Columbia Debates Building Heights

By Susan DeFord
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 20, 2007

Howard residents may display "Choose Civility" messages on car bumpers, but they struggled with the concept during sharp testimony this week about proposed height limits that would affect a planned Columbia high-rise.

About 100 people signed up to testify on two bills during a County Council hearing that began Monday night and was scheduled to reconvene late Tuesday afternoon. At one point Monday, Council Chairman Calvin Ball (D-East Columbia) reminded the audience, "we're all part of the community," but the pointed commentary continued.

The name of Columbia's founder, James Rouse, was invoked by opposing speakers to buttress deeply divergent views.

The legislation, proposed by County Council member Mary Kay Sigaty (D-West Columbia), would set a height limit of 150 feet for Columbia buildings until the downtown's new master plan is adopted by the council. A second bill would require approved projects that are challenged in court to comply with those limits while their cases are under judicial review.

The council is scheduled to vote on the bills Oct. 1.

The legislation stokes the continuing controversy over the Plaza Residences, a 22-story condominium project that would rise 275 feet on a parcel along Little Patuxent Parkway overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi.

After the Planning Board last year approved the 160-unit tower, four opponents unsuccessfully challenged the project before the Board of Appeals. A Howard Circuit Court judge also ruled this summer against the opponents' challenge. The $60 million project has received county building permits, and workers have begun clearing the site.

Monday night, members of the county's business community took turns deriding the legislation, as William Rowe, vice president for Plaza developer WCI Communities Inc. of Reston, watched from a front-row seat.

The legislation is "an end-around to invalidate an already approved project," said William Erskine, an attorney for the Howard Chamber of Commerce. "Process is important in the eyes of the chamber."

Local residential developer Earl Armiger said the proposals amounted to "an awkward attempt to appease a small group of people who would limit what Columbia could be." Columbia founder Rouse "wanted Columbia to be a city, not just a better suburb," Armiger said.

Others said the proposals could have unintended consequences, stifling efforts to expand workforce housing and promote environmentally sensitive development.

"Tall buildings conserve the land. They allow green space and places for people to gather, rather than consuming more of the available land," said Cole Schnorf, a partner at Manekin LLC, a commercial real estate company.

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