Architecture Column


Bold ideas advanced for revamping Columbia

May 05, 2008|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Some longtime residents will readily admit that one of the flaws of Columbia - the scrupulously planned Howard County community that urban visionary James Rouse launched as a development model in the 1960s - is that it opened without a cemetery, as if no one would ever die there.

But a more serious flaw is that Columbia has never developed much of an urban center - a walkable Main Street or public square where people can gather and carry out many of the rituals of civic life.

The community of roughly 100,000 residents has a picturesque lakefront, an impressive shopping mall, a popular concert pavilion, excellent schools and attractive residential villages. It has more than its share of parkways and loop roads and curving streets with poetic names.

But for all of its greenery and other amenities, Columbia lacks the sense of place one immediately finds in Annapolis, Georgetown or other communities based on traditional town-planning principles, including the late Rouse's hometown of Easton.

Forty years after the first residents moved in, one is hard-pressed to find conventional intersections where roads cross at right angles, much less a rectilinear street grid that is the hallmark of most successful towns and cities. Aside from the lakefront, perhaps, "there is no `there' there," as the writer Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, Calif.

All that would finally change if builders follow recommendations in a new master plan that is being developed to guide the growth of Columbia's town center over the next 30 years.

The first phase calls for the creation of a pedestrian-friendly "cultural spine" that would link The Mall in Columbia with the Merriweather Post Pavilion and add more cultural amenities along the way. Branching off from this cultural corridor would be a new greenway with tree-lined terraces and lushly planted pathways that would connect the mall and concert pavilion with Lake Kittamaqundi. It would be Columbia's version of the Spanish Steps in Rome. These are the sorts of sophisticated public spaces that have the potential to give Columbia the memorable urban core it lacks today.

The plans for the cultural spine and "Steps to the Lake" are just a few of the ideas proposed by General Growth Properties, the company that bought the Rouse Co. in 2004 and now controls much of the land in the town center. One of its top executives is Thomas D'Alesandro IV, a Maryland native whose father and grandfather both served as mayor of Baltimore. His aunt is Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

As part of the company's effort to map out a strategy for future development in Columbia's town center, D'Alesandro turned to some of the nation's leading thinkers in the fields of planning and design, just as Rouse consulted leading thinkers in the 1960s.

The planners include Cooper, Robertson & Partners, which has developed plans for successful urban places such as Battery Park City in New York and Celebration, Fla.; Sasaki Associates of Boston, a nationally prominent land planner, Gail Dexter Lord, who specializes in cultural planning, and Biohabitats, a specialist in ecological planning.

They've studied other successful communities and developments that contain a mix of uses, from Reston, Va., and The Woodlands in Texas to Val d'Europe in France and Santana Row in San Jose, Calif. D'Alesandro, who helped develop Reston and the Woodlands, encouraged the designers to build on Rouse's vision for Columbia but also draw on ideas that weren't in vogue when Columbia was planned, such as the "New Urbanist" movement that looks to proven town-planning strategies from the past, and strategies for "green design" and environmental sustainability.

For the first phase, planners focused on the public realm, as opposed to private buildings. Their idea was to create stronger links between the million-square-foot mall and other key destinations, and establish a framework for all that would follow.

A direct link to the lakefront was not easy to achieve because General Growth didn't control all the land that would be needed. But it did control most of the land needed to link the mall with Symphony Woods, the area around the concert pavilion.

Knowing that, the planners proposed a pedestrian spine connecting the mall with the concert pavilion - a 10-minute walk to the south. Along the way would be sites for new buildings and attractions that could reinforce the idea of a cultural corridor and community gathering place - a skating rink, a relocated Howard County library branch, a new home for Toby's Dinner Theatre, a hotel and possible new quarters for the Columbia Association and Columbia Archives.

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