A `there' there: Seeking a more urban Columbia



When he carved Columbia out of 14,000 acres of farmland between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., legendary developer James W. Rouse had a vision of creating a new city that would be an antidote to sprawl.

Yet, for decades, the heart of Rouse's otherwise acclaimed planned community was anything but urban - an enclosed mall reachable mainly by car, with a few office towers, restaurants and a smattering of other businesses along the roads that skirt the shopping center.

Now, nearly 40 years after Columbia's groundbreaking and nine years after Rouse's death, the downtown is finally starting to look more like a real city. Townhouses and apartments crowd in toward the mall, while restaurants and a movieplex reach outward, filling in some of the vast parking lot.

With plans unveiled this year by Rouse's corporate heirs to add another 1,852 housing units near the mall, as well as more offices, shops and restaurants and a hotel, community residents are being asked for their own vision of how - or even whether - to fulfill their founder's dream.

Howard County officials have invited the public to participate in a planning charrette, a weeklong series of meetings starting Oct. 15 that would seek to map out the future for the 570-acre Town Center.

"If Jim Rouse were alive today, we believe he would be supportive of revisiting what Columbia is after 38 years," says Steve Lafferty, the county's deputy planning director. "He was not one to stand still, certainly. ... Columbia is evolving, and as Howard County takes on a new role in the region, it is time to look back at the Rouse vision and what can be built upon."

General Growth Properties Inc. hopes, for one thing, to build on recent moves to get more people living around the mall or coming there for entertainment as well as shopping. General Growth, a Chicago-based mall operator, bought locally headquartered Rouse Co. and all its properties last year, including the bulk of the developed or developable land in downtown Columbia.

Dennis W. Miller, General Growth's local manager, says the company is aiming for "an urban core that's vibrant, pleasing, pedestrian friendly."

But with its current car-centric layout, downtown Columbia is hardly pedestrian friendly, says Reid Ewing, a professor with the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education at the University of Maryland. In five hours of walking around the town center recently, Ewing says he encountered maybe 30 people on foot. He passed that many in just a few minutes, he adds, in downtown Bethesda, a more traditionally designed suburb of Washington.

"Even though there are a lot of jobs and a lot of working residents, and even though [many of] those residents work in Columbia, no one walks to work," Ewing says. "The physical environment is not conducive to walking."

To change that, General Growth proposes adding still more homes, doubling the town center population to around 6,600 (out of 97,000 total in Columbia). The company has proposed building a mix of housing, offices, and restaurants behind Merriweather Post Pavilion, an outdoor concert venue set in a 40-acre grove of trees. The new neighborhood, called The Crescent, would supplant parking lots for music fans.

General Growth also proposes adding offices, shops and restaurants along the lakefront and north of the mall, with broad walkways linking those areas to the shopping center.

The company's vision for Columbia's Town Center looks eerily like an early plan put forward by the community's developer. A scale model produced in 1964 shows high-rises looming over the lakefront, with more buildings lining the parkway and streets - a density of structures similar to what is now proposed.

General Growth's manager says the new plan represents an evolution rather than a return to founder Rouse's original ideas. That earlier model did, after all, show a sports stadium where the outdoor amphitheater stands and a highway spanning the lake to funnel traffic in and out of the mall.

County planners say they'll entertain any ideas, Rousian or not. Some have suggested, for instance, converting Little Patuxent Parkway, the main drag through downtown Columbia, into more of an urban boulevard with parking along its sides and slower-moving traffic. Others may advocate more public transit.

But any changes to bring more people downtown will need to cope with suburbanites' impatience behind the wheel. Residents who attended public meetings about General Growth's plans this summer warned against any changes that would brake their driving.

"They want Bethesda without the traffic," says landscape architect Charlie Bailey, whose firm Mahan Rykiel Associates sketched out General Growth's plan for the community.


For more about downtown Columbia's future, go online to www.columbiatowncenter.info or to www.co.ho.md.us.


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