Looking Past Columbia For Its Center

ARCHITECT ALAN WARD (Courtesy Sasaki - Courtesy Sasaki)
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By Susan DeFord
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 6, 2008

Alan Ward brings a sweeping vision to tough, world-class assignments. He was the principal landscape architect behind the setting for this summer's Beijing Olympics, designing a prize-winning Olympic Green that unites Beijing's ancient center and modern fringes.

Part of the inspiration for his work goes back to his hometown of Cincinnati and Crosley Field, home of the Cincinnati Reds before it was demolished in 1972. Crosley Field, he said, struck a "poetic balance between architecture and landscape; they are inseparable."

Now this architect and urban planner will try to bring that poetic balance to Columbia, in his role as a consultant to General Growth Properties Inc. Even after working in a historic world capital, he doesn't play down the planning challenges of this suburban community.

"Columbia is one of the three or four landmark American planned communities of post-World War II," said Ward, a principal with Boston-area Sasaki Associates.

Ward was scheduled to speak last night at the first of four public forums hosted by General Growth Properties, the real estate developer that acquired the former Rouse Co. in 2004. The forums, at the company's Little Patuxent Parkway offices, will precede the unveiling of the developer's draft plan for Town Center on April 28. The company's leading consultants will speak and answer questions on cultural resources, ecological planning and urban design.

For several years now, Columbia has struggled over how to perpetuate the vision of founder James Rouse while addressing the patchy downtown development that has the community looking incomplete 40 years after its inception.

In a phone interview, Ward praised a commitment to green space but said the community's planners missed an opportunity to make the walking paths a defining characteristic rather than obscuring them. The natural features of places like Washington, Savannah, Ga., and Richmond have a stronger presence, he said, "and the landscape at a number of spots wraps around the city. "By contrast, he said, "the center of Columbia is a mall."

For some residents, Lake Kittamaqundi, one of the community's three man-made lakes, is Columbia's center, and Ward recognizes the symbolic appeal of its sculpture and statuary and its draw as a gathering spot.

"I'm not convinced it will be the only center. Other more active, vibrant new spaces may emerge in addition to the lake," said Ward, who worked for 20 years on the design and development of Reston Town Center, the urban core that emerged in the Northern Virginia planned community during the 1990s.

Great cities have "multiple nodes, multiple spaces," said Ward, who is researching a book on the landscape of Rome. They surround "more than one giant building or just one park."

American planning these days, he said, aims to get people out of their cars and is more oriented to pedestrians. But in Columbia, the journey on foot "is pretty frustrating," Ward said. "It never adds up to anything. It's an isolating experience."

Ward has followed the community's debate over a proposed high-rise condominium for downtown and whether it's an appropriate addition to Columbia.

"It's tough to look at one block and say that's the future of Columbia," he said. "What's necessary is to look at the bigger picture and see if that makes sense."

He regards the years of community planning meetings and the county's revised framework document for downtown development as a necessary prelude to the work that he and the development company's consultants are doing.

"You take everybody's findings and the latest input and you respond to it, and you take it to the next step," he said. "Because it's not a simple task."

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