the perfect time to plan the future, so the project can get started as an expected influx of federal defense jobs floods Central Maryland. And council leaders were eager to take on the task in September after months of planning board scrutiny, despite calls from some for more study and debate.

Within the redevelopment plan's concept, however, are lots of potential pitfalls and active disagreements among landowners, residents and developers. Will the road network support the increased traffic? Will fractious relations between the Columbia Association and GGP allow renovation of the developer-owned Merriweather Post Pavilion and the homeowners association's wooded park surrounding it? Will 20-story buildings hurt existing residents' quality of life? What about schools, affordable housing, and most important, safeguards to ensure taxpayers aren't hit with huge infrastructure costs if things don't work as planned?

Council members drafted over 50 amendments to deal with all those things, and added a long list of specific cultural and transportation agreements that GGP must follow. Each of the plan's three phases must satisfy a list of requirements before a new phase can start, and failure to complete major things could shut down the project.

Still, some are not satisfied.

Many residents are wary of developers and their promises, though GGP has hired a clutch of world-renowned planners and experts to help craft the plan. And completion of the three-phase plan hinges on major transportation improvements to ease the flow of vehicles in and out of the area.

As the zoning issues moved closer to final County Council action this year, supporters and opponents of the bills stepped up their actions, with many pushing for GGP's plan to fix what most agree is now a somewhat stodgy area adorned with aging, half-empty office buildings while investment moves to newer sections along Interstate 95 or in Maple Lawn farther south.

But critics argued that the process has been rushed, that community safeguards are too few, and that GGP may abandon the project, leaving county taxpayers with huge costs. Rumors of a possible referendum petition campaign to block the plan have also been circulating.

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