Columbia: an experiment that grew into reality

Spirit: The dream of founder James W. Rouse has been fulfilled in Columbia, but elements of that dream appear to have faded a bit as the town has matured.

March 23, 2003|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Maggie J. Brown knew there was something different about Columbia -- a planned community she was lured to with the promise that it would be open and integrated -- on the hot, humid July day she and her family moved to the town in 1970.

A black family, they were standing outside their new home waiting for the real estate agent to arrive with the keys, and Brown saw their new neighbor, a white woman, across the street coming toward them with lemonade and glasses.

"What struck me was the glasses, because I had never been served anything by a Caucasian anytime in my life other than in a paper cup, something you could throw away," said Brown, who still lives in that house in Harper's Choice.

It was that type of diversity and acceptance that developer James W. Rouse was striving for when he created the planned community in the 1960s as a place where people of all races and economic backgrounds would be welcome.

Now 35 years old, the carefully planned suburb that was viewed as an experiment has grown into a community that would be Maryland's second-largest city if it were incorporated. About 95,000 people live in Columbia, which offers a vast array of amenities -- 23 outdoor swimming pools, three lakes, nearly 90 miles of trails and more than 3,400 acres of open space.

The town was developed to offer conveniences and amenities for residents, with nine villages each having its own village center with a grocery store and other shops. A downtown, Town Center, is the major commercial center and also acts as a village without the traditional amenities, such as swimming pools.

Brown is president of the Columbia Association, the nonprofit homeowners organization that has an annual budget of about $45 million (with income drawn partially from property lien fees), manages the town's amenities and strives to maintain the community's founding vision.

But Rouse's ideals appear to be fading somewhat since the suburb's early years.

Many of Columbia's first residents, known affectionately as the pioneers, moved to the community because of the vision Rouse was promoting. He dubbed Columbia "The Next America," promising a higher quality of life.

These days, people move in primarily because of Columbia's convenient location, midway between Baltimore and Washington, according to a survey commissioned by the Columbia Association.

Mason-Dixon Polling & Research surveyed 807 adult Columbia residents in the spring last year, and 31 percent responded that they moved to the town primarily because of the location. Fourteen percent came because of its vision and diverse community.

Only 28 percent of Columbians questioned responded that they were "very familiar" with Columbia's vision. The survey also revealed that only slightly more than half, 55 percent, felt that Rouse's original vision had been achieved.

Still, while many Columbians may not be familiar with Rouse's name or ideals, Padraic M. Kennedy, who was the Columbia Association's first president and served for 26 years, recently told a group of visiting urban planning professionals and scholars that he felt the town has accomplished many of its goals.

He pointed to its strengths -- the village concept, the vast amount of open space and the racial diversity.

"I don't think there's a street ... that is not racially integrated," Kennedy said.

Kennedy did note that economic diversity was not as great as it had been when Rouse lived in the city. The town's first villages, Wilde Lake, Oakland Mills and Long Reach, still hold true to that original vision by offering affordable housing, he said.

But in the newer villages such as River Hill -- the town's final village that features many McMansions -- do not have many low- or moderately priced homes, Kennedy said.

"That means there is less economic diversity than racial diversity, and that original goal has been hard to achieve," Kennedy said.

The Columbia Council, the policy-making board of the Columbia Association, is trying to tackle the community's changing needs as it and its residents age.

The 10-member council, which includes one elected representative from each village, is looking to the future in four core areas: adjusting programs and services to meet changing needs; forging partnerships to add services; maintaining Columbia's vision; and improving governance.

The council is hoping to implement strategies to address Columbia's changing needs by next month.

While the council is looking at long-term issues, the town's older communities are pursuing individual efforts to ensure that their infrastructures will not decay with age.

A number of the older villages have set up committees to monitor areas that need revitalization. Wilde Lake's residents have conducted two village surveys, during which residents walked the streets and took note of needed repairs, no matter how small, including cracked sidewalks and broken street lights.

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