Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Master plan meeting recap

The Sun provides the play-by-play from Monday's master plan meeting.

A proposal to transform the heart of Columbia into an urban downtown drew polite support in general but also pointed criticism as officials faced the public for the first time with a broad blueprint on how to achieve the plan.

The response was not unexpected, but it may nonetheless force officials to abandon their time schedule for enactment of legislation that is critical for the plan to advance.

Indeed, that schedule was a principal point of contention during a 3 1/2 -hour presentation and discussion Monday night.

But Marsha S. McLaughlin, planning director, said after the meeting that the time schedule might have to be adjusted.

"We have to look at that," she said. "We have to keep answering questions. I'm not suicidal. I don't want to take something to the Planning Board or the Zoning Board that's going to be a big shouting match."

Well, it's good to see McLaughlin's maintained her sense of humor (and self-preservation).

Slowing things down may well turn out to be the best thing to do with the plan. However, there's a difference between slowing the plan down to get it right, and slowing it down in hopes of derailing it altogether, which is the aim of at least some of the plan's current opponents.

Later in the article, the problems some have with the plan are addressed -- specifically, the lack of affordable housing, traffic studies, and a plan for who will pay for the necessary infrastructure improvements and how. Traffic studies will come -- DPZ assured us of that on Monday -- and infrastructure will be paid for somehow -- here's my suggestion. But what about affordable housing?
Concern over escalating housing costs and the resulting effect of Columbia becoming increasingly exclusive were a major theme of the meeting.

The county's plan includes a provision to require developers to set aside 10 percent of all housing units in downtown Columbia for moderate-income families and 5 percent for middle-income earners.

"We're trying to accommodate different housing needs," Lafferty said before the meeting. "Jim Rouse had that as part of his commitment" when he envisioned the creation of the planned community decades ago.

I hope that the No Growth folks aren't the same ones pushing for more affordable housing, as this is about as dishonest a stance as you can take. The reason Rouse was able to provide a wide range of housing options to meet the needs of everyone was because he was able to build A LOT of houses. The more we restrict the supply of (new) housing, the more exclusive we'll become, and with the spigot all but turned off for Columbia, we're probably looking at increasing income-class gentrification.

To be sure, developers, when given the right to build houses, need to build a range of housing options, including apartments, townhomes, small detached, large detached, and (shudder) McMansions. However, the only way they can do that is if we structure a plan and zoning regulations that allow them to. Rouse didn't need a 10 percent, 15 percent, or any percent set aside for affordable housing. He built enough houses in enough sizes and iterations for every income bracket.

So instead of arguing about percentages -- thereby creating an hourglass distribution of income in Town Center (with a bunch of expensive housing, some moderate income housing, and nothing in between) -- we need to compel developers to build a more balanced distribution.

Of course, another solution to stem the increasing exclusivity of Columbia is convincing existing homeowners to sell their houses for less to people of certain income brackets.

Care to implement that policy?

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