Now that the celebration of Columbia’s 50th birthday is officially over, it is a good time to assess where the town and Howard County are heading in the next 10 years. The next decade may shape the next 40 years for Columbia, much as the first decade of the town shaped the 40 years that followed.
The next 10 years will flesh out the details for the shape of downtown density. The many voices that will take part in that debate fall into two camps that held competing events in September, held just six days apart, in Howard Community College theaters.
The first camp, led by the small but vocal Howard County Citizens Association (HCCA), is very skeptical about current plans for downtown density and who will pay for it. The other camp, with heavy involvement by business leaders, is very supportive of development and wants to see it happen faster with more county support, such as the tax increment financing (TIF) the skeptics oppose.
The first camp offered the premiere of the new Richard Krantz 31-minute documentary, “Columbia at 50: A Bridge to the Future,” no relation to my own 200-page book, “Columbia at 50: A Memoir of a City.” They share a similar (and not particularly creative) title, but very different points of view.
The first 15 minutes of the Krantz video, which can be seen on YouTube, covers familiar ground about Columbia’s early years. The last 15 minutes are more biased and negative toward the current plans for downtown by the Howard Hughes Corp. (HHC).
The documentary was the Howard County Citizens Association’s (HCCA) birthday gift to Columbia, financed by British American Auto Care, Columbia Association (CA), the Columbia 50th Birthday Celebration and scores of smaller donors. British American founder Brian England was the executive producer.
Documentaries are a form of journalism that frequently takes a strong point of view, as this one does. Knowing the jaundiced view of the HCCA, HHC and Kimco, which owns most of the village shopping centers, declined to be interviewed for the documentary, though footage of HHC Senior Vice President Greg Fitchitt was videoed at a public meeting.
The screening was followed by a panel of four professional women, which included long-time Columbia residents who are not very well known except for Del. Terri Hill, who embraced the point of view that the current developers could not be trusted to execute Jim Rouse’s vision for Columbia and were only focused on profit.
There were few voices in the documentary or on stage that supported HHC’s downtown plans and tried to adapt Rouse’s vision to a 21st century culture and economy. One of them was County Council Member Mary Kay Sigaty, whose district includes all of Town Center and who has been a key player in all the negotiations. “It is no longer about what Mr. Rouse wanted,” she said in the film.
The key points at issue are density, housing affordability, transit and who pays for infrastructure.
Some of the opponents of HHC plans based their arguments on false premises. One particularly annoying assertion in the documentary was by architect Jervis Dorton. He said plans to build three high rise buildings near Whole Foods and the lakefront on land now serving as surface parking would create a barrier between The Mall in Columbia and Lake Kittamaqundi. In fact that barrier was long ago created by the slope that rises on the other side of Little Patuxent Parkway that is reinforced by parking garages and other buildings on top of it.
A newly proposed plan, jointly done by HHC and CA, calls for a park-like corridor where the American City Building now stands, between the lake plaza and the parkway.
Parking garages will have to be built, much as was done by builder/developer David Costello for the shiny new Little Patuxent Square, a mixed-use project of apartments, offices and retail with five levels of underground parking.
Many old-time residents are appalled that the dilapidated and vacant American City Building will be torn down. The ease of pulling into and out of surface parking will be gone.
Dr. Terri Hill, who grew up in Wilde Lake and returned to Columbia after her medical training, often brings up the specter of developers wanting downtown Columbia to look like Bethesda. But none of the HHC plans suggest the heights or the density found in Bethesda’s transit-oriented development associated with a Metro stop and the Purple Line.
There’s an irony here in that the people who oppose density, like Columbia Council Member Jen Terrasa, also want mass transit. But you can’t have transit without density.
Another piece of misinformation being spread about downturn development popped up last month when I appeared on WYPR’s “Midday” show to talk about my book. “They’re paving over Symphony Woods,” said the caller. “That’s not true,” I insisted.
