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Columbia reborn

The Columbia of my childhood, then known as "The Next America," was a place of innovation and excitement. It was known across the country as the herald for the next generation of great American communities.

My parents and many others moved here in those days because it was a city founded on the principles of diversity and acceptance and guided by a ground-breaking plan that ensured a fertile "garden for growing people," as visionary developer James Rouse called it.

But sometime in the early '90s, Columbia stopped innovating, and Jim Rouse's New City stalled.

Something needed to be done.

The first attempts to redevelop this signature planned community included plans for big-box stores at Merriweather Post Pavilion and to make Downtown Columbia just another sprawling development with seas of surface parking lots.

But that idea gutted the Rouse dream. As chairman of the zoning board that rejected this initial proposal in 2003, I said at the time that "a truly vibrant and visionary community" that was walkable and inviting would be possible only with a detailed, comprehensive plan.

Columbia was founded with a plan; we made sure it would be reborn with one too. And together as a community, we created that plan.

Reflecting the spirit of the original planning for our city, the Howard Hughes Corp. brought the creators of Beijing Olympic Square, the master planners for Monticello's revitalization, the conservation and environmental planners of New York City's cutting edge stormwater infrastructure, the world's preeminent cultural planner and others. They came to the Rouse headquarters building designed by architect Frank Gehry's to engage Mr. Rouse's most important legacy — the people of Columbia — to create the Next America right here in one of America's best communities.

This was not a contentious process but a collaborative one focused on problem solving and attracting the investment needed to fulfill the Rouse vision for the Next America in the new city of Columbia.

But an ambitious and innovative plan does not guarantee a vibrant and thriving Downtown, especially in trying economic times.

The recent announcement that a Whole Foods Market will open at the historic Gehry-designed headquarters building overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi is perhaps the best indication yet that our community-driven plan is working.

This iconic building will be renovated to house Howard County's first location for the sought-after organic grocer, and its presence will mean more for Downtown Columbia than healthy food.

Research has shown that when a Whole Foods Market opens in a new location the surrounding neighborhood is likely on the cusp of a major revitalization. The effect, seen in cities across the country, has shown to increase neighborhood property values by as much as 25 percent.

For Downtown Columbia, I see this announcement as the catalyst that will set in motion a series of projects that have been discussed for years. Plans for new luxury residences, a new promenade and entrance for the mall, and a remade Symphony Woods park are being reviewed now, and work on these projects will begin in 2013.

Designs to expand and enhance Columbia's main attraction, Merriweather Post Pavilion, are also beginning to take shape, and the non-profit organizations that will help improve the streetscapes, cultural programming, full-spectrum housing opportunities and transportation in Downtown are ready to launch.

How fitting that Columbia's renewal should begin in the Gehry landmark. This building, a physical embodiment of the very principles of Columbia's founding, had an uncertain future before its preservation was assured in the Downtown master plan.

James Rouse gave Columbia a solid foundation by planning a community that would be "a garden for growing people." Through our plan for Downtown Columbia, we are preserving those principles while regaining the excitement, innovation, and leadership that characterized our city for so long.

This is the Columbia of my childhood, and it is the Columbia our children deserve.

Ken Ulman, a Democrat, is Howard County executive. His email is kulman@howardcountymd.gov.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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