It was midafternoon in Bowie, and the children from Kenilworth Elementary School were sauntering home.
They dawdled along streets named Kenhill and Kavanaugh and Kittery -- because this was the "K" section of town -- and eventually disappeared into houses that, while sharing the same simple solid design, had been proudly personalized with paint.
Here, a scarlet-with-white trim; there, a stately two-tone gray; at the corner, white-with-turquoise shutters; across the street, rust and cream. Every one of them, it seemed, had a carport and a driveway and a well-tended patch of lawn. On nearby Rte. 197, the traffic quickened, the first commuters from the District headed home.
This is suburbia. This is Bowie the planned town, the family town, where the median household income is $32,670 and where the crime rate is among the lowest in the metropolitan area.
But this stable bedroom community in rural northeastern Prince George's County is also about to become Bowie the boom town.
More than $1 billion in residential, commercial and retail development is in the the initial stages of work and is expected to be completed in the next 20 years. Clustered in an area bounded by busy Rtes. 50, 197 and 3/301, the projects include the New Town Center, featuring offices, town houses, and a regional shopping mall likely to be centered around such stores as Bloomingdale's and Lord & Taylor; the Maryland Science and Technology Center, involving a "super computing research center," and the International Renaissance Center, including high-rise offices, a hotel and a convention center.
And when it comes to future building, many believe -- and some fear -- that the Bowie area, an easy 18 miles east of Washington and 24 miles south of Baltimore, is viewed as the new frontier.
"Bowie's been discovered," said Mark Vogel, president of the D.C. firm that is developing the New Town Center. "People from California and New York looking for office space in the area used to say, 'I want something in Montgomery County or Fairfax County.' Now they're saying 'Bowie and the Greenbelt area.' Bowie is now seen as a place people want to be."
That growing interest means certain change for Bowie and its 37,000 residents. Within 15 years, Mayor Richard Logue predicts, the town's population will double to 75,000. Other residents lament that Bowie will soon be "unrecognizable." For example:
Bowie's image as a place to live but not to work will change. All told, at least 30,000 jobs will be created with the completion of the three projects alone. Because the majority of Bowie residents work in the District, more than one-third of them in long-held positions within the federal government, it appears likely that a new work force -- and a fresh influx of new Bowie residents -- will be recruited.
Bowie will no longer be a bastion of single-family houses. More than 90 percent of the dwellings currently fall into that category -- most of them built within the past 25 years by Levitt & Sons, who developed Levittown, N.Y. -- and there are few apartments in the city. However, the immediate construction of at least 2,000 condominium and apartment units is planned.
Further, the only low-income housing in Bowie is a 30-unit apartment complex for the elderly. Some residents fear that a growing population will bring a growing need for more low-income housing.
Bowie's largely homogenous population will change. The town is populated largely by white middle class, mostly college-educated families drawn to the large Levitt houses, which sold for $15,000 to $22,000 in the early 1960s. Only 4 percent of the Bowie population is black or other minorities; in contrast, nearly 50 percent of surrounding Prince George's County is black.
New residents could halt the continued "graying of Bowie," a trend based on the 1980 census -- that Bowie residents are staying put, while few young families are moving in. For many Bowie residents, the potential changes open up the traditional argument about development: Is it progress?
Opponents, who value the small-town atmosphere of Bowie and feel protective toward their homes, fear that explosive growth will transform their town into just another cluttered, indistinguishable suburb.
They fear that traffic, already heavy during rush hours, will become nightmarish with the addition of new workers and mall shoppers.
They fear that more people will mean more crime, and they are wary of "this rush to commercialize Bowie," as one resident described it.
Supporters, however, point out the job opportunities, the increased tax base, the variety of restaurants and shopping that will accompany the growth. They say that the development of the New Town Center should come as no surprise; its plans have been on the books since the early 1970s.
Back then, however, developers were confident that mass transit would extend from Washington to Bowie by the mid-1980s, a convenience that apparently "won't happen in my lifetime," Mayor Logue said.
Most of all, some residents are concerned that the development will destroy Bowie's tranquil quality.
"Most people came here for the same reasons I did," said Laird Towle, 52, a Navy physicist. "It was a quiet place to come home to from the hustle and bustle of the city, a sanctuary to return to at the end of the day."
"I'm not opposed to change," said Towle, who is a member of the Concerned Citizens Committee, a group formed out of concern over the coming development. "I like to think I change all the time, but I like to think I'm getting better. I'm not sure if Bowie's going to get better."
Bowie has both a curious history and a curious character. It is the fourth largest city in Maryland, but it does not have a downtown or a town center. It is a predominantly white area that houses a predominantly black college, Bowie State. It is a town bound by a strong sense of community -- with active Boys Clubs, Girls Clubs and PTAs -- in a county that until recently was seen as an amorphous apppendage of the District.
Originally, the area now known as Bowie was called Huntington. It, too, was to have been a planned community. In 1870, developers divided it into 500 residential plots, with space set aside for shops and a downtown. The purpose was to create a large town site at a major junction of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad.
In 1910 "The Great Fire" destroyed the community. Lost businesses were not replaced, the railroad declined to reinvest in the hotels and other facilities that had existed before the fire, and the community languished. From 1916, when it was incorporated and named Bowie for a prominent area family, until 1958, when William Levitt's firm began developing its trademark neighborhoods, the population barely exceeded 1,000. By 1974, it had exploded to 35,000.
With the intervention of Levitt, the town was divided into 21 sections -- such as Somerset, Buckingham, Foxhill, Kenilworth -- with street names in the neighborhoods corresponding to the first letter of each section; thus, the "S" section, the "B" section, the "F" section. The new residents were families with young children who were attracted to the roomy, and relatively inexpensive, Levitt houses.
"We had looked in Annapolis and couldn't find anything affordable," said Dale Grant, the president of the Concerned Citizens Committee and an acoustics engineer with the Navy who moved to Bowie in 1965. "We came over, looked at the Levitt model, liked the price and signed up. When our name came to the top of the list, they called us and told us to come pick out a site for our new house. I remember coming over here one night with a child in one hand and a flashlight in the other.
"It turned out to be a pretty good atmosphere for raising children," said Grant, a father of five.
But Grant eyes the plans for developing Bowie with something close to dismay.
"I was planning to live my life out in Bowie," he said. "I had no plans to move to Florida. Now, I don't know."
Others, however, insist that the eventual impact will not be so negative.
County Executive Parris Glendening said he will propose a $100 million bond package for major highway improvements in the county, with "a significant portion" going to road widening and expansions in the Bowie area.
"What we should have," Glendening said, "is a real nice residential core surrounded by a half-dozen quality employment centers and plenty of green space."
James E. Lyons, president of Bowie State College, is excited about the potential for growth at the liberal arts school. Bowie State has about 2,400 students, two-thirds of them black, and has been moving toward more emphasis on courses in management and computer science and more involvement in the community.
"We see ourselves playing an important part in this economic development," said Lyons, who is a member of the board of the Prince George's County Economic Development Corp. "At the same time, we do understand how some of the citizens feel who bought and built in a bedroom community and will no longer be in a bedroom community. They should be a part of the planning."
Logue could not agree more. He has delivered a message that is part resignation, part warning.
"There's nothing we can do in terms of the growth coming in," Logue said. "But we are going to try to work very closely with the developers to make sure we get only quality development here. And as new developers come to Bowie, we're going to be very wary of approving them."