The vision - and the community

Columbia: James Rouse's planned community has grown and changed in the past four decades.

March 21, 2004|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

In October 1963, the Rouse Co. made an announcement that would drastically change the future of Howard County.

The development company had bought more than 14,000 acres with plans to transform the farmland into a visionary planned community, where anyone could live regardless of race or financial background.

At the time, Howard had about 48,000 residents. More than 40 years later, Columbia has become the state's second-largest population center and a model for planned communities nationwide.

In the town's early years, many people were attracted by the vision of James W. Rouse, who led the development company. They wanted to live in an open and integrated community, where people of different backgrounds would live, shop and attend religious services.

Barbara Russell, who was among Columbia's first residents, moved to the planned community during its inaugural year, in the summer of 1967, primarily because she and her husband could not find housing companies elsewhere that would rent to an interracial couple.

"I think that Columbia has had a lot of magnificent successes," said Russell, who gave birth to Columbia's first baby in September 1967.

The town has grown to more than 96,000 people in nine villages and a downtown area. Many of the town's 1,000-plus street names are derived from literature or other works of art.

Each village is governed by strict architectural covenants, which require approval for any alterations to a home's exterior, from paint color to lawn ornaments.

Each area has a village center, with most anchored by a grocery store. Many include a gas station, a liquor store and other businesses. Columbia's downtown, Town Center, is the home of The Mall in Columbia.

The village concept helped create smaller communities within the large suburb.

"I think Jim Rouse's design for Columbia envisioned all of that, by making neighborhoods and villages on a small scale," Russell said. "I think that's what really aided people getting together and getting to know each other."

The town had an opportunity to grow this year, when the Rouse Co. sought approval to build 1,600 residential units in the 60-acre, crescent-shaped property behind Symphony Woods in downtown Columbia. The proposal was opposed by many residents, who feared that the more than 2,000 additional people would bring too much traffic and crime and would strain the town's infrastructure.

The county Zoning Board denied the company's request, and it is now studying Columbia's zoning regulations.

The town is managed by the nonprofit Columbia Association - one of the nation's largest homeowners associations - which strives to uphold the original vision for the community and maintains its amenities, including 3,400 acres of open space, about 90 miles of pathways, 23 outdoor pools, three gyms, three lakes and two golf courses.

CA board Chairman Miles Coffman said the town's amenities are among the features that make it unusual.

"I have many friends that lived here and moved away, and the one thing they say is you'll never find the amenities anywhere else," he said.

The CA has an annual budget of about $50 million, and its primary source of income is derived from an annual charge paid by property owners. The association's board of directors has set the annual charge beginning in fiscal year 2005 at 68 cents for each $100 of valuation assessed on 50 percent of the fair market value.

The 10-member board of the association is also known as the Columbia Council; members are elected by each village to act as advocates.

Since 2001, the CA has been led by President Maggie J. Brown, who is African-American and moved to the town in 1970. On the first day her family moved into their home, she witnessed the diversity and openness that Rouse had promised - a white woman offered lemonade served in glasses to her and her family. Previously, white people would only give her drinks in paper cups, which could be easily discarded, she said.

Brown said the CA and the 10 village associations - which manage the villages' funds and some community centers - have been key in maintaining the town's vision. When people are shopping for homes, they often stop by the CA or the village associations, where they can glean information about the town's original goals, she said.

"I think [Columbia] has been very successful in being open, caring and diverse," Brown said.

As the town ages, concerns have arisen about the vitality of the older villages and the needs of Columbia's older residents, some of whom have lived there since the beginning. The Columbia Council is tackling some of the community's concerns through its strategic planning process.

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