From residents' ideas, officials are hoping for a Town Center master plan

In Columbia, stakes are high at charrette


Four decades ago, James W. Rouse conjured up the idea of Columbia as an idyllic planned community, a place where groups of all incomes and races could live together in harmony in a town meticulously mapped out by Rouse's visionary architects and planners.

Tomorrow, that process will be turned on its head.

In an unprecedented move for Howard County, public officials are inviting all residents to an eight-day series of meetings - dubbed a "charrette" - supplying them with pens and paper and asking them to create what they think should be done with Columbia's largest tract of developable land.

When it all wraps up Oct. 22, town leaders hope to have a master plan for Columbia's Town Center, transforming the area into a real downtown with nightlife and urban residents. And local officials say a successful charrette could be the first step toward the next generation of planning throughout the county - one in which the residents have much more say.

"If [Rouse] were alive today, he might be celebrating the fact that people are coming together to talk about what they want," said Cyril B. Paumier Jr., who helped design Columbia as the Rouse Co.'s chief land planner from 1969 to 1972. "But all of his staff would have been saying, `But I don't want to have to listen to all those people; I want to do it my way.'"

The stakes are high. The county is investing $250,000 in the charrette, a French word that, according to the Portland, Ore.-based National Charrette Institute, means "cart" and describes art and architecture students' final, intense work to meet a project deadline.

This type of planning exercise has been used locally and nationally. Last year, Baltimore County included a charrette process in legislation to foster redevelopment in older neighborhoods, and it was used to create a development plan for county-owned apartments in Essex-Middle River. A similar process has been used in historic East Baltimore, the East Street corridor in Frederick, and developments in Port Royal, S.C., and in Davidson, N.C.

Howard County leaders have sent e-mail and mail invitations and bought newspaper advertisements, hoping for the large turnout they say is crucial.

"This is unlike any of the meetings that they've normally attended," said County Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat. "This is not where a developer or a design team will be preaching to the audience. This is a real opportunity for folks to have their voices heard."

Some of Columbia's longtime residents see the charrette as one more sign of change in what is, in effect, an unincorporated city of about 100,000.

"It's changing from a planned, company-owned town to a real town of people who are sinking roots in and trying to participate in something that belongs to them - not to a company," said Vince Marando, who moved to Columbia in 1975.

Founded in 1967, Columbia was planned down to the last detail by Rouse and his team. They mapped out everything from the lakes and green space that grace the area to the cul-de-sac street layout. They even set out the charter that establishes the town's government.

But Columbia's downtown never became the bustling urban core originally envisioned.

The planning meetings for Columbia, led by the Baltimore firm Design Collective Inc., are expected to focus largely on a 51.7-acre, crescent-shaped site near Merriweather Post Pavilion. But the 570 acres that make up Town Center's core will be up for discussion.

If the charrette is successful, Ulman said it could prove a valuable tool elsewhere in the county, where developers and residents often end up at odds.

"I'm optimistic that we can emerge out of the box that we're in," he said. "And working with residents and property owners should create this mutually beneficial vision for communities across the county, not just Town Center."

Animosity between residents and the Rouse Co. peaked in 2003 over the company's original plans to develop the tract of land near Merriweather. The company, which was bought by General Growth Properties last fall, proposed to build homes on the site and enclose the popular concert venue into a year-round theater.

The Zoning Board turned down that request, saying it lacked details.

Two years later, General Growth unveiled a draft plan that includes roads and walkways and would add shops, homes and a hotel adjacent to Merriweather. It also calls for the pavilion to remain open-air.

County leaders have called those plans a step in the right direction. The company's ideas will be considered in the charrette; they could be modified or scrapped in any final plan, which would need county approval.

Padraic Kennedy, the first president of the Columbia Association, said that when the Rouse Co. was sold, the community underwent a "gnashing of teeth" over whether the Columbia vision would be lost or compromised. He believes the opposite has happened.

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