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At 50, Columbia celebrates past even as it faces a much-changed future

As Columbia turns 50, the planned community with a unique past considers its future.

Lin Eagan has lived in Columbia long enough to cycle through a half-dozen homes and raise two sons, who would move away as adults but return once they became parents themselves.

"Now all my grandchildren live within walking distance," Eagan says with both grandmotherly and civic pride. "It's proof of how special Columbia is."

Eagan, a real estate agent and member of the Columbia Association governing board, will be among those gathering Sunday to launch several months of events to celebrate the community's 50th birthday.

The milestone comes at a pivotal time for Columbia, which is old enough that some of its earliest neighborhoods are fraying and need uplift, and young enough that it is only now undertaking the task of creating a true downtown, aided by a $90 million public financing deal that is the county's largest ever.

The birthday also offers an opportunity for the town to reflect on whether it is fulfilling the vision of its founder, James W. Rouse — or if the plan is even viable a half-century later.

Rouse surveyed largely rural Howard County in the early 1960s and imagined a different kind of city emerging: one carefully planned and developed to encourage racial and economic diversity, respect the environment, nurture a sense of community and prove profitable — and thus replicable.

"I think he'd be proud of Columbia," said Howard County Executive Allan H. Kittleman. "We may not be perfect, but it's a darn good place to live."

Kittleman, 58, has seen Columbia grow up with and around him. As a child, he lived in Allview Estates, one of the so-called outparcels that Rouse wasn't able to purchase when he secretively started buying up land in the county in 1962.

Rouse was a mortgage banker who had built one of the nation's first enclosed malls, Harundale in Glen Burnie, and was developing Cross Keys in Baltimore. He would eventually accumulate about 14,000 acres in Howard County for his new town.

Columbia, which has never incorporated as a city, may seem to outsiders just another suburb, albeit one whose winding, cul-de-sac streets are particularly hard to navigate, and whose whimsical names, like Liquid Laughter Lane and Oven Bird Green, offer no directional cues. (There's a whole book, "Oh, you must live in Columbia!" that explains the literary, historical and other origins of the names.)

But to its true believers — especially those who moved in shortly after it opened in June 1967 — Columbia still embodies Rouse's guiding principle of building not just physical structures but a sense of community.

Rouse's design called for a cluster of what is now nine villages, plus the town center. Each village has a retail and gathering center, residential neighborhoods, schools, and paths for walking and biking.

The bones of that design remain, even as some of the older developments are showing their age, and the way people live, shop and work no longer mesh with the village concept.

The competition from big-box stores off Interstate 95 and Route 175, for example, has drawn customers from the smaller grocery stores and other shops in their village center, and redevelopment plans are underway to freshen a number of them up.

Many residents are commuters, driving to jobs in Baltimore, Washington and elsewhere, making it more of a bedroom community than Rouse envisioned.

The biggest transformation promises to be the downtown plan, which has been written, amended and argued about for years. Ken Ulman was chairman of the Howard County Zoning Board in 2004 when it rejected the Rouse Co.'s proposal to build new apartments in downtown Columbia and substantially increase its density.

But even then, Ulman viewed the move as the trigger for a more comprehensive plan that would create a livelier downtown and link its disparate elements — the mall, the Lake Kittamaqundi waterfront, Merriweather Post Pavilion and Symphony Woods.

Ulman would become county executive, then run, unsuccessfully, for lieutenant governor. Now, as chief strategy officer for economic development at the University of Maryland, he is delighted to finally see the plan moving forward.

"I believe it's critical to have a vibrant downtown," Ulman said. "We need a place where people can walk to work. We need a place that people want to be a part of."

A lifelong Columbian — Howard County General Hospital had been open less than a year when the Ulman was born there — he has studied the writings of Rouse, and believes the founder always intended for a livelier downtown.

But "the mall guys won," Ulman said, and the enclosed shopping center became the town's "Main Street."

"It was the closest thing we had. Growing up, it didn't have as many chains," he said, remembering the well-loved Bun Penny market and cafe. "The mall was where you went to see your friends."

While most cities develop their centers first, and the residential suburbs later, Columbia has done it in reverse. The development plan calls for a much more urban feel, with close to 13 million square feet of new building — retail, commercial and residential.

