From Suburb to City

March 31, 1993

You've heard of man-bites-dog stories? Elvis sightings? How about this one: "Columbia firm relocates to downtown Baltimore."

Shocking, but true, as they say in the tabloids.

The Columbia Design Collective, a successful architectural shop of 40 employees, has decided to drop "Columbia" from its name and move from its home of 15 years on Broken Land Parkway in Howard County to a new high-rise tower overlooking the Inner Harbor.

The firm, which has been involved in the design of many center-city projects, felt that moving downtown would lend a vibrancy and energy to the operation that's hard to grasp in the suburbs.

"The city offers a great working laboratory for us," said Richard Burns, a co-owner of Design Collective. "You can see how people shop, how they relate in public spaces. . . The city's vitality isn't sold enough."

To hear Mr. Burns, one would think Baltimore's development efforts would be easier. He and his colleagues were tired of the suburban inconvenience of having to get in one's car to eat a meal, and were enthusiastic about being within walking distance to the city's entertainment amenities.

The major negative against the move was parking, he said. Because the firm's principals didn't want to penalize their employees who were accustomed to parking for free, they budgeted roughly $40,000 to subsidize employee parking downtown. While he found city officials helpful overall, he felt they were impotent to overcome the parking disadvantage vis-a-vis the suburbs.

Still, it is refreshing to see business people debunking myths about Baltimore. Sure, one has to be smart about when and where they walk in a city, but thousands operate downtown every day without incident. Actually, this is the second Columbia architect to relocate to downtown recently; Kaplan Sutton & Associates did so last fall.

Should Columbia and Howard County fear a mass exodus? Should other counties start to tremble in fear?

Of course not. Honora Freeman, whose city agency oversees downtown development, says most city prospects are from outside the area. But even if it isn't a trend, this region is strengthened if the road between city and suburb is two-way.

The Design Collective's move may be a small counterweight to Baltimore's image problem but it is a reminder that urban centers offer much that just cannot be replicated in the suburbs.

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