Utopia of '60s, meet economics of the '90s Columbia: Rouse's 'model suburb' in Howard County buffeted by modern retail's big trends.

December 19, 1998

CHANGES IN Columbia the past few years have been as dramatic, perhaps, as any during the 30-year history of Howard County's innovative planned city. The subdivision's 10th -- and final -- village, River Hill, is complete. But more significant is a perceived shift in focus by Columbia's developer, the Rouse Co.

The company's longtime commitment to residential development has met with skepticism in recent years. When he assembled the farmland to build Columbia in the 1960s, James Rouse envisioned his new town as a means to restore a sense of community to postwar suburbia. Yet today, Columbia is moving in a direction that some find disturbingly ordinary, with increased emphasis on retail trade.

New big-box stores and restaurants draw crowds to the Columbia Crossing center on the outskirts of East Columbia. A major renovation at The Mall in the center of town included a new Lord & Taylor store, with a Nordstrom to follow in fall 1999. The changes rejuvenated Howard County's only enclosed mall just in time for holiday shopping.

The economic benefits of all this are substantial and undeniable. But the emphasis is not original or revolutionary -- the PTC characteristics that propelled Baltimoreans and Washingtonians to Columbia.

Longtime residents believe the retail buildup has caused some village centers to struggle. These clusters of small businesses were designed to bring Columbians together not only to shop but to meet and learn more about one another. You can't do that as easily in a big shopping plaza that is more amenable to cars than pedestrians.

It's hard to criticize the Rouse Co. for giving people what they want. The droves heading to the big warehouse stores, big restaurants and bigger malls this shopping season prove the demand. Had Rouse not responded to it in Columbia, someone outside would have.

Also, Rouse's assurances that it hasn't abandoned the village-center concept are bolstered by its renovation of the Oakland Mills village center. Similar makeovers may be necessary to keep other village centers viable.

If the village centers die, Columbia will be like any other suburb with a plethora of drive-to stores and restaurants and few focal points. That wasn't Jim Rouse's dream.

Pub Date: 12/19/98

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