A bike share program is coming, and there are plans for a transit center, with public transportation regarded by many as a vital missing part of Columbia.

Eagan, who moved to Columbia in 1970, recalled that the first townhouse she owned had a bus lane behind it. But Columbia evolved into a much more car-oriented community.

As the Town Center representative on the Columbia Association board, she welcomes the growth of downtown. She enjoys being able to walk to the Whole Foods supermarket that opened a couple of years ago, in the former Rouse Co. headquarters designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry.

"Now we need a bar that stays open past 10 p.m.," she said with a laugh. "We haven't developed the nightlife yet." (Actually, a number of restaurants and bars are open later, although Columbia still has a reputation as an early-to-bed kind of place.)

There remain detractors of the development plan, which will substantially increase density and build on previous open space, such as at Symphony Woods.

"Columbia was supposed to be a 'garden for growing people,'" said Barbara Russell, echoing Rouse's slogan, "not for developers to make as much money as they can."

Russell is a "Pioneer," as the first 100 residents of Columbia are known. She believes Rouse, whom she remembers tooling around town in a little yellow electric car, would be concerned with the strain on the environment and the traffic congestion that so much development could produce.

He was so concerned about pollution, she said, that early homes in Columbia had air monitoring devices on their decks.

Rouse died in 1996 at the age of 81 in his home on Wilde Lake, Columbia's first village.

"He was so present. He wasn't remote," Russell, 76, said. "You could talk to him anytime. He was part of the community, and he wanted to talk to people. He wanted to know the negative as well as the positive."

Russell moved into the Bryant Garden Apartments in 1967. She is white; her then-husband, Charles, is black. She said they were drawn to Columbia for its embrace of diversity.

The couple had married in 1966 — in Washington, because interracial marriage was still illegal in Maryland — and signed a lease on their first visit to the new town. They moved in in July 1967, the month the Supreme Court struck down laws banning interracial marriage in the landmark Loving case.

Their first son, born in September, is also Columbia's firstborn.

Despite her dismay at the downtown plan, she remains committed to Columbia and what it stands for. She is proud of how the town reacted to a rally segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace held at Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Columbians held a counter-rally, with Rouse in attendance, and residents bought newspaper ads to declare that Wallace and his supporters "represent everything that the community of Columbia is against."

"We have a peaceful, diverse community, which I think is wonderful," Russell said. "That is what Jim Rouse would be most proud of, not downtown development."

Scott Ewart is not a Pioneer, but he, too, is wary of the coming development.

Ewart, who works from his home in the King's Contrivance village as a website and social media developer, blogs about Howard County. His Scott E's blog drew 40,000 page views last year, its third year in existence.

Ewart says he moved to Columbia for its quiet, suburban atmosphere — even as he remembers constantly getting lost on its curving streets of indistinguishably similar houses when he first moved to town.

He finds "the sheer mass of people" in such a small area alarming — it reminds him, unfavorably, of Montgomery County, where he used to work.

"It'll just change the feel of it," Ewart said. "We'll start losing what Columbia was. People will start moving away because people do not want to live in Rockville."

Ewart is part of an active blogging community that has had no shortage of issues to chew over. He considers himself a political independent, and has been hired by candidates across the political spectrum.

Emotions in Howard County ran high recently when the Democrat-controlled County Council voted to codify existing policies that bar police and other county employees from enforcing immigrations law or collecting information about people's immigration status. Kittleman, a Republican, vetoed the measure.

Some speculate the fight could have an effect on next year's elections, with four of the five council members reaching their term limits, guaranteeing at least that many new faces on the council. Kittleman has not said if he will run for a second term.

Kittleman says he believes the county is moving on from the sanctuary fight, and in fact has started a series of small-group dialogues under the banner "#OneHoward" to foster respectful, inclusive discussions.

He points to how the county handled the accusations last year that its sheriff, James F. Fitzgerald, had used bigoted language and had harassed employees. Kittleman and others quickly called for and received his resignation.

"That is how we deal with things in Howard County," he said. "Our county rises up. We don't take kindly to people who are racially insensitive."

jmarbella@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jean_marbella

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