The 80 acres of Symphony Woods that includes Merriweather Post Pavilion sat adjacent to a wooded parcel along Little Patuxent Parkway that was long scheduled for development. That parcel is now home to the new MedStar Health building and an adjacent office building; across the street from a new access road, a new surface parking lot next to Symphony Woods could also be a building site.
It’s understandable how residents could grow attached to an overgrown lot with a stand of trees that, unlike Symphony Woods, was never really available for public use. But what is getting “paved over” has been slated for commercial development for almost 50 years, with the value of the land increasing as Columbia grew up around it.
There is a legitimate concern that the fundamental values of Jim Rouse that Columbians embraced need constant reinforcement and reiteration — respect for the land and environment, good schools, a healthy community that is economically, racially and religiously diverse, with the institutions to support those values.
“You’ve got to indoctrinate people” about those values, Hill said. She drew applause for bemoaning the closing of the Exhibit Center that promoted “The Next America” to inculcate those values. But the underlying purpose of the Exhibit Center was Rouse’s marketing efforts for the new town, and it closed in 1989, when that marketing was no longer needed.
“I don’t know of anyone who can sustain this culture unless they pass it on,” Hill said.
That is something that CA and its Columbia Archives tries to do. CA President Milton Matthews, a relative newcomer but a long student of Columbia, spoke at both the documentary screening and the 50th Birthday-sponsored “Reunion: A Celebration of the People Who Built Columbia.”
It was a much smaller, invitation-only event (of about a third of the audience who saw the film), but it was thick with homebuilders and developers who had built the housing and offices of Columbia, including many former Rouse employees. Overall, it presented a much more positive view of what would be developed and redeveloped on 400 acres of downtown Columbia, about 5% of the developable land that Rouse had acquired.
The main speakers were two urban design experts, and faculty who have also planned and consulted about planned communities.
“Are we a city yet?” was a question they both asked, an understandable question when Columbia’s urban core is still mainly parking lots and overgrown woods. Christopher Leinberger, chair of the Center of Real Estate and Urban Analysis at The George Washington University, said it was really “an obsolete question.”
Current trends show that “walkable urban and drivable suburban can exist in the same place,” Leinberger said. Most of Columbia is drivable suburban; its final 5% can be developed as walkable urban, a category that is “the best predictor of real estate values and economic performance,” Leinberger said.
He showed photos of how a half-vacant mall in Arlington, Va., was redeveloped as mixed-use walkable urban. He also praised the state’s study of bus rapid transit along Route 29 as one real possibility for Columbia’s connection to mass transit.
“I think Jim Rouse would say that this is what Columbia would become,” agreed Roger Lewis, professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park, overcoming the tyranny of the automobile.
Counter to Leinberger’s prediction of rising real estate values, Lewis also raised the continuing struggle for housing affordability. It was an issue temporarily solved in Columbia’s early years by the Interfaith Housing Corp., with federal subsidies.
This was one of the legitimate sore points raised in the Krantz documentary. In February, the county, the housing commission, the Columbia Downtown Housing Partnership and HHC signed an agreement establishing a path to provide 900 low- and moderate-income housing units among the 5,000 apartments and condos that could be built downtown.
How Columbia’s downtown will be developed — and its office parks redeveloped on the east side, particularly in Columbia Gateway Business Park — are among the issues that next year’s election will help decide, as voters choose four new members of the five-member Howard County Council and decide whether Allan Kittleman (who has largely supported the Hughes development plans) will be reelected.
The new county officials and their appointees will be in charge of how the plans will work out. Current council members will decide whether the revised tax increment financing (TIF) the county provided to Hughes for infrastructure will go through, helping to speed up development. The newly-elected members will have a role in any mass transit plans, and the elected school board will need to cope with any impact on the schools, since there are no school sites downtown.
CA, overseen by a board elected from the 10 villages, must also grapple with its own role in the redevelopment of Columbia. It is probably much better suited than HHC to maintain the overall integrity of Columbia’s original plan, its architectural standards and its core values. But it also needs to budget and staff to assume that role.