Thursday, January 19, 2006

Coming soon to a vacant lot near you...

The contentious 22-story Plaza Residences condominium tower was approved by a 3 to 1 vote of the Planning Board yesterday.

The building, which would be the tallest in the county, is designed to bring a grander, more urban look to Columbia with a 275-foot-tall balconied condominium tower soaring above the Mall in Columbia and Lake Kittamaqundi, longtime landmarks.
There has been vehement opposition to this building from numerous county residents, who view it as out of place in the context of Town Center and the forthcoming master plan. That may be so, but as I've tried to say several times before, the building was never subject to the guidelines of the Charrette and given the current zoning and other legal requirements, the Planning Board really had no other options but to approve it. It's not the prettiest building (see picture below), but it's legal.

Obviously, the height of the building is out of character with the existing downtown; I'm not going to contest that. However, there are no limits on building height for that property, invalidating the main argument against it.

The board also rejected e-mailed requests from residents to limit the building's height. Tammy CitaraManis, chairman of the board, said height limitations should have been set when the property was rezoned in 2002 at the request the Rouse Co., which formerly owned the land.

"I'm not sure I agree at this time that we as a planning board can reach back and say we need to make it lower," she said.

"There should have been height restrictions. The other Planning Board blew it. It's obviously an issue," said board member Linda Dombrowksi.

Some things can be foreseen and some can't, just as some people, James Rouse being one, can foresee things that others can't. Had those opposed to the Plaza foreseen the likelihood of tall buildings in Town Center, they could have enacted height limits years before this plan was ever created. Indeed, at least one of those most opposed to the Plaza had that power.

Lloyd Knowles, a former member of the council and Planning Board, called the plaza "a sore thumb. I think it's completely out of character with the downtown area."

Yet, in his time on the Planning Board and council, Knowles failed to impose any height restrictions on Columbia properties. Granted, he may have attempted to do so (I wasn't living here when he was a public official), but what seems more likely is that he, and those he served with, never saw in Columbia's future a building of such height, thinking instead that the "Next American City" would never actually be what it was always planned to be, a city.

I don't mean to criticize Knowles in particular. Rather, I bring this up to make a point about our ability to predict things even just a few years in the future. Most of us are awful at this. Some are decent. Very few excel.

This breakdown of individual "visionariness" is what troubles me about the Charrette backlash we're seeing now. I'll address this more fully soon, but for now we'll just say that few, if any, of us have the inherent ability to look at our current situation and extrapolate into the future. Those who do--we'll call them Pragmatic Visionaries--chart the course, while the rest of us (myself included) just try to keep up with the times; change is troubling enough, and trying to predict or control it is simply beyond our abilities.

I don't know if that came out the right way. This post shouldn't be regarded as disparaging to the Charrette participants (hey, I'm one of them!). It's merely an attempt to be forthright about our limitations, which we must admit to ourselves before we can honestly assess the merits of our Town Center master plan.

But I'm delving too far into what I plan to write about this weekend.

For now, here's a picture of our future, love it or hate it.

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