A restyled Symphony Woods, complete with tree-lined promenades, would become Columbia's Central Park. Housing, offices, a village square would rise from a parcel of land beside Merriweather Post Pavilion. New office buildings with ground-floor cafes and entertainment venues could offer night life. Walkways and roadways, even a new main street, would help unify areas into a pedestrian-friendly urban center.
The results of the recent series of design workshops devoted to reimagining Columbia's town center were formally unveiled Saturday. The draft master plan drew applause and, from some, even a standing ovation.
"It's all starting to fall into place," said Elmina Hilsenrath, chief of Environmental and Community Planning for the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning.
"People are finding it makes a lot of sense as well as being something really exciting," Hilsenrath said.
As a result of the workshop, members of the Columbia Association Board of Directors are reconsidering where they might build a headquarters for the homeowners association, which provides services and amenities to Columbia's 97,000 residents.
Joshua Feldmark, a Wilde Lake resident who chairs the board, said the panel will consider during its upcoming budget process whether to stay near Lake Kittamaqundi in a new building that would be built in partnership with a private developer, under the proposed master plan.
"It makes perfect sense to me we would be (among the first) ones to say, 'Okay, we've got a plan, let's start using it,' " he said. "This has been our push from the start."
The board, he added, will continue to weigh an earlier proposal to relocate its headquarters on land that the Columbia Association owns near the pavilion. The lease on the association's headquarters on Wincopin Circle expires in 2007, spokeswoman Karen Hawkins said.
Over the eight-day part of the design process known as a charette, hundreds of residents, community leaders and advocates shared their hopes and visions of what Columbia's town center might become in the next 30 years.
"It was an interesting journey into the future," planning and zoning director Marsha McLaughlin said.
During the workshops, many participants expressed a clear desire to create something more urbane and vital than the parking lot-ringed suburban shopping mall that has served as Columbia's town center since 1971.
"I feel our downtown is a parking lot," said school board member and Columbia resident Mary Kay Sigaty, bending over a large map of the town center at the outset of the process. "I want to think past the black hole."
And that is what participants did as they worked with a team of urban planners to redesign the 570 acres that make up the heart of Columbia.
They wrote wish lists for elements lacking or in short supply: sidewalk cafes, small shops, pedestrian-friendly connector roads. They played with plans for the development of nearly 52 acres of vacant land near Post Pavilion. They questioned the configuration of the enclosed shopping mall.
And they attempted to bring together the county library, the lake, Symphony Woods and the Merriweather Post amphitheater into a coherent whole.
Dennis W. Miller, vice president of General Growth Properties -- the giant Chicago-based developer that last year acquired Columbia's original developer, the Rouse Co. -- expressed eagerness to work with residents and county officials to bring the town center to life. General Growth has proposed a mixed-use residential and commercial development for the site near Merriweather Post. But Miller said the company is open to the ideas reflected in the charette. "We've been saying we wanted a vibrant downtown," Miller said. "I think the plan the county put together was an evolution."
County planners are expected to refine the vision expressed in the draft master plan into a presentation for public comment. Then, perhaps as early next year, the County Council will be asked to make changes in local zoning laws.
" We've got a lot of work to do," County Council member and Zoning Board Chairman Ken Ulman (D-West Columbia) said. "The key now is, how do we create a zoning code that guarantees the vision is fulfilled."
Staff writer Susan DeFord contributed to this report.