Columbia: `Grow or die'

Renowned urban designer offers opinion on downtown's future

October 22, 2006|By a Sun reporter

Vernon D. Swaback had time to kill four nights ago, so he strolled the downtown lakefront.

"You know what was missing?" he asked rhetorically.

"People," he answered after a pause.

Although he is an admirer of Columbia - "it's a rare place" - Swaback, a renowned urban designer, also said it is disappointing because it has failed to evolve.

"Given the opportunity of Columbia, the place right now should be more than it is," he said in an interview. "I don't know, with the exception of adding new buildings and maintaining them, how much of an idea has been added to anything beyond that which was really put together in the 1960s.

"Town Center today should be a whole lot better than it is, in my opinion."

Swaback inaugurated a Thursday night lecture series, Voices of Vision, at Howard Community College, sponsored by General Growth Properties Inc.

But his appearance also was a not-so-subtle endorsement of the concept of turning downtown Columbia into an urban center. Swaback said he hopes to remain involved in the project but has not been retained by General Growth.

The plan for downtown, spearheaded by the county and supported, at least in general, by General Growth, the principal landowner in Columbia, would, in its present form, permit the construction of 5,500 housing units, mostly on property now zoned for commercial uses; authorize the construction of 3 million square feet of office buildings; build 750,000 square feet of retail space; and impose a general, but not absolute, height limitation of 14 stories.

Though there appears to be broad support for the general concept, there is sharp disagreement on how much density is appropriate and on the height of new buildings.

The Department of Planning and Zoning is expected to release a revised plan early next year.

Swaback, founder of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Swaback Partners and the author of numerous books on planning and design, said the evolution of Columbia begins with higher density.

"Density is critical," he said at the lecture, which was attended by more than 150 people. "Without it ... you don't have an urban center."

He acknowledged that density and height are hot issues but described opposition to them as frequently uninformed.

"All these things that people have so much trouble with, but it's the wrong place to look for trouble," he said in the interview. "It's this knee-jerk reaction. ... In most places, it's generally a barrier that's ultimately dropped and it should have been dropped a lot sooner so something good could have been done."

Swaback said he does not embrace either as "gospel" but that "If you have the ingredients that allow you to treat the environment the way a composer might treat a symphony - to oppose the density in parts of it is like telling Beethoven, `Don't have a fast movement in your symphony.'"

Opposition to greater height and density is often pervasive on elected and appointed officials, he said, but the result isn't always good, he said.

"You preclude the worst, you preclude the best and you just lavish the attention on all of the mediocrity that you can get," Swaback said in the interview. "Public protests and codes and ordinances can do a pretty good job of keeping bad stuff from happening. But they also can keep good stuff from happening."

Swaback enjoys the symphony metaphor; he said that, at their best, planning and design are works of art.

"In the extreme, it's almost like a symphony where someone is choreographing all the pieces with some real end in mind," he said. "And if done well, it heightens both the effectiveness and enjoyment of people who use it in some unconscious way."

The emphasis among planners recently has been a return to "main street," the old town style in which pedestrians were more prevalent than automobiles, retailers had not discovered big-box stores, and people lived close to each other but enjoyed an abundance of parks and open space, Swaback said.

"The quest for all of us is how do you continue to move in that direction, knowing that it is not everyone's goal to become downtown Chicago or downtown New York?" he said. "Actually, most of us really don't want that. What it means is that we really have to invent this new form of urban environment. There is no one single model out there that Columbia Town Center should follow. Any pursuit of that is going to be disappointing."

Columbia, he said, has great stature, but it can't be left unattended. Nor should people simply look to other communities for answers on how downtown should be developed.

"That stature is not on automatic pilot," Swaback said. "It doesn't mean Town Center is going to be great just because [founder] Jim Rouse was great.

"The idea is to at the very least have it represent the best of the best that has been tried and tested in other locations and then not stop there, but to somehow have it be an authentic evolution of the heritage of Columbia, which is extraordinary."

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