Possibly the longest-running joke about Columbia is that there is no there there.
With a population of more than 95,000, Columbia would be the second-largest city in Maryland if it were incorporated. But the mall, gas stations, strip centers and most of the housing are discreetly tucked down winding avenues behind grassy berms.
But now the joke is ending. The center of the Rouse Co.'s green country town is evolving into a more visible and intensely urban core.
On the drawing board for Columbia's Town Center are new luxury high-rises, office towers and retail centers.
Asked when development of the center will be finished, Alton J. Scavo, senior vice president of the Rouse Co., answers, "Never."
"There's only progress being made ... or there's decay," he said. "If it's going to continue being an attraction, then it needs to expand."
"I think there's opportunity to have some fun, longer term," Scavo said last week.
Town Center's residential population has exploded from 1,900 in 1998 to 4,265 today, and more new residents are on the way.
Four new high-density housing developments are feeding the growth.
More than 800 new high-density housing units have recently been added in three complexes on 23 acres - Gramercy at Town Center, Whitney at Town Center and Archstone Columbia Town Center.
The Governor's Grant townhouse project, under construction on a hill overlooking The Mall in Columbia, will add 127 homes on 8 acres, ranging in price from $310,000 to $340,000.
Town Center's new homes are attracting an array of residents, from empty-nesters who want easily maintained homes to young professionals who want to live in an urban setting.
The high-density housing is giving a new feeling to the village's noncontiguous neighborhoods - Amesbury, Banneker, Creighton's Run, Vantage Point and Warfield Triangle.
"It brings different lifestyle choices to downtown and Columbia and Howard County that we didn't have before," Scavo said.
A 17-story high-rise structure has been proposed for a 4-acre parcel at Wincopin Circle, where Columbia's original movie theater operated until 2000. It could house retail shops and restaurants on the first few floors with about 100 luxury condos on top, Rouse officials say.
Across the street from the recently cleared theater site on a slope overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi, the Columbia Visitors Center, designed in part by noted architect Frank Gehry, has been targeted by Scavo for replacement with a more economically attractive structure, despite its landmark status.
Next door, on the edge of the lake, the 77,000-square-foot, six-story Columbia Lakeside building was completed last summer on a site formerly occupied by a two-story restaurant.
And other sites are being eyed.
Scavo said he can easily see the nearby Ridgely Building and Sterrett Building - which includes Bennigan's - both on Sterrett Place, being knocked down for further development.
"You need people," Scavo said. "In the evenings, we don't want the streets to roll up and for everyone to go home."
About 100 of the 1,000 acres in Columbia's Town Center village are still available for development, Scavo noted.
Columbia Councilwoman Donna L. Rice of Town Center said residents have been calling the village's community center, excited about the "hustle and bustle" that the new housing developments are bringing to the area.
Walking and riding
A number of attractions are within walking distance of the new complexes - the mall, the Merriweather Post Pavilion, the lakefront and the Howard County Central Library, which reopened in October after being closed for more than a year for a $5.4 million renovation.
For destinations farther away, public transportation - a key to any urban center - was added in 2000 with a countywide Howard Transit hub near the mall's west side.
Ridership on Howard County's bus system increased 53.4 percent in the year that ended June 30, compared with the previous year - nearly 100,000 more trips - and jumped another 57 percent in the next three months.
Transit is helping to make Town Center a "real community," County Executive James N. Robey said last week.
"When you go back 35 years and think about Jim Rouse's vision ... it's starting to happen," he said.
But there's much more to be done.
Within 10 years, Scavo said, he'd like to see the Merriweather Post Pavilion and the adjacent Symphony Woods park better used.
He thinks the amphitheater - which he called "not a state-of-the-art amphitheater" - is going to be incompatible with the community's needs in the future, and the stage structure should also be studied.
Symphony Woods could be a central park for Town Center, but the area generally isn't used unless a event takes place there, Scavo said.
"It probably has a higher calling in life than how we're using it today," he said.
Behind Symphony Woods is an area that "has not been touched," where Scavo said he would like to see residential, office or retail space.