"It's a very successful shopping center, no doubt about it," Askew said.
From the start, Rouse wanted the mall to have locally owned stores, and it still does. Bun Penny, a gourmet food store that was locally owned and an original tenant, closed in 2008. But locally owned stores in the mall today include Kokopelli, which opened in 1988 and sells products with a handcrafted or artistic touch; and Silver Heron, which sells silver jewelry and started as a cart in the mall in 1985 before moving to a store two years later.
Though it's hard to imagine now, in 1971 there weren't many shopping options in Howard County. The mall changed that.
"Most of us were thrilled that the mall was open," said Cy Paumier, 77, who was chief land planner for The Rouse Company from 1969 to 1972. "It had two very good department stores right from the beginning."
In fact, said Askew, it took a lot of convincing to get those two department stores to open in relatively rural Howard County, in a shopping center not particularly close to an interstate.
The Rouse Co. was in the mall-building business, so a mall was almost inevitable as a centerpiece for downtown Columbia, Paumier noted. "In the two to three years I was in charge, they opened seven malls, in the East Coast and Midwest, including The Mall at Columbia," he said.
But the Columbia mall was not just any mall. "The Columbia mall is probably the very best cared for and designed mall that the Rouse Company owned," Paumier said. "Jim Rouse wanted that mall to be the very best that it could be. I think it fairly well achieved that goal."
A pedestrian bridge made it possible for walkers to cross Little Patuxent Parkway and get to the lakefront, but that bridge is virtually unused today, noted Paumier. People simply don't walk from one destination to the other.
However, Kennedy believes the role of the mall has changed over time, and will continue to do so as Columbia's downtown is revamped. "It still is a very successful and important mall but less as Columbia's town center," he said.
"As Columbia develops a true downtown, the mall will become less important but will remain a very important commercial center," Kennedy added. "That's to be desired."
The Rouse Company was purchased in 2004 by General Growth Properties, which in 2010 created the spin-off Howard Hughes Corp., which is in charge of Columbia development. The mall is owned by General Growth Properties.
Paumier believes the retail market is saturated, and residential space will become more important in Columbia's downtown. Yet the mall's role as a social center is not likely to disappear.
"The mall, particularly for teenagers, is probably the only meaningful place to hang out," he said.