Rethinking Columbia With a 'Real Downtown'

A proposal by General Growth would transform Columbia Town Center and make the community more walkable and environmentally friendly.
A proposal by General Growth would transform Columbia Town Center and make the community more walkable and environmentally friendly. (By Eric Hyne)
By Lori Aratani and William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 2, 2008

Developers formally proposed the most ambitious overhaul of downtown Columbia in its history yesterday, hoping to transform the four-decade-old planned community into a collection of modern, walkable, environmentally friendly neighborhoods with a new downtown.

General Growth Properties submitted a plan to Howard County officials that calls for 5,500 new townhouses and apartments and the construction of 1 million square feet of retail space over the next three decades in neighborhoods surrounding Columbia Town Center.

Columbia was created when malls were beginning to dominate U.S. development and shopping. The proposal would be patterned on the expansion of the open-air Merriweather Post Pavilion and the growing trend of developing pedestrian-friendly communities with the construction of tree-lined walkways. Plans also call for more than 600 new hotel rooms.

If approved, it "will bring great value to Columbia and Howard County," said Gregory F. Hamm, regional vice president and general manager of the Chicago-based developer. "The approach we took was really that of a community builder."

General Growth has spent the past three years preparing the proposal and presented it to residents and officials during hundreds of hours of public hearings. Still, the initial reaction from county officials was noncommittal. "We have a tremendous opportunity to shape the future of Columbia," County Executive Ken Ulman (D) said. "I look forward to working with members of the County Council and with the entire community as this public process moves forward."

Howard planners will review the proposal, and the county planning commission will hold hearings before deciding whether to approve necessary zoning changes. The County Council will have final approval, and the process is expected to take up to a year.

Although General Growth wants to begin construction in 2010, national economic problems could delay plans, Hamm said. He declined to put a price on the project but said it was critical to rejuvenating Columbia.

"Without a plan and a process that can shepherd growth in an intelligent way, the revitalization that's needed will not occur," he said.

Some residents told developers during the public hearings that they agree with the need to modernize Columbia, but many are concerned about the proposal's effects on traffic and schools. County Council members have expressed reservations about some parts, including the amount of housing proposed.

"We've seen a lot of attractive artwork and renderings, but the meat is in the zoning regulations, not in pictures of fountains," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo (D-Howard), a former County Council member and county executive. "I want to be very sure this is planned out and planned out well, and I just can't tell yet how it's going to work."

Some community leaders are optimistic about the proposal, though.

"Columbia's has had its first 40 years. What this represents is the beginning of the next 30 years," said Tom O'Connor, chairman of the Columbia Association board, which oversees much of the community's public land. "This plan is going to determine what our community looks like in the future. We've primarily been a bedroom community all these years, and now we would have a real downtown."

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