Columbia falls short of Rouse's '60s vision


In the beginning, there was the vision of creating a new kind of community, one touted by Columbia's planners as the "Next America." But 30 years later, the new town is becoming little more than a real estate agent's dream.

The decidedly liberal -- if not communal -- ideals of the 1960s infused the Howard County new town's core concepts: its village structure, green spaces, pathway system, "interfaith centers" and open housing for a mix of races and classes.

Now with 82,000 residents and 57,000 jobs, Columbia has matured into America's second-largest planned town and one of Maryland's largest communities -- a suburban "edge city" that serves as the relatively urban hub of the nation's sixth-richest county.

But for many of Columbia's residents these days, the social ideals associated with its birth take a back seat to more immediate concerns found in many other suburbs: rising crime, dying neighborhood stores, stagnating property values and mounting traffic.

"Let's all hold hands and be friends" is how Joan Varga mocks the once sacrosanct tenets of Columbia's original concept. "A lot of the '60s and '70s are still hanging out in the minds of Columbia," she says. "It needs to be readjusted."

Ms. Varga lives in River Hill, Columbia's 10th and last village, where $400,000 houses are common and there is provision for far fewer lower-income residents than in earlier villages.

She is embroiled in a neighborhood feud over plans for a community tot lot behind her house -- the sort of fight that would have been unthinkable at Columbia's founding and that now dumbfounds many Columbia pioneers who believed they indeed were building the "Next America."

"It's amazing it's changed to just a piece of real estate," says Michael G. Riemer, a community activist and owner of a land planning firm who has lived in Columbia 27 years.

Adds another Columbia pioneer, retiree Norman E. Winkler: "We had a great belief in the future. If we couldn't change the world, we felt we could build heaven on earth right here."

To be sure -- 30 years after its developer, the Rouse Co., gained zoning approval for sweeping plans for a model community on

14,000 acres in then-sleepy Howard County -- Columbia can count some impressive achievements that set it apart: its exemplary land planning, managed growth, burgeoning job base and relative racial harmony.

Breaking the mold

In this region, Columbia broke the mold of aimless suburban sprawl. Many residents simply love it.

"Columbia has been the most wonderful living experience," says Donna Gorjon, who has lived there since since 1969.

And it has made a lot of money, according to Rouse annual reports.

Since 1985, the firm has earned about $100 million in profits on land sales, primarily in Columbia.

Since 1967, Rouse and its partners have reported income of more than $500 million from land sales, primarily in Columbia. Rouse still has about 2,300 acres, or 16 percent of Columbia, to sell by 2010 when it plans to finish the new town.

Far from Camelot

But Columbia has turned out to be far from the suburban Camelot promoted by Rouse:

* Because of crime, the Columbia Association -- the huge homeowners' association that manages the new town's facilities is considering closing at night all its vaunted "open space," a quarter of the community's land.

* Safety concerns have led many parents to forbid their children from using the town's 70 miles of pathways to get to school -- though the paths were designed for that.

* Several of the community's village centers -- intended to foster residents' interaction -- are withering in the face of competition from nearby warehouse-style stores, new outlets developed by Rouse. A rash of armed robberies at the centers has compounded the problem.

* Aging properties -- particularly in Columbia's oldest areas -- are causing increasing neighborhood disputes over the community's architectural guidelines and revealing these rules as unenforceable.

Racial questions

* In Columbia's older areas, clusters of low-income housing have "in a way become ghettos," says Larry Madaras, a Howard Community College professor. Racial balances at elementary schools in some of these areas have shifted dramatically in recent years, indicating white flight. Recent efforts to build affordable housing have been few and have run into community opposition.

* A highly charged school redistricting battle last year between two Columbia villages had race and class elements with largely white, affluent parents fighting student transfers from high-achieving Centennial High to more ethnic, less affluent Wilde Lake High.

* Just 23 years old, Wilde Lake -- the community's prototype high school -- was torn down recently because of the failings of its open-classroom layout. It is being replaced by a $20 million building with more traditional classrooms.

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