Columbia must address problems of crime, several declining commercial centers, strained relations among ethnic groups and self-segregation of neighborhoods by socioeconomic status, community leaders said at a Harper's Choice village meeting last night.
Howard County's Ad Hoc Committee on Human Rights organized the meeting in response to a hate-bias incident two months ago when large red swastikas -- the symbol of Nazi Germany -- were painted on the windows of a Harper's Choice Village Center photography shop owned by Russian Jewish immigrants.
County and law enforcement officials, community leaders, Rouse Co. managers and residents discussed revitalizing Harper's Choice center, breaking down barriers between residents and reducing crime.
The meeting was aimed at improving the village's hub and fostering community spirit.
Residents queried Rouse officials about how they intend to improve the 23-year-old village center, once a gathering place which many said they now avoid. Residents complained that the center -- like some other older village shopping areas in Columbia -- is beset by crime and has vacant storefronts, few enticements and inadequate lighting and parking.
One woman said her husband was robbed at gunpoint in the center, one of several such crimes in the area in recent months.
"If the Rouse Co. can revitalize the Inner Harbor [in Baltimore]," it should be able to reverse the Harper's Choice center's slide, said Toba Barth, a Columbia resident and human relations committee member.
Jody Clark, a Rouse vice president, said the company is $H pursuing a revitalization plan: It recently leased a vacant space to a Mexican restaurant-pub and is working to replace the Valu Food anchor store with a more attractive grocery.
But Randy Reinhardt, pastor of Covenant Community Church, said revitalization is secondary to the crime issue. "We're going to continue to see an increase [in crime]. We have to be forward-thinking. How can we ensure the safety of people?"
Natalie Woodson, a Harper's Choice resident and human relations committee member, said the group would be remiss if it didn't address an issue "probably in the backs of our minds": tensions between racial and socioeconomic groups within Columbia.
She noted recent conflicts between a low-income housing development and an adjacent neighborhood in Harper's Choice.
"How do we dispel fears associated with diversity?" Ms. Woodson asked. "If there are legitimate concerns and problems, we need to do something to address them.
Michael E. Hickey, leader of a human rights education subcommittee and a Harper's Choice resident, said the village has become more segregated along socioeconomic lines. "We can go one of two ways," said Dr. Hickey, who is also Howard's superintendent of schools. "We can pull the village together and break down barriers of housing, or we can draw lines even darker on the map and segment the community more than it is."
Suggestions for improvements can be sent to Kahler Hall, 5440 Old Tucker Row, Columbia 21044.