An old idea is getting a new hearing in Columbia. General Growth Properties, owner of the Rouse Co., says it wants to create a bustling urban core for that city.

That's exactly what Jim Rouse, Columbia's developer, had in mind 40 years ago when he created Columbia, but he was unable to bring it off. General Growth probably won't either.

Rouse loved cities. He loved the marketplaces, the busy streets, the parade of people. But he also loved the friendliness and ease of small towns, such as Easton on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where he spent an idyllic boyhood. Rouse wanted Columbia to be a city, but he wanted its outlying areas to be small town.

Rouse was a believer in malls too. He thought they could be a main street of sorts for scattered suburbanites, providing some of the social contacts that can be so difficult to find in suburbia. In New Jersey, he built the Cherry Hill Mall, which unified a sprawl of townships.

In Columbia, Rouse's two loves were at odds, though, and the mall won out over the outdoors street scene.

In March 1966 Rouse received a letter from the noted architect Victor Gruen, his collaborator on the Cherry Hill Mall. Gruen told Rouse that he was making a mistake with downtown Columbia because his plan did not "fuse" retail, office and residential development with cultural, artistic and civic activities. Without that fusion, Gruen warned, Rouse could not create a truly urban environment.

Rouse responded that downtown Columbia would have perhaps "the most comprehensive range of activities and services that has ever been contemplated in a new town center." He planned six department stores, 1.5 million square feet of office space, 800 hotel rooms, a concert hall and a university. The downtown he envisioned also would have branches of the Peabody Conservatory of Music, the Maryland Institute of Art, Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art and a 25-acre area for culture, entertainment and recreation. The last would be similar to Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens, with restaurants, bandstands, theaters, nightclubs, an amusement park, ice rink, roller rink and marina. Its music pavilion would be the summer headquarters of the National Symphony. But of all these planned amenities, only the music pavilion came to fruition.

Rouse told Gruen, "We have considered and rejected the compaction of these functions into a multi-level center because we consider it less human, less efficient, less economic. . . . There will be enormous variety and change in the Town Center of Columbia . . . . We hope and believe it will be a place in which a person feels comfortable, stimulated, delighted, friendly -- as well as a place in which business works well. . . ."

But time has shown that Gruen was right. Downtown Columbia suffers from, to use another Gruen term, a lack of "compaction." The passing parade is inside the mall; so are most of the amenities that Rouse wanted for downtown streets.

The downtown loop, Little Patuxent Parkway, separates the mall from the major office buildings and the lakeside plaza. A pedestrian bridge crosses the parkway, but it is a minimal joining of the two parts. To get from one area to the other, most people drive. Each part is comfortable and stimulating, but the whole lacks that compaction.

A luxury condo complex is being completed, and General Growth undoubtedly will add a few more recreational amenities. But Columbia will never have the kind of bustling downtown Rouse envisioned.

-- Paul Marx

wrote a biography of Jim Rouse.