Columbia Association's board listen to residents as they address their concerns about a proposal to close half of its neighborhood centers. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
If you are a Columbia resident of a certain age, you might have attended a day care program staffed by volunteer mothers at your neighborhood center.
As you grew up, you might also have gone to the center for scout meetings, summer camp or a teen club. Maybe you graduated to attending bridal showers and mommy-and-me yoga at the center. At some point, a search for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or elder care would similarly lead to one of the 14 neighborhood centers built as part of Columbia's vision of itself as a welcoming, inclusive place that met its residents' cradle-to-grave needs.
But now, a controversial proposal to close eight of those centers, some of which have aged and need costly renovation, has some fearing the loss of that cherished sensibility.
The Columbia Association, the nonprofit corporation that manages the town, say the neighborhood centers, which on average are 45 years old, are increasingly expensive to maintain. But some residents say the centers, which are spread out over seven of the 10 villages that make up Columbia, are more concentrated in older and less moneyed parts of town that need the kind of services they offer.
Emotions flared in a marathon meeting on the issue Thursday that stretched close to midnight. Residents and the staff and board of the Columbia Association wrestled not just over the proposal, but also its larger implications for the town founded on idealistic principles five decades ago by James W. Rouse.
"You start taking away neighborhood centers, and it could be a slippery slope," Dick Boulton, a member of the Columbia Association's board of directors, said at the meeting.
"Let's keep in mind just what the spirit of Columbia, what the Columbia vision is," said Boulton, who represents the Village of Dorsey's Search. "There are some things that don't pay for themselves. … It really is more than real estate."
The question of what to do with neighborhood centers is the latest source of tension in the town, which, having celebrated its 50th birthday last year, is experiencing growing pains. Originally planned as a series of neighborhoods arranged in villages that would have their own schools, stores and amenities, the model is at odds with lifestyle changes that have more residents commuting to jobs farther and farther afield and shopping at big-box malls on the highway.
While Columbia remains at its core a suburb of poetically named, confoundingly winding streets, excellent schools, parks and pathways, it is rapidly transforming. A town whose "main street" has always been a shopping mall is now building, of all things, a more urbanized downtown of glassy apartment and office buildings.
Meanwhile, some of the village centers are hurting, and losing businesses such as the grocery stores that once anchored them. The possibility of losing neighborhood centers rankles many who see the "old" Columbia giving way to a more upscale and less familiar place.
"The proposal to eliminate the majority of the neighborhood centers is pulling at yet another thread in the fabric of our villages," Bob Fontaine, a member of the board of the Village of Harper's Choice, said at the Thursday night meeting.
He said the proposal seems like another example of efforts "to squeeze out of Columbia people of moderate means."
The 50th 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.
Such a notion is anathema in Columbia, where economic and racial diversity is a founding principle. Columbia Association President Milton W. Matthews bristled, and later said the remarks were incorrect and insulting. Matthews and others repeatedly told the standing-room-only crowd of about 50 people attending the association board's work session that the proposal was simply a starting point of discussion.
Columbia, having never incorporated as a city, has an unusual form of governance: Residents elect village boards, as well as a representative to the association board, on which Matthews also sits. Matthews heads what would normally be a City Hall of employees who handle finances, planning, community services and other functions.
The furor over the neighborhood centers developed in part because some village leaders said they were blindsided — they had no idea that the closings were being considered. They said they learned something was afoot at the end of last year when village managers were asked to provide financial and usage data and Matthews toured the centers.
The packet that association board members were given for the Thursday meeting included an April 5 letter from Dennis Mattey, director of open space and facilities services, to Matthews with staff recommendations: Take the Locust Park Neighborhood Center "out of service at the end of this fiscal year" and turn it into a park. And, in coming years, close down three others and repurpose four into parks or bathhouses for adjacent pools. That would leave six in place.
Locust Park is in the Village of Long Reach, as is another center, Jeffers Hill, that is on the longer-term targeted list. Nina Basu, who chairs the village's board, told The Baltimore Sun that a neighborhood center is particularly important for villages such as hers, which has many apartments and townhouses.
"It's a party space," she said. "We don't have 500,000-square-foot houses. I live in a 1,400-square-foot townhouse. Neighborhood centers allow me to have showers, birthday parties."
Locust Park has a day care center and is slated to get a Spanish immersion program for kids that many residents are excited about, she said, plus it rents space to clubs and other gatherings at an affordable price.
"It's a very important part of the culture," Basu said. "These are incredibly valuable assets for everybody."
The neighborhood centers date back to a desire to cluster schools, day cares, pools, stores and other amenities together. Mattey notes in his memo that the archives found a statement in which Mort Hoppenfield, who as an urban planner with the Rouse Company is something of a Columbia founding father, describes the neighborhood center as "a complementary set of facilities and services to the most place-bound member of an urban community."
And indeed, as Jessica Harvey, who has run a summer camp at the Stevens Forest Neighborhood Center since 2005, said at the meeting, some of the families she serves walk or bike to the camp. As children aged out, Harvey said, their parents asked for something for older kids, so she started a teen camp at another neighborhood center, Talbott Springs.
Now both are on the list of recommended closures.
"I don't understand how this loving community of Columbia could just take apart a neighborhood center that we've been at for years and years and years," Harvey said. "It would break my heart if it would go away."
The day cares that operate in neighborhood centers initially began as co-ops, staffed by parent volunteers, although over time some were turned over to private entities. One operator said six co-ops remain, and five of them are in centers recommended for closure. Whoever operates them, the center-based day cares tend to be more affordable than those in privately owned facilities, operators said.
Columbia Association staff said in their report that aging centers such as Locust Park need substantial renovations that along with operating costs will lead to deficits in coming years.
Some association board members suggested that fewer centers might still be able to fulfill the needs served currently by the neighborhood facilities. The Village of Owen Brown, for example, has a single community center that seems to serve all its neighborhood needs well, according to Andrew Stack, its representative to the association board.
A number of board members, even if their own villages' neighborhood centers were not under threat of closure, seemed inclined to find a way to keep as many of them open as possible for the town's 100,000 residents.
Chao Wu, who represents River Hill, the town's newest village, on the association board, said he is concerned about the staff's projections of the costs of keeping all the centers open. But he said they clearly serve a need, and the board "serves our residents."
Some residents said that even if neighborhood centers are costly, they're worth saving because they provide gathering spaces for everyone — churches too small to have their own buildings, service fraternities, recovery groups and nonprofits.