Central Columbia renewal plan celebrated

Council OKs 30-year project

critics want referendum

February 03, 2010|By Larry Carson | larry.carson@baltsun.com

Fans of a plan to urbanize central Columbia celebrated Tuesday at the cold, snowy statues of founder James W. Rouse and his brother, Willard, on the frozen shores of Lake Kittamaqundi. The two thick bills creating the zoning for the 30-year project were approved unanimously late Monday night by the five-member Howard County Council.

Supporters of the six-year effort to craft a redevelopment plan feel they've now laid out a path for the 43-year-old nationally known planned town to gradually recover a cutting-edge feel and attract thousands more residents, business owners, visitors and workers to what has slipped into a comfortable but stodgy suburban malaise.

"This is the first day of an exciting new future," David Yungmann told a crowd of about 35 shivering celebrants. "This is what we've been waiting for. This is what we've been working for," though no actual work can likely begin for at least two years.

General Growth Properties' plan allows up to 5,500 new residences, 4.3 million square feet of offices, hotels, 1.25 million square feet of retail, 20-story buildings, a renovated Merriweather Post Pavilion, an affordable-housing program plus cultural, environmental and transit-oriented amenities.

"I feel like doing a happy dance," announced Columbia lawyer Michael Davis.

"It isn't always a pleasant process, but it's the right process and at the end, there are great things in store," Greg Hamm, GGP vice president and Columbia's general manager, told the group.

But at the edge of the crowd stood Mike Berla, a 31-year resident and member of a group called the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown that is critical of the council's action. Berla said he expects to help organize a petition drive to send the issue to the voters in November as a referendum.

"I wish I could animate them," he said, gesturing toward the Rouse statues. "They wouldn't be celebrating."

Berla and others feel the plan is too big for county infrastructure, has too few legal safeguards, and will cause congestion while costing taxpayers millions for roads, sewers and transit programs.

County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a West Columbia Democrat who represents town center and who led much of the council's work over three months to amend the bills, rejected that view.

"Jim Rouse was a shopping center developer," she said. "He would be in the forefront of reading the markets and responding to them."

The council, supported by County Executive Ken Ulman, slogged through 92 separate votes on amendments Monday night before approving both the General Plan Amendment and the Zoning Regulation Amendment bills. Ulman is expected to sign the measures into law by week's end.

"The amendments changed it from a plan to a good plan," said council Chairman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, at the council meeting's end just before midnight Monday. She was particularly happy about a last-minute change creating a $43 million fund for supplying housing for lower-income families.

"These are great next steps for the future of our downtown," said Councilman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat.

If Berla and his supporters want a November ballot referendum, they will have 60 days after the bill is signed to collect the first 2,500 valid signatures, and if successful that far, they'll get 30 days more to obtain the other 2,500.

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