Though many of Columbia's 90,000 residents are devout in their love for the planned community, with its carefully maintained homes, man-made lakes and abundant amenities, some have admitted to being gnawed by the lack of something central, even vital.

Something like the vibrant, seemingly magical Town Center discussed by the planning team hired by developer James W. Rouse when this community began to rise from 14,000 acres of Howard County farmland more than 40 years ago.

Those early planners envisioned a place of fresh air, market stalls, sun-dappled walkways and cafes at the center of Columbia. They likened it to Tivoli, the sparkling pleasure garden at the heart of Copenhagen. The Rouse Co. was primarily a builder of shopping centers, however, and what Columbia ended up with was a suburban shopping mall, ringed by an asphalt parking lot.

"The money guys won out," said William Finley, a developer in Florida and a member of that original team.

But the desire for a real Town Center -- perhaps even a Tivoli -- has endured. And yesterday, an estimated 300 residents, business leaders and advocates gathered around huge paper maps spread out on cafeteria tables at Wilde Lake High School to see whether they could recapture the urbane magic of those early visions for Columbia's Town Center.

"Where is the Metro stop going to be?" asked Oakland Mills resident Brenda Graham, a marketer and retired nurse.

Joel Broida hoped for a community garden, Joann Stolley for a Jewish deli.

Armed with colorful cards depicting farmers markets, tree-lined avenues and public transit lines, coached by a team of urban planners hired by Howard County, the volunteer visionaries embarked upon an intensive, week-long process known as a charette, a creative workshop with the goal of developing a tangible master plan for the lively, colorful, walkable downtown that Columbia has been waiting for all these years.

"I feel our downtown is a parking lot. . . . I want to think past the black hole," said Mary Kay Sigaty, a school board member who lives a few blocks from the mall, hunkered over a map. She exhorted the other members of her team to think about how Howard County could look in 20 to 30 years.

"This is and should be the urban core of Howard County," Sigaty said.

Many spoke of the need for safe handicap-accessible walking routes.

The man-made Lake Kittamaqundi, originally envisioned as the true center of Columbia, is separated from the mall by the parking lot and busy Little Patuxent Parkway (Route 175). Isolated too are other elements that could contribute to a real town center; the venerable Merriweather Post Pavilion concert venue, the parklike Symphony Woods, a library.

"We have some of the pieces," said County Council member and Zoning Board Chairman Ken Ulman (D-West Columbia).

They need to be connected somehow, into something richer, he said. Plans hinge upon the future of the last large undeveloped parcel of land at town center -- 51.7 acres left at the center of town near the concert amphitheater, known as the Crescent property.

The land is owned by General Growth Properties Inc., which acquired Rouse last year. When the giant Chicago-based developer took over, it proposed downsizing Merriweather Post Pavilion and building high-density housing on the Crescent property.

In response to community opposition, the developer revised its original proposal, presenting instead a design that would retain the amphitheater and make it the center of new development including housing, retail, office and commercial space. That plan will go into the mix, county officials have said.

"There was supposed to be a Tivoli. . . . a really special place," Ulman said. "I don't think we have that now."

Yesterday, Ulman walked through the room, beaming, as tables full of people spun out their dreams for energy-efficient senior housing, new sidewalks and maybe a bakery.