At 50, vision for Columbia is still a work in progress

Rouse announced huge land buy, community plan in October 1963

October 30, 2013|By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

Ian Kennedy's short walk to lunch from his office in Columbia's Town Center takes him through shopping mall parking lots and a parking garage — or along a sidewalk where lampposts block the way.

It's enough to make him feel that as a pedestrian in a car-centric community, he's in an "alien environment. ... A man on the moon, there are times you feel that way. Almost like you're trespassing," he said.

Perhaps that's not what Columbia founder James W. Rouse had in mind in his quest to create a new breed of city to nurture the human spirit. Fifty years after Rouse announced that his company had bought 14,100 acres in Howard County and was going to build a planned community, the latest effort to fulfill that aspiration has just begun.

Construction sites have sprung up from the northwest side of The Mall in Columbia down to the edge of Lake Kittamaqundi as part of a 30-year plan to remake the Town Center into a more walkable space with more apartment buildings, offices and stores. A Whole Foods market and Foreman Wolf restaurant are on the way, and renovations have recently been completed at an office building and the Town Center's landmark restaurant, Clyde's, on the lakefront.

The work is the first to begin under a redevelopment plan that allows up to 5,500 new apartments and townhouses, which could greatly increase the downtown population. The plan could add up to 4.3 million square feet of office space to the current 2.5 million and up to 1.25 million square feet of stores and hotels.

"Columbia has not achieved its full potential yet, and it won't achieve it until there is an alive downtown. ... That's the missing piece," said Padraic Kennedy, who was Rouse's choice to be the first president of the Columbia Association, the nonprofit organization that maintains open space and an array of community services, swimming pools and recreation centers.

Surrounded by nine residential villages, Columbia's downtown has become the "doughnut hole" in the center, said Kennedy, though it's not exactly empty. It is home to about 3,100 people and 8,700 jobs, to the Merriweather Post Pavilion and to Symphony Woods, site of the annual Wine in the Woods Festival, and the lakefront, a venue for many summer events.

And yet, with its wide thoroughfares, office buildings and expansive parking lots, the 355-acre Town Center "just feels empty, like you're in a big open space and no one else is there," said Tom Coale, a former Columbia Association member and popular blogger from the Village of Dorsey's Search. "There really is no hustle and bustle. ... Part of that is the absence of density, of people living downtown."

Ian Kennedy, who lives in the Village of Oakland Mills and serves on the Downtown Arts and Cultural Commission created under the downtown redevelopment plan, said that "the talk was always that Columbia would be a true city. A true city needs a true downtown."

Home to more than 90,000 people, Columbia would be Maryland's second-largest city — after Baltimore — if it were incorporated as a city, which it isn't.

If Rouse never pursued that legal designation, he made it clear that his company's goal was to create a "real city."

He didn't make it clear right away, though. On Oct. 30, 1963, Rouse issued a four-page news release announcing that he was the man behind more than 140 farmland purchases made over the course of about nine months of frantic buying under straw company names: Farmingdale Inc., Potomac Estates Inc., Serenity Acres Inc., among others.

Rouse hoped to avoid alarming his audience, so he never used the word "city" in that release, or in his remarks to the three county commissioners, whom he had briefed in a public meeting the day before. He certainly never mentioned his dream of a racially integrated community, not while he was beginning the task of winning support for a project in a county still in the midst of public school desegregation.

He wrote in the release and told the commissioners that his purpose was to create a "community," and he emphasized his intention to preserve natural features, create lakes, parks and "greenbelts that will separate and give identity, scale and protection to the developed areas."

The three Republican commissioners, who had just been elected on a no-growth platform, did not immediately oppose the idea, but seemed somewhat taken aback, recalled William E. Finley, the project manager, who was with Rouse when he told them.

"Their response was, 'You're going to do what? In my county?'" said Finley, who now lives in South Florida.

Asked a few days later to explain his low-key approach, Rouse wrote that he meant to "do everything possible to abate fear and stimulate hope among the people of Howard County. ... We were inclined to soft pedal a bit the possible size of the new community, and we avoided any mention of words such as 'new town' or 'new city.'"

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