Columbia's 'mayor' says goodbye Padraic M. Kennedy retiring after 26 years as association leader

August 14, 1998|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

In the archives of the Columbia Association, there is a page from James Rouse's personal datebook from November 1971. It shows an appointment to interview Padraic M. Kennedy for the post of president of the association, essentially mayor of the planned community Rouse was building.

Kennedy got the job. He started in 1972. He retires today.

"James Rouse was such a believer, you couldn't help but believe his vision]," Kennedy said of that first interview. "It was a real sense of a mission. He was highly respected because of his strong philosophical belief that this would work. He attracted unusual people to move here. He hired unusual people to work for him."

Driving through Columbia during his last week on the job, the 64-year-old Kennedy saw more than a sterile suburb. He still sees Rouse's vision come alive.

"When we came here, people were fighting for ecology, for racial integration," Kennedy said.

That was only months after William Donald Schaefer became mayor of Baltimore. Richard Nixon was finishing his first term as president. The war in Vietnam was dividing the nation.

The words of President John F. Kennedy's inaugural address -- "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" -- were still ringing in the ears of the pioneers moving to Columbia.

Kennedy keeps a bust of JFK on his desk. He was on the original staff of the Peace Corps and went from being its associate director to heading VISTA, the Peace Corps' domestic equivalent. He was a vice president with Boise Cascade, doing economic development and training in Washington, when Rouse made his offer.

Kennedy, his wife Ellen and their two school-age children moved to a house on Waterfowl Terrace, next door to Rouse, overlooking Wilde Lake, the man-made body of water that shared its name with Columbia's first village. The town had barely 10,000 residents. Bulldozers outnumbered pools and pathways.

"People now, they are not the ones who were the [Columbia] creators, but they have bought into the concept," Kennedy said. "They believe some of the same fundamentals. But people today really don't have as much time."

On paper, Kennedy's job seems fairly mundane -- running recreational programs, keeping up walking and biking trails, enforcing strict architectural covenants. The Columbia Association is essentially a homeowners association, one of the country's largest, its $44 million annual budget paid for by property owners who must pay its liens.

But as head of the association, Kennedy also was guardian of the Rouse vision; he was the head counselor and maintaining the Camp Columbia spirit was his essential mission. It's a job that has gotten more difficult over the years.

"The whole economy, the whole way people shop, and the way consumer habits work is different," Kennedy said as he drove through what would be the second largest city in Maryland -- population 90,000 -- if it were incorporated. "People recreate differently. Their disposable income is higher now."

The economy has challenged a cornerstone of the Rouse vision -- the village center, the clump of essential stores in the middle of each village, within walking distance of all homes. The center was to be the commercial catalyst to make each village a community.

But shopping patterns changed. The grocery stores that were state-of-the-art 25 years ago were now dwarfed by the new supermarkets. Huge big-box stores in power malls on the eastern edge of Columbia -- developed by Rouse -- were draining the economic life from the village centers.

Now the aging village centers are getting help. On his drive, Kennedy pointed to a major face lift at the Oakland Mills Village Center, including a supermarket expanded to a viable size.

Kennedy smiled at the piles of dirt and bricks. The center had been built as an enclosed mall when that was the preferred style. Now it will be more of a strip center, accessible and visible to those who pull into parking spots.

"If you had told me years ago, this would be happening, I wouldn't have believed it," Kennedy said. "This is light-years ahead of what Oakland Mills was when I started. It really is amazing."

Still, Kennedy noted parts of the original vision that have survived. Near the center is an old barn that stood on one of the farms taken for Columbia. It was renovated into the village's offices and recreation area.

"When you think that this was a dairy barn and now it is used extensively for a teen center "

He stopped in mid-sentence and gazed up at the thick trusses beneath the curved roof.

"We had the James Rouse roast up here and the Ruth Keeton roast," he continued, referring to parties honoring the two Columbia pioneers, both now deceased. "This place still retains its old character of a barn. When it is filled with decorations and people, it has a nice feel of the old and the new."

A native of New York, Kennedy has an urbane, patrician manner that tries to keep the spotlight on others. In theory, his job as

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