Monday, December 05, 2005

Movin' on up...

From the 14th floor of my hotel in San Francisco, I’ve got a pretty good view of a couple high-rise buildings currently under construction. Both appear to be about 20 stories in height and obviously don’t seem out of place in this town, where land is at a premium, to put it mildly. Here, they certainly don’t seem out of place, but what about in Columbia?

A Florida developer's plan to build a 22-story condominium building in Columbia's Town Center is progressing despite concern among some residents that its height would be out of character with a new, emerging master plan deigned to guide downtown's redevelopment.

If built as planned, the roughly $60 million Plaza Residences would be the tallest building in Howard County. The largest buildings in Town center are 12 stories.

…The plan for the high-rise foresees 160 units with private elevators that would whisk occupants from parking garages to the doors of their condos. It also would feature retail shops and dining on its ground floor along with social rooms, club rooms, a juice bar, guest suites, a business center and a theater.

It is interesting that in the Baltimore Sun’s story on this (the above link is to an article in the Flier) a picture of the full building was included. See here. But in the Flier’s story, the building is shown from a different angle and the top 14 stories are cut off, which is strange but understandable given the public’s expressed desire to not have large buildings near the lake. When was this desire expressed? Oh yeah, at the charrette.

The draft plan, which county officials still must approve, is designed to guide downtown's redevelopment over the next 30 or so years. It suggests prohibiting the construction of buildings of more than six stories along Lake Kittamaqundi and 20 stories in the rest of the town.

"We just put a lot of energy and time into the charrette process," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Democrat from Columbia. "The (high-rise) is in the study area and it goes against the plan. I don't know why we did the charrette if what comes out of it is counter to what we proposed."

If only it were that easy. The problem, at least in my mind, is that this plan was proposed long before the charrette. In fact, the county has been reviewing plans for it since last January. And to say that public input at the charrette was not shaped to some degree by this proposal is ludicrous.

Therefore, it is only fair that we review these plans according to the zoning that was in place when it was proposed. If this is the case, there is nothing to stop construction. Apparently, the Flier’s editorial board agrees.

The Flier article goes on to quote General Growth vice president Dennis Miller as he explains how this building will help spur the “revitalization of downtown.” It is interesting that he’s now referring to downtown development as revitalization, almost as though he is admitting that his company failed to develop it properly in the first place. After all, they own all the land.

I’m not so sure about his statement, but the building would certainly be symbolic of the changes taking place in Town Center. My hope is that in the future, developers hire better architects.

The final part of the article worth mentioning is one of the most sensible quotes I’ve seen in a while. It speaks to the challenges and opportunities present in developing affordable housing. In the words of Columbia Association’s Town Center board member Jud Malone:

"It's not fair to say that this project has to introduce affordable housing for everyone, but people in the community are starting to wonder at what point will there be affordable housing," he said. "In order for it to proceed, there ought to be some requirement that affordable housing in another part of town be available."

There is a belief that every development project should include some provision for affordable housing. Generally, I support this concept, as I believe mixed income communities are the most productive and benefit the most number of people. But in certain instances, mixing incomes is not appropriate, and this building is one of those instances.

However, this doesn’t mean that the developer shouldn’t be responsible for providing affordable housing—preferably in the general vicinity—as part of the costs of doing business in this county. After all, who’s going to work in the retail shops, theater, restaurants, and other establishments in this building?

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