Downtown Columbia

April 07, 2005

AT THE center of Columbia, almost 40 years after the planned community began to rise from Howard County farmland, there's an exciting opportunity: to create a real downtown for a suburban town of almost 100,000 residents.

On the face of it, the notion of a low-rise town having a downtown may seem contradictory. But Columbia has one, a hodgepodge of offices and housing around the shopping mall that anchors the unincorporated city. And remarkably, various interests now are talking about much the same bold vision for this increasingly valuable real estate, a vision of a lively, walkable and interconnected downtown offering a 24-hour mix of places to work, live, shop and have fun -- a place perhaps even with an actual Main Street. But whether this opportunity will be seized is up in the air.

That's because Columbia -- arguably this nation's most heralded example of a planned city -- essentially lacks a downtown plan. Residents aren't free to choose the exterior colors of their houses, but the majority owner of land at the community's center -- now General Growth Properties Inc. of Chicago -- can develop these parcels with inadequate attention to the sum of the parts. Witness the new housing rising hard by the mall without effective pedestrian connections to the shops and restaurants.

Back when the Rouse Co. was selling social ideals, there was a conceptual plan for Columbia's downtown. And for more than 30 years, for better or worse, Howard County essentially left Rouse free to fulfill these ideas. Under the county's "New Town Zoning," Rouse had vast powers to just show the county sketches of its plans and offer backroom promises of doing the right thing, and development would proceed.

But long ago, those cozy times changed. The Rouse Co. lost its ideals. And it then was acquired by General, which has been aggressive to the point of insult in not communicating with officials and residents and has shown few signs of anything but squeezing maximum value from land or redevelopment, a formula for more hodgepodge.

Meanwhile, the demand for Columbia's core has soared. A 20-story high-rise and perhaps even a new hotel are in the works. General is seeking, before the county planning board and in court, to develop the last big parcel of downtown land. Next door, the county wants to buy from General the Merriweather Post Pavilion, an outdoor theater that could impinge on land uses.

In response, the Columbia Association, representing residents and itself the owner of some downtown land, is organizing community planning meetings to hammer out a vision for downtown. Some County Council members are talking about rewriting the New Town Zoning to compel General to work under a downtown plan -- possibly derived from the association's planning sessions. Jumping ahead of the county and the association, General has set up two private meetings this month of some community figures to talk about downtown.

This is a power vacuum into which county officials must very soon step forcibly -- before the chance to create something remarkable in downtown Columbia is sold off. The desired outcome is clear: a cohesive downtown plan that reflects residents and landowners' interests. This can't be left to General, and the Columbia Association lacks real power. Only Howard County can achieve this.

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