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Opinion: Reflections on Town Center

Taking a look at the development of Town Center through a recent walking tour put on by the Columbia Archives.

On Saturday, I took a walking tour around Town Center led by Jane Dembner, the Columbia Association's Director of Community Planning.

As you may know, I'm fairly new to Columbia. I took over the responsibilities of editing Columbia Patch in early March and have been quickly learning the ropes of a new, yet historical city.

Currently, one of the most talked-about issues in Columbia is the into a more urban, walkable downtown. I went on the tour as an opportunity to explore today's Town Center.

On a beautiful Saturday May morning, the first thing I noticed was the lack of people at the lakefront. I wondered why, in a city of 100,000 people, there weren't more people enjoying the lake—fishing, sailing, walking or connecting with their neighbors.

Dembner started off the tour by pointing out the , the bronze statue that symbolizes the interconnected Columbia that the developer James Rouse planned in the early 1970s. The tree was the former logo of the Columbia Association until it was to be more social-media friendly.

Dembner briefly explained that Town Center is slated for development. Over the next 30 years, the area will be developed in three phases to include up to 5,500 residential units, 4.3 million square feet of commercial office space, 1.25 million square feet of retail space and 640 hotel rooms, according to the Downtown Columbia website.

Recently, Howard Hughes Corporation to develop the Warfield neighborhood of Town Center with 872 new residences and 76,000 square feet of retail space.

From the lakefront, we headed into one of Columbia's 93 miles of pathways. To me, entering the pathways feels like breaking into another world where the low-rise residential buildings, winding roads and bustle of daily Columbia life are obscured by the woods, shrubs and flowers that were protected by vision of a city at one with nature.

We walked along at a brisk pace and were frequently passed by dog-walkers, joggers and mothers pushing baby strollers. We reached the Vantage Point neighborhood, where power washers were cleaning the outside of a high-rise building.

We then headed back to the lakefront plaza, where Dembner addressed the Rouse Company Headquarters building. The building was designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry in the early 70s as his career just started to take off. Rouse wanted it to be a community center for Columbia, as well as a highly functional headquarters for his development company, according to Rouse's letters, which are held at the Columbia Archives.

When it opened it was hailed as an architectural gem. But today, only about 15 Howard Hughes employees use it, said Dembner. A plan to for a grocery store fell through and a Howard Hughes official said the building would to be fully functional.

Dembner pointed out that as Gehry became famous for his free-form style, he disowned the building because of its differences from his later buildings. But, she said, he's taken a greater interest in the building recently. The building is protected due to its historical significance in Columbia, but its future remains uncertain.

Speaking with Dembner after the tour, she said it would be hard to say exactly what Town Center will look like when the development finishes. She said the current high-rise buildings that surround the lake, such as the Teacher's building which currently houses the Columbia Association, may be demolished in favor of new buildings.

She said she hopes Howard Hughes will be able to develop the Rouse Company Building into a mixed-use retail and office space building. Currently the lakefront is dominated by restaurants. In my view, adding shops to the area would encourage more people to visit and walk around.

The tour helped me to understand the difficult balance that officials determining Columbia's future face. Columbia is a large city with changing needs. they want to attract young, highly educated professionals who will energize the community and support its growth. Putting in lakefront retail and housing as part of a walkable downtown will play a large role in doing so, they said.

But at the same time, planners say they are aware development must be done with care, so as not to offend the long-time residents who came to an early Columbia with the understanding that it would be a welcoming community embedded in nature.

As I learn more about Columbia and the differing viewpoints of how the city should evolve, I look forward to delving into this subject more.

Please let me know how you feel about the changing nature of Columbia's Town Center in the comments.

