Hoping to win support for a mixed-use development in downtown Columbia, General Growth Properties Inc. is proposing a plan that would make the area more hospitable to walkers and cyclists.
During a second town hall meeting last week, consultants for the company outlined ways to make downtown Columbia pedestrian-friendly by constructing more sidewalks, slowing down traffic through intersections and building stores that face the streets. General Growth Vice President Dennis W. Miller also talked about ways the company would transform Town Center into a more urban environment, with high-rise buildings of up to 250 apartments each and more offices, restaurants and shops, while maintaining some open space.
General Growth's proposal reflects ideas it previously pitched to the community without much success. In contrast to its earlier, more combative approach with county officials, the Chicago-based company, which bought Rouse Co. last year, is now seeking residents' ideas.
"We heard from many individuals that what they wanted to see is a plan for downtown," Miller told the roughly 400 people who attended the June 28 meeting at the company's lakefront headquarters. Among them were several council members, County Executive James N. Robey, Planning Director Marsha L. McLaughlin and other county staff members.
Miller also talked about more parking in garages, rather than in large open lots, and said General Growth wouldn't develop stores with a footprint of more than 65,000 square feet per floor.
One potential problem, which was not addressed during the meeting, is the impact of traffic on pedestrians. Traffic is a problem in downtown Columbia, according to community-generated data presented at a recent county Planning Board review of General Growth's proposed commercial development on the 51-acre Crescent property adjacent to Merriweather Post Pavilion. Slowing it to make the area more pedestrian-friendly could cause further jams.
In many ways, the plans the company outlined last week and during a community meeting last month combine two proposals General Growth has been pushing with county officials. Last year, the Zoning Board took the rare step of rejecting a plan by Rouse to increase the housing density in Columbia so it could build high- and mid-rise apartments and condos on the Crescent property. The same proposed density increase, from 2.35 units per acre to 2.5 units, is part of General Growth's new plan.
Shortly afterward, the company came up with an alternative plan to build a commercial development on the same site, the last large undeveloped chunk of land in downtown Columbia. In the meantime, General Growth has challenged the Zoning Board's rejection of the housing plan, and the case is pending in Howard Circuit Court.
Robey said last week that it's too early to tell about the new mixed-use plan. "But we are moving in a better direction than we were a few years ago," he said.
On Monday, the county's Planning Board will hear a presentation from General Growth. This fall, the county government is planning to hold a charette, or community conversation, about ways to remake downtown Columbia to give it a more urban feel.