Columbia blossoms from bedroom town into cultural center

With arts, restaurants, residents find little need to escape to larger cities

July 22, 1999|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

It's the typical Columbia story: Lured by the promise of a multi-cultural community, acres of manicured outdoor space, good schools, less traffic and crime, Francis Johnson and Pamela Blackwell moved to the planned suburban city from Washington in 1978.

These days, Columbia offers much more than cul-de-sacs and tot lots: movies with stadium seating, a growing variety of restaurants, large stores in new strip malls, museums and art galleries, big and small bookstores, concert facilities, teen-friendly sports parks, regionally renowned theater companies and other recreational activities.

Where Columbia residents may once have gone to the Inner Harbor or the Adams Morgan area in Washington for a night out, they now find themselves at the epicenter of suburban activity.

Folks don't have to leave Columbia anymore, and that's just fine by them.

"Well, we leave, but only to go to work," says Johnson, who is a public health service official in Rockville. "Everything we need is here now. Sometimes we'll go to Ellicott City and we rarely go back to D.C. -- only to visit relatives."

Is Columbia finally hip enough to be a destination spot? A lot of people think so.

Columbia is attracting people from all over the Baltimore-Washington corridor who are drawn to its new restaurant parks, cineplex houses with cappuccino cafes, first-rate productions at Rep Stage and Toby's Dinner Theatre, and cultural activities like the much-lauded Columbia Festival of the Arts, a 10-day summer event that attracts thousands to see world-renowned dance companies, musicians and other artists.

Started more than three decades ago by the late James W. Rouse as the quintessential bedroom community, Columbia has instead blossomed into a thriving, throbbing, ever-expanding city.

"Columbia was a different place when we moved here," says Blackwell, a Prince George's County Board of Education employee. "It wasn't as developed then. But they're trying to bring everything here, so you won't have to go too far to do anything."

Jim Young, 33, white-knuckles his way down Interstate 95 everyday to Rockville, where he works as a mechanic. He doesn't mind the commute, he says, "as long as I get to live in Columbia. They've got everything here -- bike paths, cultural events, shops. I still take my daughter to the Smithsonian or to the zoo, but my cultural center is right here in Columbia."

"We're clearly established in the [Baltimore-Washington] corridor as a cultural center," says Alton J. Scavo, senior vice president of the Rouse Co., which will unveil its $70 million expansion of The Mall in Columbia in mid-September.

"From an institutional, recreational and educational point of view, Columbia has become the main attraction. That was always the point of Columbia, that it would be the town center for the corridor to be more than just houses. Is it going to surpass Washington or Baltimore? No," Scavo says. "But the stuff in between? Yes."

Situated almost exactly between Baltimore and Washington, Columbia's location offers its residents more recreational choices than most other suburbs, says former Columbia Association President Padraic M. Kennedy.

"People say they don't have to leave Columbia, but the point is that they can," Kennedy says. "That's important to remember. It's the best of both worlds."

The biggest recreational draws are the large eating places on "Restaurant Row" on Route 175 in Columbia Crossing, the huge stores that populate the strip malls in east Columbia and a new 3,000-seat movie megaplex at Snowden Square.

As many as 2,500 people eat on Restaurant Row during weekends, and some retail experts say Columbia could support even more restaurants.

Mike Riemer, president of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce, says there is room in the market for more big-box shopping centers and restaurants. "I honestly don't know if people who live in Columbia know how to cook," he jokes. "No one eats at home anymore."

Columbia's mostly affluent population and its hurried lifestyle might be part of the reason residents are so reluctant to drive into either of the big cities, says Valerie Costantini, artistic director of Rep Stage, the distinguished professional theater company based at Howard Community College. "Columbians have very high standards," she says.

"People don't want to spend a lot of time driving into the cities and finding child care and paying for parking when you get there, that sort of thing. It's a lot of expense and bother. They really want to be able to find quality arts and entertainment right where they live."

That demand led to the establishment of a number of arts organizations in the 1970s and 1980s. Bit by bit, groups like the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo), the 100-voice choral music company Columbia Pro Cantare, Candlelight Concert Society, African Art Museum of Maryland and Howard County Arts Council began to take root in Columbia.

They found loyal audiences who appreciated the quality (and family-friendly) programs.

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