40 Years Later, Columbia Is Torn On How to Follow Founder's Ideal

Performer John
Performer John "Kinderman" Taylor gets a little help Thursday from Aly Wagner, 6, left, of Ellicott City; Ethan Berry, 3, of Woodstock; and Connor Whipple, 4, of Columbia at Dorsey's Search Village as part of Columbia's 40th anniversary celebration. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Susan DeFord
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 16, 2007

The chance to get a glimpse via videotape of developer James Rouse, the charismatic founder of Columbia who died in 1996, recently drew an audience of more than 70 people to a retirement home. The man who enthusiastically pushed grand schemes throughout his life had a message in a 1987 recording for the modern-day audience:

"Everybody has a vested negative," Rouse said. "You have to deal with that for lots of hours before people are willing to open up."

Afterward, resident Brian England asked, "Do you see another Rouse coming to the surface here in Columbia?"

As residents yesterday ended 40 days of celebration to mark the 40th anniversary of the founding of one of the nation's earliest planned communities, many are asking: What's next? How does Columbia grow without losing the qualities that make it unique?

Many residents agree that this unincorporated community of nearly 100,000 people, midway between Washington and Baltimore, has to allow more development to help fill the region's need for housing. But that's where the agreement ends.

Nearly two years of county-sponsored planning sessions, focus groups, analyses and draft proposals has produced little consensus on what needs to be done in the next 30 years.

Efforts to knit together the scattered pieces of Town Center, Columbia's downtown, which has the largest undeveloped tracts in the community, have been protracted and difficult.

It's harder now, said Howard County Council member Mary Kay Sigaty (D-West Columbia), because "we're looking at doing something in downtown with 100,000 people around it. Forty years ago, we were looking at 14,000 acres of farmland. It's a very different landscape."

Early Columbia "had a character, a heart, like no city I've ever seen before," said Joseph Rocco Mitchell, co-author of a recently published book on Columbia, "New City Upon a Hill," and a history teacher in Howard.

"It brought a breath of liberalism to Howard County at a time when it was stiflingly conservative."

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Rouse was a successful Baltimore mortgage banker and shopping mall developer whose interest in urban renewal led to him to try to build more-inclusive communities.

"Will we provide new communities sensitively designed to meet the real needs of people, shaped to be in scale with people -- communities in which people feel important and uplifted?" he asked in a speech in Berkeley, Calif., in September 1963.

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