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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.

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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