Ian Kennedy's short walk to lunch from his office in Columbia's Town Center takes him through shopping mall parking lots and a parking garage — or along a sidewalk where lampposts block the way.
It's enough to make him feel that as a pedestrian in a car-centric community, he's in an "alien environment. ... A man on the moon, there are times you feel that way. Almost like you're trespassing," he said.
Perhaps that's not what Columbia founder James W. Rouse had in mind in his quest to create a new breed of city to nurture the human spirit. Fifty years after Rouse announced that his company had bought 14,100 acres in Howard County and was going to build a planned community, the latest effort to fulfill that aspiration has just begun.
Construction sites have sprung up from the northwest side of The Mall in Columbia down to the edge of Lake Kittamaqundi as part of a 30-year plan to remake the Town Center into a more walkable space with more apartment buildings, offices and stores. A Whole Foods market and Foreman Wolf restaurant are on the way, and renovations have recently been completed at an office building and the Town Center's landmark restaurant, Clyde's, on the lakefront.
The work is the first to begin under a redevelopment plan that allows up to 5,500 new apartments and townhouses, which could greatly increase the downtown population. The plan could add up to 4.3 million square feet of office space to the current 2.5 million and up to 1.25 million square feet of stores and hotels.
"Columbia has not achieved its full potential yet, and it won't achieve it until there is an alive downtown. ... That's the missing piece," said Padraic Kennedy, who was Rouse's choice to be the first president of the Columbia Association, the nonprofit organization that maintains open space and an array of community services, swimming pools and recreation centers.
Surrounded by nine residential villages, Columbia's downtown has become the "doughnut hole" in the center, said Kennedy, though it's not exactly empty. It is home to about 3,100 people and 8,700 jobs, to the Merriweather Post Pavilion and to Symphony Woods, site of the annual Wine in the Woods Festival, and the lakefront, a venue for many summer events.
And yet, with its wide thoroughfares, office buildings and expansive parking lots, the 355-acre Town Center "just feels empty, like you're in a big open space and no one else is there," said Tom Coale, a former Columbia Association member and popular blogger from the Village of Dorsey's Search. "There really is no hustle and bustle. ... Part of that is the absence of density, of people living downtown."
Ian Kennedy, who lives in the Village of Oakland Mills and serves on the Downtown Arts and Cultural Commission created under the downtown redevelopment plan, said that "the talk was always that Columbia would be a true city. A true city needs a true downtown."
Home to more than 90,000 people, Columbia would be Maryland's second-largest city — after Baltimore — if it were incorporated as a city, which it isn't.
If Rouse never pursued that legal designation, he made it clear that his company's goal was to create a "real city."
He didn't make it clear right away, though. On Oct. 30, 1963, Rouse issued a four-page news release announcing that he was the man behind more than 140 farmland purchases made over the course of about nine months of frantic buying under straw company names: Farmingdale Inc., Potomac Estates Inc., Serenity Acres Inc., among others.
Rouse hoped to avoid alarming his audience, so he never used the word "city" in that release, or in his remarks to the three county commissioners, whom he had briefed in a public meeting the day before. He certainly never mentioned his dream of a racially integrated community, not while he was beginning the task of winning support for a project in a county still in the midst of public school desegregation.
He wrote in the release and told the commissioners that his purpose was to create a "community," and he emphasized his intention to preserve natural features, create lakes, parks and "greenbelts that will separate and give identity, scale and protection to the developed areas."
The three Republican commissioners, who had just been elected on a no-growth platform, did not immediately oppose the idea, but seemed somewhat taken aback, recalled William E. Finley, the project manager, who was with Rouse when he told them.
"Their response was, 'You're going to do what? In my county?'" said Finley, who now lives in South Florida.
Asked a few days later to explain his low-key approach, Rouse wrote that he meant to "do everything possible to abate fear and stimulate hope among the people of Howard County. ... We were inclined to soft pedal a bit the possible size of the new community, and we avoided any mention of words such as 'new town' or 'new city.'"
