Reimagining 'New Town' Columbia as a New City

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, January 17, 2009

Columbia has never looked or felt like a city, despite being the size of one. Is it time for that to change?

Founded as a "new town" four decades ago by James Rouse, Columbia is still not an incorporated municipality but rather an area, albeit a large one, of Howard County. It encompasses many land uses and nearly 100,000 people but has remained predominantly a bedroom community. Columbia is "sub-urban" and continues to convey a pastoral image, with its low density and curving parkways and streets, and looping drives and cul-de-sacs.

But that could change if Howard County approves a proposal on the future of Columbia's center.

General Growth Properties, a Chicago company that owns about 240 acres of the 364-acre Town Center Revitalization District, including the sprawling Mall in Columbia and acres of surface parking, has submitted an ambitious plan to reshape parts of the district into a more urban downtown.

The company's proposal, submitted as an amendment to the county's General Plan 2000, features state-of-the-art urban design thinking that is attributable to master-plan architects Cooper, Robertson & Partners and landscape architects Sasaki Associates.

While preserving the mall and buildings around it, the General Growth Properties plan superimposes a pattern of blocks and civic spaces defined by a grid of tree-lined, pedestrian-friendly streets. It also includes strategies for transportation management, parking, transit, environmental protection, sustainability, energy conservation and phasing.

Over several decades, 5,500 apartments and townhouses, 640 hotel rooms, more than 1 million square feet of retail space, and nearly 5 million square feet of office space would be added. Surface parking lots would be replaced by parking garages imbedded within blocks and made financially feasible by increased density.

Yet the plan enhances the district's open space network of landscaped plazas, pedestrian promenades and natural areas, including the Merriweather Post Pavilion and surrounding park and the underused Lake Kittamaqundi.

Because inhabitants of dense housing in the Town Center would mostly be singles and couples with few or no children, General Growth Properties and the county anticipate that growth would not strain the school system.

But not all of Columbia's residents want the Town Center to become more citylike. Many chose life in Columbia as an affordable, aesthetically desirable alternative to life in the city or an anonymous subdivision. They embraced Rouse's original "New America" vision and believe it should not be altered or jeopardized.

Despite assurances to the contrary and the county's adequate public-facilities ordinance, some residents also worry that redevelopment will overburden infrastructure -- access roads, utility systems, schools and community facilities.

In fact, it's fair to ask why Columbia needs a "real downtown," setting aside the economic motivations of the developer and the county.

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