From Rouse to a mouse Disney's town: Florida's model suburb of the '90s can learn from the models of the '60s.

June 03, 1996

GO TO a new ballpark that looks like an old ballpark and, if one can ignore the skyboxes and all the cell phones in the stands, you might be able to trick yourself into believing you're watching a ballgame as your granddaddy did because the game itself hasn't changed much over the generations. Besides, it's only entertainment.

But it is hard to build a new town and make it seem like an old town, because new values aren't old values and this isn't about entertainment. It's real life.

Thus, it is hard not to be a little cynical about Walt Disney Co.'s planned town of Celebration in central Florida. First, because Disney's forte is animation and marketing, not urban planning. Second, because people in the Baltimore-Washington region have already seen this "pioneering concept" a quarter-century ago -- twice -- so they know that real towns endure more twists and turns than Space Mountain.

James Rouse carved Columbia out of Howard County farmland in the 1960s. He wanted it to accommodate a mix of housing, races and income levels and commissioned experts in education to help design the schools, similar to what Disney is doing now. Nearly 30 years later, with a population that would make it the second largest city in Maryland, Columbia certainly qualifies as a success. But with its older villages showing wear and tear, and crimes of hate and violence eroding a sense of security, Columbia the city continues to grapple with Columbia the concept.

Meanwhile in Northern Virginia, developer Robert E. Simon recently moved back to the place that bears his initials -- Reston -- because he was disturbed that the well-planned, cohesive enclave he envisioned in the early '60s was being lost in a sea of expensive, detached homes and strip shopping centers.

Disney's town will be beautiful and imaginative, but its concepts aren't especially innovative; mixing expensive and moderate housing has been a fixture of Montgomery County's "affordable housing" program since 1973. Celebration, Fla. is basically the embodiment of every Disney World visitor, who, while licking an ice cream cone on Main Street USA as a horse trolley HTC clip-clopped by, thought, "Wouldn't it be great to live here?" This isn't a revolution come to suburbia. It's entertainment.

Pub Date: 6/03/96

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