Contrived city simply can't compare to the real thing

July 24, 2003|By Dan Rodricks

PEOPLE WHO live in Columbia but find themselves bored by it ought to be able to jump a high-speed train - 15 minutes, tops - to the Inner Harbor, drench themselves in the cultural life they can't find along the shores of Kittamaqundi, then return home to Gold Amber Garth.

Baltimore should be Columbia's downtown, and Columbia should just be Columbia - it's doing pretty well just as Columbia - and if Jim Rouse were alive I bet he'd agree with me. I think he would have revised the original plan by now.

He's the same man who developed Harborplace, remember?

I bring this up because it looks like Columbia is having a midlife crisis, at the age of 36, with some people wanting Town Center to make the leap from what it is today - a mall, some office buildings and about 4,200 residents - into a city that never sleeps.

Others want it to remain what it is - a sprawling and independent development, a string of villages with nice bike paths and decent schools, and no pretense (or death wish, depending on your level of cynicism) about being urban.

You could call Columbia lots of things but a city it's not, and it might never be, even with more townhouses along Governor Warfield Parkway.

It's not in Columbia's nature to be a city.

First of all, it didn't evolve. It hatched. We're talking Big Bang here.

Columbia prides itself on being "planned," a kind of big social engineering project that worked. Columbia is well balanced and well maintained. It's not immune to violent crime or drug abuse, but surveys show its residents are generally happy with life there, in part because they know that Columbia is insulated from the human vagaries that burden the old cities like Baltimore. There just isn't much X factor, that which makes the old cities intriguing, unpredictable, quirky and vulnerable to relatively rapid change, for better or worse. (Hey, real cities are a little rough around the edges, you know?)

"Distance from tipping point" is a huge, quality-of-life factor anywhere.

The neighborhoods of Columbia might have a tipping point - the point at which a good community falls into a downward spiral that cannot be stopped without aggressive countermeasures by government and business - but I'd venture that those tipping points are generally a long way off.

Columbia doesn't have a drug or homicide problem on the scale of Baltimore's. But it also doesn't have the homegrown, organic funk and hum of real city life.

Columbia requires a car for everything. In Baltimore, if you're lucky, you can still walk to get your groceries or visit a neighborhood bar.

Hey, you can't have everything.

So what we need is a basic understanding about what Columbia is and what Baltimore is. Columbia is what it is, and apparently most of the people who live there like it.

What some people want is more rattle, more human life, in a "downtown" that doesn't really exist now. So they support the construction of more housing in Town Center.

I can't knock that. I'm an "infill" guy. I'd rather see more housing in the small gaps in areas that are already developed than in the decreasing open spaces and farmlands of Howard County. And such "infill" development might lead to Town Center being a little busier, a little more up all night, a little more karaoke for the culturally starved.

But a city?

We have a city. It's called Baltimore. People who live in Columbia and want city life ought to move to Baltimore.

Unfortunately, it's not that simple. We're not there yet.

Baltimore is still perceived as unsafe - despite the biggest recent reduction of violent crime of any American city - and saddled with underperforming schools - despite improved test scores. Thousands of families don't even have Baltimore on their radar screens as a place to live - despite home values rising faster here than in the immediate suburbs.

Too bad. We're missing a grand opportunity to improve the quality of life - less time in traffic, more time in our neighborhoods and homes - for thousands of Marylanders while setting up a better scheme for the future.

Pardon this Baltocentric rant but what the debate in Columbia points up is the need to have a healthy, clean, safe, vigorous Baltimore - not a contrived "city" in Columbia.

Baltimore has plenty of open space within its borders that could be made ripe for more residential development. We're running out of space as the population of Central Maryland grows. There could be close to a million people living in a safer, stronger Baltimore - and some day that could include many of the Columbians who yearn for "city life," or their children, or their children's children.

And for those who believe in Columbia and like it as it is - and want to stay there - let's connect them to that safer, stronger Baltimore by high-speed rail and give them as much Baltimore as they can stand, whenever they want it, before going home to the leafy boughs of Gold Amber Garth.

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