Wednesday, May 18, 2016

A downtown of sorts for Columbia

Jim Rouse, a developer who was also a romantic, envisioned a vibrant downtown (shops, restaurants, offices, a promenade and band stand, events) for his model town Columbia, a downtown that would be also scenic (a lake with sailboats) and bucolic (a development that respected the land by preserving streams, wetlands and mature trees).
Aerial massing model of downtown Columbia (Design Collective)

Rouse's Columbia heirs, General Growth and the Howard Hughes Company (among others) who are in charge after the Rouse Company sold all its holdings in 2004 are still struggling to reconcile those competing goals. And the two mega-owners are not necessarily singing from the same sheets, even though there is an adopted Columbia masterplan to go by.

The Hughes Company, with a keen interest to develop, owns the lands known as the Crescent, surrounding the wooded Merriweather performance venue. General Growth owns the mall area and the lands along Lake Kittamaqundi where the new Whole Foods opened last year.

A real city downtown is usually seen as a center where everything is connected and densely developed with maybe an adjacent park or a green square. Columbia's downtown will be different: It will be a series of nodes that are divided by streams and woodlands and sweeping parkways. Nevertheless, the developments will add up to a whopping 13 million square feet of gross development, about half of downtown Baltimore's current 28 million, according to the new Howard County Planning Director Valdis Lazdins. With over 400 acres the downtown Columbia development is larger than Port Covington but has a similar total gross building area. Columbia assumes a 30 year build out period, Port Covington about 25 years. Another development of this size (GBA) is the Navy Yard redevelopment in Philadelphia after full build out.
the envisioned feel in the Crescent "neighborhood"
(Design Collective)

Howard County, the second richest County in Maryland, with a current mean household income of $196,852 (Urban Analytics) is expected to continue its strong growth trajectory. It is projected to grow by 153% by 2050. Just as in Rouse's original dream, Columbia is supposed to attract a lot of that growth so that the western part of the county can remain more rural. It is clear that affordability and transportation are key problems with that kind of growth and high mean income.

Recently the discussion about affordable housing has heated up and new legislation has been passed to ensure 3-5% section 8 level affordability and another 3-5% market affordable units (utilizing the competitive low income tax credits). The council bill speaks of a 10% minimum.
 A minimum of 10% of all residential dwelling units should be designated as affordable as defined by Howard County's Moderate Income Housing Unit ("MIHU") program. To ensure affordable housing is created concurrent with market rate housing in each phase of development, this plan also recommends a minimum number of residential dwelling units in each development phase must be affordable before moving on to a subsequent phase; (source)
By comparison, Port Covington also committed to 10% "affordable" units, but at 80% AMI or below, a weaker threshold in terms of really low income families. Jim Rouse who founded Enterprise after retiring from the Rouse Company had a keen interest in affordable housing. Enterprise is still one of the leading companies developing and enabling cutting edge affordable housing models including as transit oriented development.
The "neighborhoods" of downtown
Columbia (masterplan)

To implement the Downtown Columbia Plan s original vision of a full spectrum housing program for Downtown Columbia/ the County Council adopted Council Bili No. 24-2012 establishing a Downtown Columbia Community Housing Foundation (DCCHF) which would administer a housing fund to be created from contributions from Howard Research and Development (HRD)/ the master developer, other developers and property owners and other sources. The bill recognized the Columbia Downtown Housing Corporation (CDHC) as the Downtown Columbia Housing Foundation under the Downtown Columbia Plan.
There are no firm plans for better transit. The Planning Director is still wondering "what is the Uber of transit?" The plans include lots of parking and there seems to be little discussion what should happen with all the parking if self driving automated share vehicles would become the future.(source)

The first Crescent development node was approved by the county Planning Board in October last year. Progress on the General Growth held mall neighborhood is slow. The company seems to offload a lot of its holdings (It sold the HarborPlace Pavilions to Ashkanazi and announced yesterday it would also sell the Gallery in downtown Baltimore)

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Related on this site:
What the New Town of Columbia Tells us 50 Years Later

Adopted Masterplan PlanColumbia 2030 (adopted in 2010)

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