Culture is keynote of Columbia forum

Meeting floats ideas on the arts

May 14, 2008|By June Arney | June Arney,Sun reporter

Downtown Columbia could be known for its carillon bell tower, its ecology museum without walls or maybe its public maze or children's garden under a cultural plan being proposed by General Growth Properties Inc.

"In most places, the years and the effort that have gone into this would not take place," said Gregory F. Hamm, General Growth's regional vice president and Columbia general manager. "But Columbia is a very different place."

Gail Dexter Lord, president of Lord Cultural Resources, shared Columbia's strengths and weaknesses with about 100 people last week at the third of three forums on specific elements of the master plan that GGP unveiled April 28.

Columbia has diverse arts and educational opportunities, reasonably priced cultural events and talented professionals. But those arts elements are decentralized, don't meet 21st-century needs, and events and programs are not designed to draw a regional audience, she said.

"Culture is one of the forces that can create a truly great gathering place," she said at Thursday night's meeting. "The plan will fulfill Jim Rouse's aspiration for Columbia by developing a strong cultural dimension. It will create a center for the community that isn't a shopping mall."

Lord suggested forming an advisory committee to study cultural attractions for Columbia - one with diverse members that would include teenagers who would bring a different set of ideas to the table.

GGP's plans call for a first phase that includes a skating rink that converts to an open air market in the summer, 300,000 square feet of new retail space, 200,000 square feet of office space and a new hotel.

A makeover of Merriweather Post Pavilion is a key piece of the plan, along with the addition of new cultural attractions nearby, perhaps including a children's theater, a specialized library and a visitors center.

The redevelopment of downtown, a plan that would span three decades, would include, in the near term, pedestrian walkways connecting The Mall in Columbia to the lakefront and to Merriweather. It is the first major renovation of the Howard County planned community since it was built 40 years ago.

Lord described a themed library that could have separate rooms for kids and adults.

The creation of a center for small cities could capitalize on the legacy of Rouse and turn Columbia's archives into an attraction. The idea of an institution that would study cities is especially timely given that 2008 is the first year in human history when more than half the world's population lives in cities, she noted.

"We've been flying the idea various places, and we've found people are getting very excited about this idea," she said. "It's an opportunity to dream. We see this as an important piece of this cultural plan."

Additional professional exhibition space would help attract exciting events and incubator space would bring in fresh ideas, she said.

Critical to a focus for downtown is creating a central place. Attractions that could help create that sense of place include a sculpture garden, water features such as fountains, a maze, a dog park, a farmers' market or a children's garden, Lord said.

"The comment has been made that we showed the dessert before the main course," Hamm said. "I wouldn't quarrel with that. We would like to create a place where employers would say, 'We'd like to move our company there.' If we serve the dessert first, our hope is that we'll attract more employers, and you will be able to walk to work."

GGP officials originally said they would release some details of the residential component of the project in June but now say they will try to show at least some information about heights and specific locations this month, Hamm said.

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