monika whitlow May 14, 2012 at 08:07 PM
as a Columbia "Pioneer" I am no longer happy living here in Columbia. And you might be correct, that YOUNG, Highly-educated, Professionals will change this very very special place! And "Aging in Place" is no longer a possiblity for me.
Matt Wilson May 14, 2012 at 08:51 PM
Monika, it's worth pointing out that from the very start, the Rouse Company planned for downtown to be dense -- even denser than the plan passed by the county council a while back. If Columbia is to remain a vibrant, attractive place, the mix of housing will have to change to better reflect what newcomers like Andrew and me are looking for -- which is livable, walkable neighborhoods with diverse retail, places to eat and drink, cultural amenities, etc. The Downtown Columbia plan is our chance at that, and lots of people all over Howard County have contributed to the planning process and support it. We just need stuff to get going.
Cindy Stacy May 14, 2012 at 09:14 PM
On weekend visits to Columbia, where my grown kids live, I notice that few residents seem to be out and about in the mornings here, so that could be partly why you didn't spot many folks. Guess everyone is exhausted after the work week. I live full-time on a western MD farm, rise with the sun and, kinda enjoy a sparsely filled city on weekend mornings. That said, nightlife is different story--and Columbia would benefit with more of that!
Danna Walker (Editor) May 14, 2012 at 11:41 PM
I think Columbia is fascinating because it represents a specific vision of an era in American life. It literally stands as a monument to it, with its layout and architecture. As it changes, it shows how America's vision of a city has changed. Its history resonates nationally with urban planners, architects and sociologists. I like the conversation that Columbia evokes by its existence.
Lisa Rossi (Editor) May 15, 2012 at 12:59 PM
For another perspective on the tours, check out Duane St. Clair's blog post. http://hococonnect.blogspot.com/2012/05/columbia-archives-walking-tours.html He went on the Wilde Lake portion of the tour and saw some gorgeous homes with historical significance.
Barbara Kellner May 15, 2012 at 01:02 PM
As director of Columbia Archives I commend Andrew for seeking out ways to learn more about Columbia. As he found out, keeping Columbia true to its goals, which includes being a complete city, respecting the environment, and being a place for all people, is complex. I believe the best outcome for the future will occur as thoughtful residents, county planners, Columbia Association and private developers continue to work together to create the balance that respects the original goals and meets today's goal. As Jim Rouse said, "see the world as one of opportunity . . . It's the optimist in life who sees new possibilities, believes problems can be solved."
JH May 15, 2012 at 02:27 PM
No more apartments -- please. Columbia and Howard County have too many now. Townhouses are fine, but rental apartments will pull down the town center with the problems of urban areas. Too much traffic , heavy burden on the schools, and many other public services required to handle them ---- that means higher taxes and association fees.
Matt Wilson May 15, 2012 at 03:17 PM
JH, I see you make this comment on every article about redevelopment. Whether you approve or not, apartments and condos are coming. Demand for apartments is much stronger than demand for single-family homes now, and real estate developers and planners are responding to that demand. Demand for apartments in close-in, dense, amenity-rich neighborhoods is particularly strong. The only thing preventing more people from living in those kinds of neighborhoods is the lack of supply at prices they can afford. Vacancy rates are at or near historic lows, which contributes to rent escalation, which means renters are paying more and more of their income toward rent, increasing demand on social services. If you want greater self-sufficiency among renters, then you should support the market responding appropriately to that increased demand for apartments. So the question isn't whether apartments should be built -- they should be and they will be -- but how do we make sure that apartment communities are great places for both their residents and their neighbors. That ought to be a discussion we can all contribute meaningfully to.
JH May 15, 2012 at 04:26 PM
Matt --- sounds like you work for the developers. People living in Columbia have no obligation to meet the housing demands of people that live in other areas of the state or country. Of course the developers are looking to build low cost housing units. However, the developers don't get stuck with traffic problems, school crowding , environmental pollution, fire / poice protection, and the higher tax bills ( rental apartments don't pay their own way --- the government services per unit cost more than they pay in taxes ). Wake up.
b.santos May 15, 2012 at 04:40 PM
JH, I believe you have a false argument. First, Columbia is not an island. Whether apartments are put in downtown Columbia or elsewhere in Howard County, units will be built. Because Columbians are taxed at the County level, it is the development in the County, and not the swiss-cheese boundary that defines Columbia, that matters. When future Howard County development occurs, to concentrate as apartments in an urbanized downtown would have less impact. If you take the equivalent amount of development and move it to a greenfield area, the cost to alter water and sewer lines, install a complete new road network and other public amenities would far exceed the cost to build on existing parking lots. The additional vehicle miles travelled in your alternate development would be higher. The stress on the environment due to increased impermeable surfaces (and increased stormwater runoff) would be greater. Police would need additional cars to patrol. Your math does not work.
JH May 15, 2012 at 05:09 PM
b. santos ---- don't take my word for it. Ask the Howard County plannning staff. They do the analysis of the fiscal impact and cost of each unit and they also estimate the revenue per unit. Apartments don't pay their own way so others must pick up the cost ----- in the form of higher taxes. Low cost apartments for some = higher taxes for others.
Matt Wilson May 15, 2012 at 05:40 PM
To add to Bill's comment, it's a mistake to assume that Columbia's or Howard County's population can remain static. People move all the time, both into and out of the county. Our population is aging and its needs are changing. At the same time, our county is losing out on potential residents who are young now but will be the middle-aged backbone in 20 years because we don't have enough of what they're looking for in a home and a neighborhood. Don't assume that the people living in apartments and condos in DC or Baltimore will come running to Howard County once they're sufficiently wealthy enough to escape the ire of people like JH. They might just put down roots in the city and stay. So that's our competition for young upwardly-mobile professionals -- DC and Baltimore, and inner-ring 'burbs like Silver Spring and Towson and Bethesda. Luckily, the county has already had this debate and opted for a Downtown Columbia that can compete with those other places. We just need spades in the ground now and cranes swinging in the air. And, no, I'm not a real estate developer. In fact, I'm a new resident and one of those evil renters, and the speed at which that downtown infrastructure gets built will likely determine whether I stay here in Columbia or go find something more amenable elsewhere.
BOH May 17, 2012 at 03:48 AM
I won't pretend that I would be glad to see more apartments crop up in Columbia, because for some reason the county housing initiatives have resulted in generally poor apartment management and, even worse, lots of shadiness. I'm conflicted on the idea of affordable housing initiatives, as I think they can be good things for the intended beneficiaries, but I'm fairly sure that it wouldn't be long before the apartments, condos, and townhouses to be built around downtown Columbia and Wilde Lake will be financed by housing vouchers (formerly section 8) for people who aren't looking for a boost so much as a place to base their shadiness. Why? Because they're the ones who can most easily afford it, since those vouchers are as much as an entire mortgage with escrow for a single-family home in Columbia. COLUMBIA: EFF $1325, 1-BR $1377, 2-BR $1582, 3-BR $2150, 4-BR $2504, 5-BR $2879 NON-COLUMBIA EFF $1024, 1-BR $1157, 2-BR $1389, 3-BR 1784, 4-BR $2203, 5-BR $2533 First of all, notice that $2500 would land a pretty comfortable 4-BR SFH in most parts of Columbia. Second, notice that even though Columbia is less expensive than most areas of HoCo (Ellicott City, Fulton, Clarksville, Dayton, Highland, Glenelg), even if more expensive than Jessup, Elkridge, Savage, and HoCo's part of Laurel. So why does it stand alone as the place with the highest housing cost? Because the county wants to herd vouchers into the surplus apartments, I should think. What other explanation is there?

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