Howard County officials are moving forward with plans for an intensive series of community workshops this fall expected to culminate in a final design for Columbia's Town Center.

Calling the task a "unique opportunity," County Executive James N. Robey named a Baltimore architectural and urban planning firm, Design Collective Inc., last week to conduct a five- to seven-day participatory design process known as a charrette.

The French word is often used to describe the intense work conducted by students in finishing art and architecture projects. But in Howard County, the public will be invited to the charrette to focus on land use for the 570 acres that make up the core of Columbia's Town Center.

The area includes the Mall in Columbia as well as the commercial and residential areas near Lake Kittamaqundi. Central to the charrette's mission, however, will be the use of a 51.7 -acre tract next to Merriweather Post Pavilion known as the Crescent property. It is the largest parcel of undeveloped land in Town Center.

The county plans to conduct the charrette between the end of September and the middle of October, said William Mackey, a planning supervisor in the county Department of Planning and Zoning.

The charrette is expected to open with a presentation, conducted by a team from Design Collective, that will outline the scope of the project. During the following days, participants will divide into groups to explore and develop possibilities for commercial, residential and public space in Town Center.

"It will be a roomful of many, many ideas and plans," Mackey said.

By the end of the process, the design consultants are expected to consolidate the various visions into a single master plan, which will be presented to the county planning board and council for consideration.

"They can decide where to take it from there," Mackey said.

County officials have been thinking about the future of the tract for months. The owner of the site, General Growth Properties Inc., has proposed a plan that would transform Town Center into a more urban environment, with high-rise apartment buildings, offices, shops and restaurants. Open spaces and sidewalks would also be part of the plan. Other visions for the area are expected to be interwoven into the county's master plan.

"General Growth has done some important ground work. They will bring it to the table," Mackey said. "People will bring other ideas. . . . The idea of the charrette is to bring people together."

General Growth Vice President Dennis W. Miller said he expects positive results from the charrette, which he sees as a continuation of the town hall meetings his company held in the summer on its plans for the Crescent property.

"This will address other properties in Town Center," Miller said. "It will be far more comprehensive." He said Design Collective is a highly respected firm. "They have a great body of work."

The firm has been involved in a variety of architectural and urban planning projects, including the redevelopment of Baltimore's Inner Harbor; a revitalization plan for East Baltimore; and a public planning and design charrette for Frederick's East Street corridor.

Matt D'Amico, an urban planner for Design Collective Inc., said the charrette process often can help resolve divergent ideas. "It's surprising how when we put people together, they build consensus," he said. "They end up landing on the right solution."