Columbia grapples with change

Rouse Co. sale, other issues challenge the city's identity

March 20, 2005|By William Wan | William Wan,SUN STAFF

Columbia's founders created the community with such an exhaustive level of planning that they even specified the exact placement of its mailboxes. But now, 37 years after its creation, the model suburb faces an uncertain future.

The corporation that created it, Rouse Co., has disappeared, sold in November to Chicago-based General Growth Properties Inc. The last undeveloped pieces of Columbia's downtown are tied up in several drawn-out deliberations. And the Columbia Council, the town's ruling body, is considering fundamental changes to the town's governing structure.

"If you think of this town in terms of a person, we've been like a teenager, going through growing pains and changes," said Barbara Kellner, who manages the Columbia Archives. "Eventually, this town is going to have to go out on its own."

Constructed in the 1960s amid social upheaval and the civil rights movement, Columbia was to be a new kind of town, free of the racial, social and economic problems that troubled urban areas.

"Cities need not grow in the unplanned, disorderly, irresponsible manner," wrote James W. Rouse, the town's founder. Instead, Rouse dreamed of a place where people -- rich and poor, of all races and religions -- could live together.

He designed a community to include economically mixed housing, interfaith centers of worship and even centralized mailboxes to encourage conversation among neighbors.

The town was split into villages, each organized around its own village center which, in most cases, offers a village office, a grocery store and other businesses. Downtown, in Town Center, is The Mall in Columbia.

Columbia quickly became a model for planned communities around the country, landing Rouse and his new town in the pages of The Wall Street Journal, Life and Reader's Digest and on national television.

In the past four decades, the town has grown into a sprawling suburban center with 97,000 residents, according to county planning data, making it the second-largest population center in Maryland after Baltimore.

Howard also has become the state's richest county, with the highest median household income at $75,500, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

But some longtime residents worry that as Columbia changes, it will drift from its original vision.

People who grew old with the town have watched newcomers pour in, coming not necessarily for the town's ideals but for its attractive housing, abundant swimming pools and excellent schools.

"There are some people who fear the vision will fade because of what's happening today," said Pearl Atkinson-Stewart, who has lived in Columbia for 30 years. "People are saying it's more about the business and economics than race and ideals. And the new people moving in ... they don't know the history behind it."

But Atkinson-Stewart, who represents Owen Brown village on the Columbia Council, also understands the inevitability of change. "Nothing ever stays the same," she said. "You have to be ready."

More condominiums and apartments are on the way. New neighbors move in every week, while fewer of the original residents from the 1960s remain.

One group deeply involved in Columbia's future is the Columbia Association, which governs the town.

The nonprofit homeowners association was created by Rouse to uphold the town's original vision and maintain its amenities, including 23 outdoor pools, three gyms, three lakes and two golf courses.

The association has an annual budget of about $51 million, and its primary source of income is an annual charge paid by property owners and the association's sports and fitness facilities.

Columbia Association's 10 board members serve as the town's governing body. They are first elected as council members by the town's 10 villages and later appoint themselves to also serve as the board of directors.

The board's chairman, Joshua Feldmark, grew up in Columbia, attending its public schools and playing in its lakes.

Now directing the town's governing body, Feldmark believes Rouse's vision for Columbia is still valid.

"We have such rich origins and history," he said. "We have to hold onto that so we have something to give newcomers and the next generation. I think that's true of any vision or dream; it needs to be handed down for it to continue."

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