Sixteen years have passed since the former banker's dream of city living in the country became a reality, and tonight about 300 Columbia residents marked their town's anniversary in grand style--with a 60-pound birthday cake, an outdoor show and song.

" 'Sweet Sixteen' kind of means never been kissed, but Columbia has been kissed by one blessing after another," said James Rouse, 67, who designed the community in central Howard County as an alternative to Washington and Baltimore.

Rouse, who left a 25-year career in mortgage banking to design award-winning developments that now include Baltimore's Harbor Place and the newly opened Waterside Mall in Norfolk, called Columbia his "most fulfilling achievement."

"We never thought of Columbia in terms of a perfect city," he said in an interview. "All along we said we just want to build a better one, a city where the basic neighborhood-village concept could work."

Tonight's 90-minute celebration was held near the Rouse company's building, in a grassy, tree-shaded amphitheater on the shores of Lake Kittamaqundi. The festivities, which included a stage show by local middle school students and awards for local volunteer workers, kicked off a three day, city-wide fair that has been held annually since 1976.

For Rouse, Columbia at 16 represented a kind of coming of age for this community of 18,000 families, which sprouted from a core of only 400 families in 1967.

The roots of the 21-square-mile area of parks, community centers and man-made lakes were anchored in "our thinking that there was a better way for our city to go, something better than aimless urban sprawl," said Rouse, a genial, balding man with horn-rimmed glasses and a big smile.

"You could look at the Baltimore-Washington area and see that it was going to grow by a million people in 15 years," he said. "It wasn't a big thing to take 100,000 of that growth and plan it rationally."

Working from a concept of small English-style villages, Rouse and his designers planned roads on old cowpaths and nestled whimsically named communities in stream valleys. As it grew, the "new town" became a model for the style of city planning Rouse envisioned.

Since its founding, Columbia has become a "pluralistic community that really works," said Rouse's wife, Patty.

"We never felt like we were pioneers or part of any experiment when we moved here," said Mickey Dunham, 63, who settled here on July 5, 1967, "but the longer we were here the more we felt like we were part of something that has really taken off."