Columbia continues to grow on good ideas [Commentary]

Howard County Executive

This is the first in our series of essays from leaders imagining the future of Columbia.

When Jim Rouse decided to build his "Next America" in Howard County, there were few who completely understood the impact his idea would have on our community.

Growing up in nearby Allview Estates in the 1960s and early 1970s, I had a front-row seat. At that time, Howard County was a mostly rural community of about 61,000 people. Route 29 was a two-lane highway and there were only four high schools.

All of that, as we know now, was about to change. As it is in most cases, it took people a while to adapt to that change. Howard Countians weren't convinced Rouse's vision was the one they wanted.

Fifty years later, it's a different story. Howard County is now home to about 313,000 people, thanks in large part to the growth of Columbia. The planned community may have brought more traffic and development, but it also brought a hospital, a premier community college, the mall and a concert pavilion. It's also been the economic engine that makes Howard County the best place to live, learn, work and play. Now, trying to imagine Howard County without Columbia is next to impossible.

As we look forward to the next 50 years of Columbia and beyond, it's important to keep those early years in mind. Change may be, as the saying goes, inevitable; but the right kind of change is harder to realize when all parties aren't engaged in the process.

Rouse knew the value of public input. He also knew the importance of adapting his plans for the changing times. Rouse's entire concept, after all, was less about building houses, streets and storefronts and more about building a community. A community that was ahead of its time and based on inclusion and respect.

Similarly, the changes we recently made to the Downtown Plan by including the guarantee of affordable housing and the ensuing infrastructure, represent a consensus-driven approach. The Howard Hughes Corp., the successors of the old Rouse Co., are now investing $2 billion into a new way to think about the town center based on how a new generation sees the future.

The new downtown Columbia will be a walkable and bikeable community, giving people the ability to work and live without having to get into a car. Down the road, we see a transit center that will connect us to places such as Silver Spring, Baltimore and BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport.

The nearby village centers will see a similar renaissance. Already, the Wilde Lake Village Center has been reconfigured with a mixed use of housing and shops to meet the community's needs. We're close to selecting a preferred redevelopment plan for the Long Reach Village Center and are working with Oakland Mills residents to shape the future of their village center. Whether it's the downtown or the village centers, it will require innovative, creative partnerships between business, residents and government to be successful.

We are close to signing a memorandum of understanding with Montgomery County to pilot bus rapid transit on Route 29. And we are working with the new owners of Merriweather Post Pavilion to expand community programing there so it can cement its position as an anchor in the downtown.

I can see the same philosophy being applied to our new Innovation District at Gateway. There, we will house our Howard County Innovation Center, providing a place with innovation labs, a technology center and space for incubator companies to serve as a catalyst to bring in investments to grow local industry.

This is government's role. It has a responsibility to make sure new development is not only sustainable and responsible but, that infrastructure and services keep up with the population growth.

As Columbia, and for that matter, Howard County moves forward, it will be through the ideas and dreams of our residents and our children, much like how the ideas and dreams of James Rouse shaped Columbia today. Government should create the environment where ideas are heard, make sure that the public can weigh in and then give those ideas a chance to grow.

This is what happened 50 years ago when Columbia was born. This is what is happening now as we look to the future.

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