Columbia at a Crossroads

December 08, 1993

How does a community as successful as Columbia take a hard look at itself and map a course for the future -- without seeming to whine?

We pose the question this way because the paradox of Howard County's renowned planned city is that by most measures it works well and yet it struggles for something better. How easy it would be to dismiss that desire as the wants of a spoiled child.

Indeed, Columbia has become an attractive home for the affluent. But it is also a community of diverse backgrounds -- racially, ethnically and economically. It is the only development of its kind to have attempted a mix on such a grand scale and made it happen. It did so because it was well planned in an era of idealism and hope.

Today, more than 25 years after Columbia's inception, cracks are showing up in the dam.

The Columbia Council, which oversees the daily operations of the city, must embrace the task of deciding how Columbia will function as a government. The answer does not necessarily mean incorporation. A hybrid that includes the best aspects of a homeowners' association and a fully open and representative government is certainly achievable. Ultimately, a move to inspire the greatest involvement of citizens in shaping Columbia's future will serve the city best.

Unlike in the past, however, that future no longer seems so certain. The principles on which the city was conceived -- class and race harmony -- have ceased being the reason most people choose Columbia as a place to live.

Symbolic of this change is the final village under development by the Rouse Co., the city's corporate founder. River Hill will include 2,200 homes, bringing Columbia's population to about 130,000, the second largest "city" in the state.

While other Columbia villages include a mix of housing types, however, River Hill will be comprised overwhelmingly of high-priced, single-family homes. A federal commitment to low-income housing may have driven diversity in Columbia's early years, but cold capitalism apparently drives it now.

A volunteer group, Columbia Forum, is attempting to give voice to those who would like the city recommitted to its original ideals, while progressing on the issue of governance. They have aptly chosen this time to organize.

It is not whining to suggest that the principles on which visionary James W. Rouse founded Columbia shouldn't get buried.

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