In Columbia, Mall Management Doesn't See the Point of Poinsettias

At The Mall in Columbia, the Poinsettia Tree has always symbolized the season.
At The Mall in Columbia, the Poinsettia Tree has always symbolized the season. (By Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)
By Marc Fisher
Thursday, December 13, 2007

In Washington, the National Christmas Tree is such a draw, it can cause monumental traffic jams. In New York, the tree at Rockefeller Center has attracted generations of families from around the globe. And in Columbia, the symbol of the season has always been the Poinsettia Tree in the center court of The Mall, the Howard County town's main shopping venue.

Of course, "always" in the 40-year-old planned community of Columbia means just since the mall opened in 1971. And this tree is made of steel, and it's in a 1.4 million-square-foot shopping center. But for such a young town, this is tradition. So when the Poinsettia Tree, a 20-foot-tall structure that holds up 685 potted poinsettia plants, failed to appear this Christmastime, the reaction was fierce.

When a couple of hundred suburban adults gather in silent protest, each holding a lone poinsettia plant, you know something has struck a chord.

The mall's management company, Greater Growth Properties, scratched the holiday display because "we just felt there needs to be an evolution and a flow to keep environments fresh," said mall Senior General Manager Karen Geary. That has left the center court fountain with no special Christmas attraction, unless you count the Land Rovers being shown by a car dealership.

Geary figured a few folks might be sad to see the tradition end, but she had no idea things would go this far. "I can't speak to the emotional attachment," she told me. "Change in our community is very difficult."

For longtime residents who had used the tree as backdrop for their family photos every December, this was a dastardly, Scrooge-like deed that speaks of the decline of neighborly connections, the triumph of profit over people and a lost connection to Columbia's ideals as a planned community.

People called the mall managers grinches, recalling that The Tree has appeared on postcards and posters and served as the model for poinsettia displays in a dozen other malls built by the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer.

"The Tree was a symbol of how Columbia was different," said Dennis Lane, who grew up in the town, blogs about it and writes a column for the Business Monthly, a local paper. "It's a non-political statement, a thing of beauty. I live in Ellicott City now, and it has a definable center and a long history. Columbia yearns for that. It's a suburb on steroids that holds tight to any tradition it has."

"We don't have a lot of shared memories," said Claire Lea, 69, who organized the protest along with Sandi Carbotti and Janet Shinskie, friends since they all moved into then-brand new Columbia in 1968. If she had her druthers, Lea would rally around a more rousing symbol of community, but, she said, "The Tree is what we have. In the winter, the mall is our downtown. The kids bring their choruses to sing there. The Tree has just always been there.

"What were they thinking?" she wondered of the mall managers. "Did they think we would not notice? It's just so sad the community wasn't involved in this decision."

That expectation is what makes Columbia different. In most places, no mall would be expected to run marketing decisions past its customers. But in Columbia, where the mall developer was the same guy who planned the town, built the houses and set up the governance, Jim Rouse would have called a town meeting to talk about such a move.

Rouse died in 1996. His company was sold to General Growth in 2004. Suddenly, the town's biggest landowner was based not in Columbia, but in Chicago.

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