The Howard County Zoning Board (made up of the 5 members of the Howard County Council) voted 3-2 on December 1 to deny KIMCO's proposal to redevelop the Hickory Ridge Village Center with new retail buildings, a public green, and a 230-unit apartment building with ground floor retail. Councilmembers Deb Jung, Liz Walsh, and David Yungmann voted to deny the petition. Councilmembers Dr. Opel Jones and Christiania Rigby opposed denying the petition.
In April 2021, after nearly two years of testimony and countless hours spent in 16 separate hearings, the Zoning Board temporarily abdicated their responsibility to decide whether or not Kimco's proposed redevelopment of the Hickory Ridge Village Center meets the zoning criteria for approval, and sent the issue to mediation in hopes that a compromise solution could be brokered between Kimco, the Hickory Ridge Community Association, and a group of vocal residents opposed to the redevelopment proposal.
Not surprisingly, mediation failed to reach an amenable solution. Residents opposed to redeveloping the village center have been maneuvering throughout the process to delay this case as long as possible and mediation provided another avenue to continue the opposition's strategy of obstruction and delay. It was revealed during this week's Zoning Board meeting that just a single mediation session took place where it was quickly determined that a meeting of the minds would not be reached. As such, after an 8 month pause, the case went back to the Zoning Board.
Several times during the Zoning Board's deliberations, Chair Christiana Rigby keenly observed how differently observers, including her colleagues on the Council, view Kimco's proposal. Some, myself included, view the proposed mixed-use development favorably, and see how it helps contribute to a walkable more sustainable connected community. Future residents of the apartment building would have a grocery store and retail offerings on site within close proximity to several major employers and Downtown Columbia; while nearby neighbors would benefit by being able to walk or bike to new retailers that increased density helps enable. Opponents of the project bluntly admit that they do not believe that apartments are compatible with the Clemens Crossing neighborhood that is made up exclusively of single-family homes and believe the size and scale of the apartment building would overwhelm other uses of the village center.
One thing that all five councilmembers agreed to is that the proposed village green at the center of the proposed redevelopment could be enhanced. They all agreed that if they were to ultimately approve the proposal (it wasn't approved), that the proposed village green should be made larger by removing an access road to create better pedestrian connections between the retail buildings and require that the public green include room for concerts and gatherings, a stage with electrical, soft-scape elements that provide a safe space for children to play, a community notice board, art installations, and a tree-lined allée evocative of the pedestrian promenade that currently exists. These incredible-sounding improvements made the Board's decision later that night to deny the redevelopment all the more painful and frustrating for me.
From my perspective, the discussion during this week's Zoning Board meeting could not better exemplify the differing perspectives of each councilmember towards growth and development. Rigby and Jones have continuously demonstrated their commitment to diverse, inclusive, welcoming sustainable communities that contain housing opportunities for people of all income levels and backgrounds; whereas Jung, Walsh, and in this instance, Yungmann, have frequently taken the side of existing homeowners opposed to growth due to their fears that it will increase traffic, crime, overcrowd schools, or lower their property value. Towards the end of this week's meeting just prior to the final vote, Rigby explained the importance of integrating a variety of housing options within a neighborhood by stating that "Columbia was created to avoid destructive mindsets and systemic patterns that segregated housing uses." Jung and Yungmann reacted by dismissively laughing off Rigby for using so many buzzwords. 1:37:20 mark. Yep, this is our County Council.
So. what happens next? First, the Zoning Board needs to finalize this decision by drafting and issuing a decision and order. Once this is issued, KIMCO could opt to appeal the zoning board decision, and/or submit a new modified petition for consideration, or wait for a period of at least two years and then resubmit an identical petition. Needless to say, despite this setback, I doubt this is the last we hear of redeveloping the Hickory Ridge Village Center.