Friday, September 01, 2006

Cut down to size...

It looks like the total number of buildings in Howard County reaching 20 or more stories will be one, the Plaza Residences. Interestingly, it doesn’t appear that shorter buildings will be the product of some strict government regulation. Rather, such heights have been found to be unnecessary in completing the more-urban vision of Town Center currently being refined.

Responding to broad public concern, a height limitation of 14 stories for new buildings in downtown Columbia is under consideration by the county.

…Whether 14 stories would be an unconditional cap, or simply a general target that could be exceeded in some instances, has not been determined.

There remains the possibility that a final plan might propose the limitation but make it flexible so developers could construct taller buildings in return for public improvements, such as new roads, constructing "green," or environmentally responsible, buildings, and cultural or civic centers, said Elmina J. Hilsenrath, division chief of Environmental and Community Planning.

A draft of the plan for downtown, released to the public in February, had included a limitation of 20 stories.

…"We've been dancing around the issue for many, many months," Hilsenrath told a focus group studying the future development of Town Center. But, she said Wednesday, a computer analysis showed that virtually the entire plan could be achieved by enacting a lower height limitation.
Some may look at the idea of a “flexible” limit as a way to quell opposition while winking to developers. This would be wrong.

Like the two leading contenders for county executive, I don’t support firm height restrictions in Columbia or elsewhere in Howard County. This is not to say I’m in favor of tall buildings; instead, it reflects my belief that we shouldn’t impose our preferences on others, especially those who don’t currently exist.

In most cases, getting a law on the books is easier than taking it off. And this is probably true with respect to height restrictions, too. While tall buildings may run completely counter to the prevailing opinions of today, the preferences of future residents may be dramatically different. Yet, should we enact such controls, citizens twenty years from now will be stuck under out collective thumb.

A better way of ensuring heights aren’t out of whack is creating an explicit provision in the zoning regulations that allow oversight bodies to restrict building heights based on the character of the neighborhood and acceptance of the community. Granted, there is still some mushiness in this, but it’s better than what led to the Plaza being approved and it still offers flexibility for residents of the future to actually chart their own course.

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