The release never mentioned a target population, but a Baltimore Sun article on Oct. 31 said Rouse was planning a "city" for 100,000 people or more. Using about one-tenth of the county's land — an area nearly the size of Manhattan — the project would nearly triple the Howard population, listed at 36,000 in the 1960 Census.
Rouse, who had built the country's second indoor shopping center in Anne Arundel County, made clear that he had no specific plan, but he soon assembled a team of 13 academics and planners to work on it. They came up with four goals: respect the land; create a place to encourage human growth; create a "whole city," not just a suburb; and make a profit.
Those goals, reiterated by Rouse in a speech in Chicago in 1965, appear in the preamble to the nearly 100-page downtown redevelopment plan adopted by the Howard County Council, with "real city" at the top. By that, Rouse meant a place with its own robust tax base, where people could live, work and enjoy leisure time.
The downtown redevelopment plan took five years — from the first communitywide charrette to approval by the five-member County Council in 2010.
In the years before that, ownership and management of downtown changed significantly. General Growth Properties, the real estate trust that develops and owns shopping malls across the country, bought the Rouse Co. in 2004 and went bankrupt in 2009. As a result, General Growth lost its place as the downtown's dominant landowner and developer to the Howard Hughes Corp., a spinoff created in the bankruptcy.
Rouse died in 1996 at nearly 82 years old, but his "city" idea survived, and with it the hope for a lively downtown.
"The Town Center was supposed to be the center of it; it was supposed to be the hub of Columbia," said County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, whose district includes downtown. Instead, the mall, which opened in 1971, came to dominate the scene. During years of debate on Town Center redevelopment, there were some who wanted to do nothing, but also many — especially young people — who were eager to see the downtown become a lively urban place, Sigaty said.
"For those of us who live nearby, the concept of having the center of our community be a suburban shopping mall, it's sad," said Sigaty, who has lived in Columbia since 1972.
Rouse in those days was touting malls for their potential to serve as vital community centers, but his team also had notions about turning the lakefront into an active center. They explored creating an amusement area modeled on Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, but there weren't enough people around yet to make that work, said Robert Tennenbaum, the architect-planner on the original design team, who still lives in Columbia.
Tennenbaum and Finley both recalled that there was never a plan to design the Town Center in a street pattern more or less like a conventional city center. A mall was always seen as the downtown center, they said.
Today, the plan to reshape downtown attempts to strike a balance — building new streets to connect areas that are not connected, encouraging more walking and bus commuting and less driving, and bringing more people into the center. The county is considering plans to develop Symphony Woods, next to Merriweather Post Pavilion, as a cultural park.
Even if thousands of new residential units and millions of square feet of new office, retail and hotel space do materialize, the mall will still be a focal point. The Mall in Columbia, now 1.6 million square feet, is in the midst of adding 40,000 square feet and renovating 30,000 more.
The first part of the new mall space is expected to open Friday with a Soma Intimates store featuring lingerie and beauty products. A Secolari store, specializing in gourmet olive oil and vinegar, is scheduled to open in late November.
Next to the mall, the Metropolitan Downtown Columbia apartments, with 380 units in two buildings and stores on the ground floor, is expected to open next year.
Darrell Nevin, a commercial real estate agent in Howard County, gives the Howard Hughes Corp. credit for making the commitment to downtown, and especially for landing Whole Foods for the lakefront building that used to be the Rouse Co. headquarters.
"That's huge," said Nevin. "When I talk to people about what's happening in Columbia, there's a lot of excitement."
Rouse's vision will be recalled with an exhibition of photographs, artifacts and a reception tonight in Town Center at the Columbia Archives, a repository of local history.
Tennenbaum imagined that if he were he still around, Rouse might be skeptical about a few details of road layout and the amount of retail in the redevelopment. But all in all, he would applaud the plan for downtown.
"I think he would have been pleased with the concept of making it more walkable," Tennenbaum said. "I think he would love it."
Note: An earlier version of this story misstated the rank Columbia would hold among Maryland cities if it were incorporated. It would be the state's second largest city.It has been corrected here.