Howard County Times
Howard County

Howard weighs downtown Columbia business district

The jazz quartet's last tune of the lunchtime set at the Columbia lakeside took an up-tempo bebop turn, the sort of sound one might associate with things urban and urbane: the Village Vanguard, maybe Birdland. The band played before a sparse crowd seated on a grassy terraced slope, folks who would get into their cars and drive off through a place that looks much like a suburban office and shopping area with its wide boulevards, tidy lawns, neat rows of trees, and parking lots.

Not quite urban. Perhaps not whatJames W. Rousehad in mind when he founded Columbia more than 40 years ago: "To provide a real City — not just a better suburb."


Rouse's emphasis on the urbanity of Columbia's core has been taken up in the past several years, as Howard County embarks on the next frontier in the project: a 30-year redevelopment of the center, home to the Mall of Columbia, Merriweather Post Pavilion, Symphony Woods, many office buildings and some 3,000 residents. As part of that effort, the County Council is considering establishing an authority that would help run the downtown district.

"It's an organization, like Bethesda Urban Partnership, an overarching organization," said Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a Democrat whose district includes downtown Columbia. The Downtown Columbia Partnership would be established to — among other things — maintain the district, hire security, promote the area and run a new circulator bus system.


Mark G. Thompson, director of downtown redevelopment, said the county looked at a number of models, including Bethesda, for an authority that would have the power to collect fees and work with the owners of the 390 acres of downtown property. About three-quarters of the land is owned by General Growth Properties, the Howard Hughes Corp. and the Columbia Association.

The 21-page legislation was introduced last week and is expected to be voted on by the council next month, as the first construction project under the downtown plan adopted in 2010 is considered by county agencies. The Metropolitan Downtown Columbia is planned as a $100 million, six-story building of 380 apartments and an array of stores on land next to the mall.

The Metropolitan is part of a redevelopment project that creates new streets to better connect one area with another and paths to make it easier to get around on foot or bicycle. The county has approved 4.3 million square feet of office space, 1.25 million square feet of store, 640 hotels rooms and up to 5,500 new homes, more than doubling the number of people who live in downtown Columbia.

"The desire of the community was to create a vibrant place," Thompson said. "To create a vibrant place, you need people."

The new partnership would have some role in drawing people, both through promoting the downtown and staging events such as farmer's markets or flea markets "that give people that don't live there a reason to come there," Sigaty said.

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The bill outlines an array of annual and one-time payments to be made by landlords and developers to support the partnership's activities, develop a circulator bus system and contribute to Howard's affordable-housing efforts for homes that will be built downtown. The affordable-housing aid could take an array of forms, Thompson said, including assistance for renters, homeowners and housing renovations.

Columbia Association president Phil Nelson said in an email that but for the grid layout, he thinks the town center already "looks like most downtowns," but he acknowledges the redevelopment plan will provide "a downtown area that will be even more downtown."

Indeed, the 100-page plan says that over the course of more than 40 years of Columbia's creation, the downtown "never developed the character one expects in the heart of a community. It is still primarily suburban in nature with relatively undistinguished office buildings and an enclosed shopping mall at its core."


The notion of a more urbanized center was included in the 2000 General Plan, Thompson said, but the effort didn't get going until 2003, when the Rouse Co. — before it was bought out by General Growth in 2004 — began efforts to change downtown zoning. That bid was rejected, leading to a call for a more comprehensive downtown plan.

That was after the last of Columbia's 10 villages, River Hill, was completed.

"There was a little bit of a lull," Thompson recalled. "Everybody said, 'OK, now what?' The Rouse Company said 'now what' is going to be downtown.'"