Columbia has always been a place apart in Maryland.
The late James Rouse founded the community in 1967 to re-create the American small-town experience in his own utopian vision: a place where all races and classes could live together while having all their needs, including shopping, schools and recreation, within walking distance of home.
It hasn't all worked out that way. Housing prices, for example, have leapt beyond the reach of many children of the original residents, and the community of 97,000, like most suburbs, is very reliant on the car. Local leaders and the company that bears Rouse's name (he left in 1979 and died in 1996) don't always see eye-to-eye on key development issues. Still, his legacy is revered by many in Columbia, and in many ways it remains integral to the town's identity.
So the news last week that the Rouse Co. was being bought by a large Chicago corporation whose specialty is shopping malls left many residents wondering what it will mean for them. The firm has remained a presence in Columbia even as it moved on to other development projects. Many of the 200 employees at Rouse's lakeside headquarters are friends and neighbors who attend PTA meetings and volunteer in the community. They also help steer Rouse's abundant corporate donations. What will happen to those people is not clear.
The biggest long-term impact could be on Columbia's downtown, the commercial center of Howard County. General Growth Properties, the firm buying Rouse's assets for $7.2 billion, subject to approval by Rouse shareholders, has limited experience in community development. Residents anxiously wonder what the company's approach will be.
"Hopefully, their priorities are in line with the residents of Columbia and Howard County," said County Council member and zoning board chairman Ken Ulman (D-West Columbia), whose parents were among the community's early settlers.
For many in Columbia, that means heavy community involvement in making decisions. It also means a commitment to mixed-used development and moderate income housing and a fidelity to the Rouse aesthetic, a leafy, contemporary look.
Although Rouse Co. no longer owns major parcels of open land in Columbia, it has left considerable unfinished business in the area that General Growth will either close out itself or spin off in another sale.
This includes the completion of Town Center, Columbia's downtown, a mix of small and large retail, office buildings, housing, a man-made lake and Merriweather Post Pavilion, the outdoor amphitheater that has hosted many legendary musicians over the years.
For all the devotion to the Rouse legacy, the community and the company disagree on some downtown issues. Some local leaders talk about using the last stages of Town Center -- including 51 tree-shrouded acres adjacent to the pavilion -- to make downtown Columbia more pedestrian-friendly, possibly creating a network of bridges and expanding pathways that already link different parts of the community.
But Rouse Co. recently proposed selling the pavilion, recommending that it be downsized and enclosed. It also said it wanted to develop the adjacent land with a mix of commercial and retail, possibly including two big-box stores. Such businesses have never been built in Columbia's downtown, but they can be found on the community's eastern edge, about three miles from the property Rouse was hoping to develop next to the pavilion.
And although Howard County government has traditionally given Rouse wide development berth, especially in the early days, residents have complained in recent years that the company has been less forthcoming about its plans since Rouse's departure.
A series of zoning board hearings last year, over a proposed housing and retail development downtown, filled 1,000 pages in a loose-leaf binder. The proposal also is the subject of a lawsuit between Rouse and the county, filed by the company after the zoning board made a rare decision to reject Rouse's plan.
The company has said "trust us and let us build," said Barbara Russell, who has lived in Columbia since 1967 and is a member of the Columbia Association's council, the local governing board. "But almost anything they can do in downtown Columbia will affect people's lifestyle and property values."
The proposed takeover by General Growth, whose holdings include Tysons Galleria and Landmark Mall, also comes as some Columbia residents are pondering options, such as tightening a loose set of zoning laws tailored to Rouse's "new town" concept or perhaps some day incorporating and becoming Maryland's second-largest municipality.
Much hinges on General Growth's attitude toward the community. One sign that residents regard as hopeful was the company's announcement that as part of its purchase, General Growth would make a one-time, $20 million payment to the Rouse Co.'s foundation.
It's the kind of corporate largesse that Columbians grew accustomed to under Rouse. At Howard Community College, for example, which owes it existence to James Rouse for plotting its site as part of the Columbia master plan, President Mary Ellen Duncan is watching over the construction of a new arts building complete with black box theater, which is being partly funded by a $350,000 Rouse Co. gift.
"It has been a constant thread over all these years," Duncan said.