When Columbia talks, will the Rouse Co. listen?

That's what dozens of Columbia residents who turned out for two recent meetings about the future of zoning and development in their planned community hope will happen, even as the company prepares for its sale to General Growth Properties Inc., a Chicago-based shopping mall developer.

But in case they can't get a sympathetic ear from the company that over the past 40 years turned 14,000 acres of Howard County farmland into a web of suburban villages, many residents would like to call a temporary halt to development in Columbia's downtown.

During a hearing last Thursday, several residents, including planners, politicians and developers, urged the County Council to let the community take a breather and then play a substantial role in figuring out what happens next.

Although no one can say for sure just how much land remains to be developed in Columbia, the biggest chunks appear to be in Town Center, Columbia's downtown and the commercial heart of Howard County. Among them is the so-called Crescent property, more than 60 tree-shrouded acres next to Merriweather Post Pavilion, the amphitheater that opened in 1967 as part of founder James Rouse's original vision for the community.

On Tuesday, the Howard Planning Board will examine a Rouse proposal to put 1.2 million square feet of commercial and office space on the site, possibly including big box stores. Rouse filed that plan after the Zoning Board rejected its proposal last winter for increased housing density throughout Columbia. That would have permitted Rouse to build 1,600 new housing units in downtown Columbia, mostly on the Crescent site.

The latest plans also need county approval, even though the site is already zoned for commercial development, as part of Howard's "new town zoning" that historically has given Rouse considerable latitude in developing Columbia. The proposal for commercial development on the Crescent site has sparked widespread community concern and given new impetus to council efforts to consider changes in new town zoning.

"We know that the future of Columbia is on everyone's minds," council Chairman Guy Guzzone (D-Southeast County) said at last Thursday's hearing. "We need to really look at the future of Columbia and the future of zoning in Columbia. It has many implications ."

Bridget Mugane, a lawyer who is president of the Howard County Citizens Association, urged county officials to revise the zoning regulations to cap the number of housing units per acre and to retain at least 30 percent open space.

Current development, Mugane said, "is chaotic. . . . The new owner may not necessarily understand the Rouse vision." She was referring to James Rouse's original idea that the planned community would be pedestrian friendly and integrate open space, housing, commerce, schools and the arts in an aesthetically pleasing environment.

Robert Tennenbaum, a Columbia resident who worked with Rouse in the 1960s, called for a master plan for Columbia's Town Center, as well as a professional architectural review process. He said development in downtown Columbia should be halted until such a plan is completed.

"Baltimore has had an architectural review board for 40 years," he said at last Thursday's hearing. "The process has prevented bad architecture, improved good architecture and championed excellent architecture.

"New town zoning is not designed for a mature Columbia. Amending new town zoning is needed now to address problems that [otherwise] will only get worse," he said.

Council member Ken Ulman (D-West Columbia), who grew up in Columbia and is chairman of the Zoning Board, said the hearings last Thursday and Sept. 13 had shown broad community support for a master plan for Columbia's Town Center.

"We have heard loud and clear from the public that they would like to see a more detailed, comprehensive approach to planning in downtown Columbia," Ulman said. "We heard them say that we need to have a master planning process rather than every year adding another project and hoping it all works well together."

Although generally supportive of many ideas proposed at the hearings, council members Allan H. Kittleman (R-West County) and Christopher J. Merdon (R-Northeast County) expressed concern about overregulating and sending a negative message to businesses.

"How do you tell someone you can't do what you want to do with your own business?" Kittleman asked.

No other hearings are scheduled, Ulman said, adding that the council would continue discussing possible approaches.

Rouse Vice President Dennis W. Miller, who is in charge of development in Columbia, said he had no comment on the hearing and would wait to see what legislation, if any, is eventually proposed.