Columbia High-Rise Approved

The 22-story Plaza Residences building would be the tallest in Columbia.
The 22-story Plaza Residences building would be the tallest in Columbia. (Wci Communities Inc. And Wdg Architecture)
By Susan DeFord
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 19, 2006

Howard County is set for a dramatic addition to its skyline under a plan approved yesterday that paves the way for construction of a 22-story high-rise in Columbia.

The building, which would be the tallest in the county, is designed to bring a grander, more urban look to Columbia with a 275-foot-tall balconied condominium tower soaring above the Mall in Columbia and Lake Kittamaqundi, longtime landmarks.

The Planning Board voted 3 to 1 to approve the Plaza Residences over the opposition of some residents who said it was out of character for the surrounding area.

Greg Tornatore, the board member who voted against the proposal, said the building should be no more than 10 to 15 stories, in keeping with surrounding office and residential buildings.

"It wouldn't be so predominant, overwhelming the rest of the buildings," he said.

The developer, WCI Communities Inc., plans to begin marketing the plaza's 160 units next month and apply for building permits in March, said Anthony F. Albanese, president of the company's mid-Atlantic tower division in Reston. The high-rise, to be built on 1.4 acres along Little Patuxent Parkway near Wincopin Circle, is not subject to approval by the Howard County Council or Zoning Board.

Construction of the $60 million project could begin in June and last for two years, he said.

"I'm happy that Howard County is moving forward with the rebuilding of downtown," Albanese said. "This is all part of the evolution of downtown."

But critics say the plaza mars the vision of Columbia's redevelopment. In October, many residents attending a community-wide planning exercise said that new buildings near Lake Kittamaqundi should be low-rise and that buildings as tall as 20 stories should be farther from the water. But the plaza's development application was under review by planning and zoning officials, and the project received little attention during the exercise, known as a charrette.

Lloyd Knowles, a former member of the council and Planning Board, called the plaza "a sore thumb. I think it's completely out of character with the downtown area."

The Planning Board declined to consider a motion by Knowles and three other opponents to reject WCI Communities' project because the land's commercial zoning was improperly changed in 2002 to permit residential uses. The board said the motion missed its Jan. 6 deadline for public comment. Knowles said opponents may petition the county's Board of Appeals to overturn that decision.

But Albanese said an appeal would not stop WCI from marketing the plaza's upscale units, priced from $500,000 to more than $1 million.

The board also rejected e-mailed requests from residents to limit the building's height. Tammy CitaraManis, chairman of the board, said height limitations should have been set when the property was rezoned in 2002 at the request the Rouse Co., which formerly owned the land.

"I'm not sure I agree at this time that we as a planning board can reach back and say we need to make it lower," she said.

"There should have been height restrictions. The other Planning Board blew it. It's obviously an issue," said board member Linda Dombrowksi.

Some in the audience said the Planning Board should have decided the height matter only after consulting its attorney, who wasn't present for its discussion.

"There's really a lapse of logic that's disappointing," said Bridget R. Mugane, president of the Howard County Citizens Association.

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