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

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.

A month later, he stood before the Howard County Commission, informing its three anti-growth members that his company had quietly purchased, in less than a year, a tenth of the county's land to create a new town.

Rouse had assembled a team of architects, urban planners and social scientists to create what he termed "a garden for growing people." In a rural county where schools were segregated and where zoning for apartments or townhouses didn't exist, Rouse Co. officials envisioned nine villages ringing a Town Center, with clustered housing that left room for open land and hiking paths, schools, businesses and shopping centers.

Howard residents, recalled former Rouse official William Finley, wanted to know how the scheme would affect local taxes. And they asked what Rouse planned to do about the area's black residents.

Rouse replied the city would be open "to all Americans," Finley said. A native Marylander with a rumpled, old-shoe style, Rouse won over his conservative audience.

Barbara Russell and her former husband Charles were an interracial couple and among the first hundred people to move to Columbia in 1967. They were touched by the welcome they received at a time when interracial couples faced ostracism.

"They asked, 'Would you like to rent an apartment?' " recalled Russell, now head of the Columbia Association Board of Directors, which sets policy for the community's large homeowners organization. "We asked, 'Where do we sign?' "

Nan Powell and her husband, Charles, said they moved with their four children from Kansas to Columbia in 1971 because of the "Rouse vision."

"We wanted our children to live in a community where all races and all religions are encouraged," she said.

How to stay true to those "Rousian" ideals is part of conversations about Columbia's future. General Growth Properties Inc., which purchased the Rouse Co. in 2004, has assumed the role of master developer, controlling 95 of the 110 acres that are the focus of redevelopment.

For months, the Chicago-based company has worked with the New York architecture and urban design firm of Cooper, Robertson & Partners to craft development details for its Town Center holdings, which include the Mall in Columbia and Merriweather Post Pavilion, an outdoor concert venue.

"We're not at the point where we have finalized the plans, but I can say very forcefully that density is the big issue in making the long-term plan successful," said Douglas M. Godine, the company's manager for Columbia and a former Rouse Co. official.

The county's draft master plan calls for up to 5,500 new residences, 3 million square feet of office space and 750,000 square feet of retail space in Town Center over the next 30 years, plans General Growth endorses. But results of a detailed traffic study have yet to be completed.

Planning for redevelopment has been upstaged, however, by debate over whether a county-permitted, 22-story condominium tower for downtown should proceed with construction or would be out of place in Columbia.

Cityscapes with dense, high-rise development are "completely out of character with the human-scale development Jim Rouse proposed," said Lloyd Knowles, who served on the Howard Planning Board and County Council from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s. Columbia "wasn't meant to be an imitation of a city like Bethesda."

But experts say Columbia's urban design concepts of cul-de-sacs, curvilinear streets and a mall surrounded by acres of parking downtown have aged and are too dependent on cars. The place that offered neighborhoods where young families could grow now boasts homes that many find beyond their reach financially.

Still, would the intensely compact development that characterizes the "new urbanism" style fit Columbia? In other words, what would James Rouse do?

"Jim would find that laughable, that attitude of always looking back," said Warren W. Wilson, General Growth's senior vice president for development, who grew up in Howard. "He looked forward. He didn't look back."

Staff writer Mary Otto contributed to this report.

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