Traffic, affordable housing concerns raised at Columbia downtown redevelopment meeting

By Lindsey McPherson, lmcpherson@patuxent.com
May 23, 2012 | 12:23 a.m.

Finding little to fault in the design of the first building project in the downtown Columbia redevelopment process, residents at a community meeting Tuesday night presented concerns regarding traffic and affordable housing.

Roughly 80 people attended the pre-submission community meeting developers Howard Hughes Corp., Kettler and Orchard Development Corp. held on their plans to build 380 apartments and roughly 14,000 square feet of retail directly west of the Sears parking lot at The Mall in Columbia.

The developers offered little to alleviate concerns about traffic and affordable housing, issues they say will be addressed later in the process in accordance with county regulations. However, they were more than happy to discuss design details of the building, about which attendees had few questions and virtually zero concerns.

“We felt the building should really reflect downtown Columbia’s shift toward a more urban lifestyle,” Ryan Kautz, an associate withDesign Collective Inc., the architect on the project, said during the developers’ presentation.

While connected, the building will be visibly separated into two halves. The five-story northern half will house three or four retail tenants on the first level, with frontage toward the mall, and some of the residential units, as well as two private courtyards for the residents with a pool, grill area and other amenities. The six-story southern half of the building will contain a seven-level parking garage with 675 to 750 spaces, completely surrounded by residential units.

In between the building and the mall will be a 34,500 square-foot public promenade, featuring a playground with small-scale structures designed to look like artwork, Kautz said.

The meeting, held on the campus of Howard Community College, served as the first step in the Side Development Plan process. The county’s Design Advisory Panel and Department of Planning and Zoning will then vet the plans for the building before they go before the Planning Board for final approval.

The process is expected to be completed by the end of 2012, clearing the way for construction to begin in early 2013. Developers hope to have the building ready for tenants in early 2014.

Wilde Lake resident Deloise Wilkie asked the developers if they have plans to widen Little Patuxent Parkway.

“I live close to the mall and in the morning, in the evening, if we try to go out onto Little Patuxent Parkway, which is the main exit from our neighborhood, it’s almost impossible because Little Patuxent Parkway is so overwhelmed with traffic right now,” she said.

Kevin Peterkin, director of real estate investment and development for Kettler, said there are no improvements planned for Little Patuxent Parkway as a part of this project.

Elliot Sperling, 20, who said he’s lived in Columbia his entire life, also raised concerns about traffic, noting that the plans, which include modifications to Mall Ring Road, are too focused on cars.

“Expanding roads would be the worst thing to do,” he said. “Actually focusing on creating a pedestrian environment would be the best thing to do.”

Peterkin responded: “We do recognize that the car is still king, but there’s been much attention paid to alternative units (of transportation).”

Cecily Bedwell, a senior associate with Design Collective, said the overall goal of downtown development is to build a network of streets surrounding walkable blocks that pull traffic off roads such as Little Patuxent Parkway and Governor Warfield Parkway and encourage people to get out of their cars and travel on foot. She also noted that many of the plans, including the ones in this phase for Mall Ring Road, will include bicycle lanes.

Sperling said just building bicycle lanes does not mean more people will bike downtown.

“You have to make it designed in a way that people are going to enjoy biking in that area,” he said.

No affordable housing

Affordable housing was also a concerned raised by a few people at the meeting, as the plans for the first building does not include any. The rent for one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments is expected to range between $1,500 and $2,800.

“It’s unclear to us how we are going to meet this goal of affordable housing, which will house those people which will be working in those retail spaces below,” Columbia resident and affordable housing advocate Sherman Howell said.

Though the developers are not required to offer affordable housing units as a part of this project, Peterkin said they must put $2,000 per unit into an affordable housing trust fund.

The same will be required of other residential projects, said Earl Armiger, president of Orchard Development. Because the trust fund needs to be built up, he said, “the first project or two may not see any affordable housing.”

Howell was not impressed by that answer.

“That fund was my idea, (but) we shouldn’t go into this thing relying so heavily on the fund,” he said, urging the developers to “take the leadership and just do it.”

Alan Klein, spokesperson for the Coalition for Columbia’s Downtown, a group that has largely been critical of the process and plans for downtown redevelopment, agreed with Howell.

“Go beyond the minimum,” he suggested. Klein also noted that reliance on the housing trust fund is “a little premature” because the County Council has yet to draft legislation setting up a Board of Directors for the fund or specifying parameters for how the money must be used.

Hickory Ridge resident William Fox called the plans “terrific” and told the developers: “You did a great job. My wife and I have been looking for a place like this to live.”

However, he noted, downtown development needs to accommodate more than just rentals. Fox said he hopes future residential plans for downtown include units for purchase, noting there is a large number of people in Howard County, including him and his wife, in their 50s and early 60s that will be looking to move out of their single family homes and into smaller units where they can still be homeowners.