When David Tucker talks about his suburb's need for a bustling, round-the-clock town center, he inevitably refers to what might be called the Great Pastrami Promise.

"Back in the early days of Columbia, {town founder} Jim Rouse promised us a place where we could get a hot pastrami sandwich at 3 o'clock in the morning," said Tucker, 56. "We liked that. For us, it meant this community was going to be something more than just a suburb."

Tucker, who moved to Columbia in 1971, is still waiting for his all-night deli. But the desire to bring the diversity of downtown closer to home is a feeling that is catching on in the outer suburbs.

Many residents in Washington's outlying suburbs are finding they want something more than fast-food outlets, shopping malls and multi-screen theaters in their communities. They want the happy hubbub that traditionally goes with a big-city downtown, except on a smaller, more suburban scale.

"We live in a region that's almost like a boom town in the Gold Rush," said Gary Maule, a part-owner of Land/Design Research Inc., a firm that is helping several area communities carve out town centers. "Everything went up so fast that people are starting to wonder how they can rebuild things to give it all a sense of permanence."

In Howard County, for example, planners envision Columbia's downtown as eventually becoming the county's principal focal point for cultural, business and shopping activities.

To make that happen, the county's recently adopted 20-year blueprint for development, the General Plan, suggests that town center land be set aside for art galleries, music halls, government offices and even a bus and rail center.

The plan encourages Columbia's developer, the Rouse Co., to establish more residences in the downtown area so the center doesn't become a ghost town after 5 p.m. It also suggests that improvements be made to the road and sidewalk network to make getting around easier.

County planners are not the only people interested in creating a new downtown in Howard County. Columbia's giant property owners organization, the Columbia Association, has unveiled a $6.4 million plan to enhance and repair downtown public spaces. The association is hoping the county will pick up about $1 million of the costs and the Rouse Co. will pay about $1.1 million.

In developing town center plans, county officials and residents are trying to improve upon a downtown scheme originally conceived by the Rouse Co. in 1967. That plan always imagined a busy downtown, but so far the expectations have not been met.

Only about one-third of Columbia's downtown, as envisioned by the Rouse Co., is in place after 23 years of development.

The slow progress reflects the difficulty in creating a new town center, even in a place like Columbia, where town center development got off to a good start.

The first houses in Columbia had hardly been built when the community already had an identifiable town center, complete with a man-made lake called Lake Kittamaqundi, low- and mid-rise office buildings, a movie house and a hotel.

Down the street, newcomers could find a dinner theater and Merriweather Post Pavilion, an outdoor amphitheater, surrounded by a 40-acre park called Symphony Woods.

A few years later, Rouse built Columbia Mall across Little Patuxent Parkway from the lake. The region's first shopping mall quickly became a kind of Main Street for many residents.

But after the mall was built, downtown development came slowly. The county built its main library between Lake Kittamaqundi and Symphony Woods, and about a dozen office buildings popped up around the shopping center.

Community leaders said the town center today is too small to support the diversity of activities they would like to see. They added that the situation might not be so bad if it were not so difficult to walk around downtown.

Walking from a busy shopping mall surrounded by parking lots to nearby Lake Kittamaqundi is daunting. The central library is virtually landlocked by two busy roads. And a busy road separates the shopping mall from Symphony Woods.

"The downtown seems like it was almost designed for the automobile," said Jeffers Hill resident Richard Lewis. "There's a feeling that everything is being built separately without much regard for the whole."

Lewis, a 15-year Columbia resident, is a member of a town center advocacy group called the Downtown Task Force of the Columbia Voyage, a civic group looking at the county's future. Lewis said the task force members hope that by encouraging greater density in Columbia's downtown, they will create a demand for more restaurants, sidewalk cafes, street-level boutiques, playhouses and art galleries.

The group wants increased density so badly that it has been known to criticize Rouse for not developing big enough buildings in Columbia's downtown. And members have patted themselves on the back when community events create traffic jams.

"When we saw all those cars we thought we had it made," Lewis said of a Columbia arts festival.

Some members of the group have begun to wonder whether the Rouse Co.'s commitment to developing a downtown is beginning to wane. They fear that the company may be more interested in marketing land it owns near Interstate 95 to the east of the downtown than seeking projects for the town center.

Rouse officials dispute the contentions.

"We don't tell people not to go downtown," said Alton J. Scavo, Rouse vice president for planning and design. "The problem right now is that the Columbia downtown is not as attractive to some people as being near Interstate 95. Think of I-95 as an ocean. Some people like to be on the beach, instead of several blocks away from the ocean."

Scavo admits that development of Columbia's downtown "is going much slower than we would like, but I'm not sure it's going slower than the reality of the situation. It's easy to forget that downtown Boston or downtown Washington didn't happen in 23 years."

Time is not the only consideration. Not everyone is enamored of the prospect of a busy downtown. Some residents are wary of causing more traffic congestion. And they don't want to see the trees ringing Columbia Mall chopped down to make room for new offices.

The community's ambivalence is one reason the Columbia Association is proceeding cautiously on its downtown renovation and construction plan. The plan calls for completing a path around Lake Kittamaqundi, refurbishing existing plazas and adding new ones by filling in two coves on the west side of the lake. Also, there are plans for sidewalks along Little Patuxent Parkway.

The plans for sidewalks stem from one of the important lessons Rouse Co. officials learned about creating downtowns, Scavo said.

"If we have learned one thing over the years, it is that people like more diversity, not less," Scavo said.