Monday, November 16, 2009

Downtown Opportunity

It'll be interesting to see how far, if at all, the County Council veers off the script General Growth has drafted for downtown Columbia. At a hearing Saturday on the plan, we heard lots of pleas for amendments.

Many dealt with the proposal for 5,500 homes. Do we need that many? Could the increase be staged, with approval for some now, and the rest left for later? The financial impact studies made clear that revenue estimates are tied closely to whatever decision is made.

One idea that caught our attention was a proposal to turn the current pedestrian overpass on Route 29 into a transit bridge. This would serve a (bike?) and bus-only thoroughfare connecting HoCo General Hospital and the Community College to the new regional park envisioned for the old Smith Farm. In fact, one of the early Rouse plans envisioned a very similar circuit and set aside right-of-way for the purpose.

Fred Gottemoeller, an architect who designed the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in Washington, said he is part of a group called Bridge Columbia. The longtime Columbia resident said the transit-way should be built instead of a new interchange near South Entrance Road, where construction could run into environmental permitting issues because of the flood plain. And the project could be done for a fraction of the cost.

Another plea came from the owner of family-owned Princeton Sports, who told the Council something we didn't know. Alan Davis said he owns his store off Little Patuxent Parkway but General Growth apparently controls what can be built on the land, and currently the site is restricted to a sporting goods use. Davis said the restriction limits how much money he can borrow against his property, hurting his flexibility at economic times like this.

He asked the Council to free him from the restriction, and his request made us wonder how many other landowners downtown face similar encumbrances, and what role such use restrictions have played in maintaining the status quo many find so dull.

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