Howard County Executive James N. Robey said this week that he is eager to broker a compromise between the county and Rouse Co. over how to develop 51 acres next to Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia's Town Center.
In a proposal filed with the county Planning Department, Rouse has raised the possibility of big-box stores on the site, known as the Crescent property. But Robey said he thinks that's unlikely, even though the land's zoning would allow the standalone chain stores.
"My preference would be mixed use: commercial, with some offices and some residential," Robey (D) said Tuesday in an interview. "I don't see that land next to Merriweather as appropriate for big-box stores. The question is, how does it fit in?"
The executive said the county might renew talks with Rouse about changing zoning regulations to accommodate up to 1,600 new housing units in Columbia's Town Center, a plan the county Zoning Board rejected in January.
"Changing zoning is a possibility," he said.
Robey said he met last week with two top Rouse officials to learn more about the potential impact on the county of the proposed sale of Rouse for $7.2 billion to General Growth Properties, a Chicago-based firm that specializes in shopping malls.
He said he received no assurances about future development plans but said he was told by Alton J. Scavo, executive vice president, and Dennis W. Miller, vice president and general manager of Columbia for Rouse, that the company still wants to sell Merriweather Post Pavilion and plans to give the county first crack at buying the outdoor music venue. A group of county residents, appointed by Robey to examine the purchase of Merriweather, was scheduled to hold its first meeting Tuesday night.
It is "business as usual," Robey said he was told by Rouse officials about the possible sale of the pavilion opened by Rouse in 1967. But he said he received no guarantees about other plans, including the 200 jobs at the company's lakefront headquarters.
Many local officials, including Robey, have speculated that Rouse's community development division, which has been overseeing the final stages of development in Columbia's downtown, might be spun off and sold to another firm. That could affect development of the Crescent site.
Last year, Rouse asked county officials for permission to include housing on the Crescent site, which would require a zoning change. The proposal would have allowed development throughout Columbia to the maximum of 2.5 residential units an acre, instead of the 2.35 units now allowed under special New Town zoning regulations that only affect Columbia.
In January, the county Zoning Board, made up of the five-member County Council, unanimously rejected the Rouse request to increase the housing density for Columbia. Rouse has challenged the decision in a lawsuit it filed against the county. The transcripts of hearings on the topic held by the Zoning Board last year fill 1,000 pages in a binder.
While Robey suggested that the housing density issue could be reexamined by the Zoning Board, he said he wouldn't become directly involved.
"The bottom line is it's not my call. We have a process here, and we don't entrust land use to one person for all of Howard County," he said.
Meanwhile, County Council member Allan H. Kittleman (R-West County) said the county should be wary of making any big changes.
"I can tell you that I am very concerned if we do too much, we are sending a terrible signal to the business community that we are going to change the rules on people or that we don't trust them," he said.
As part of an ongoing look at zoning changes throughout the county, the Zoning Board has scheduled public sessions on Sept. 13 and 23 to discuss Columbia.
And the Planning Board has scheduled a meeting on Oct. 5 to take up Rouse's proposal for up to 1.2 million square feet of retail and office development of the Crescent site. The matter was rescheduled from Sept. 16, which is the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.