Interfaith center is questioned


The newest Columbia village has no faith that one of the pioneering social concepts behind the new town's development in the 1960s -- interfaith centers -- is a viable idea in the 1990s.

While stopping short of opposing a shared religious facility, the River Hill village board has told Columbia's developer and the county Planning Board that a village site slated for an interfaith center could be put to a better use for residents.

The interfaith concept -- in which several congregations of different faiths join to build and operate a sanctuary -- is virtually dead, says the board of Columbia's most isolated, western and upscale village.

"Recent history clearly demonstrates there's no interest in developing an interfaith center on village center property," said Kevin T. Wilson, vice chairman of the River Hill board. "The tendency has been for religious congregations to build their own facilities."

Mr. Wilson said the board doesn't support any particular alternative use of the interfaith center site, but suggests such possibilities as a "family fun center" or a skating rink. "There's certainly a shortage of venues" for young people, he said.

Officials from the Rouse Co., whose policy is to designate land for an interfaith center adjacent to all Columbia village shopping centers, say the concept still works and River Hill's conclusions are premature.

"It's a little early to make that decision since the village center doesn't exist yet and most of the village doesn't exist," said David E. Forester, a Rouse vice president and senior development director.

Furthermore, added Alton J. Scavo, Rouse's manager of Columbia development: "It's not up to them."

Rouse pioneered the interfaith center concept in the 1960s to save land, promote religious understanding, encourage joint efforts among faiths to improve the community and help congregations save money on facility and administrative costs. Other communities have imitated aspects of the concept, but Columbia has the largest concentration.

In recent years, the four centers -- housing 13 congregations -- have shown less appeal for some religious leaders, who say they confine growth, create inconvenience, offer sterile atmospheres and have fostered little interfaith interaction.

At least seven Columbia congregations have built their own sanctuaries since the 1980s, while others meet in homes or schools until they can buy land.

But some clergy applaud interfaith centers because they allow congregations to save money and focus on missions. Religious leaders and Rouse officials note it's becoming increasingly hard for congregations to finance sanctuaries.

Managers of Columbia's first interfaith centers -- Wilde Lake and Oakland Mills -- agree with Rouse that the concept works. They say their facilities are heavily booked -- so much so that some requests for space are turned down.

"It's certainly a very viable, active center," said Linda Beanblossom, facility manager at the Oakland Mills center. "The fact that we're open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. says a lot."

Added George W. Martin, chairman of the Columbia Religious Facilities Corp., which helps congregations form centers: "To be truly a community, there has to be a place for religious life. The most efficient and best stewardship of resources would be the interfaith concept."

River Hill -- the village closest to western Howard communities -- might prove a good location for an interfaith center, said Mr. Forester of Rouse Co. "It depends on the religious congregations there and what their needs are."

But the River Hill board has something else in mind for the 2.4 acres next to its future village center. An interfaith center might preclude other options, Mr. Wilson said, emphasizing that the board wants "flexibility" and expects to work closely with Rouse.

Rouse's village center concept also includes donating a parcel to the Columbia Association, which provides amenities for residents. The nonprofit association already has proposed building a recreational facility and community center on four acres at the River Hill center.

Supporting the village board's position, Mr. Wilson emphasized that no interfaith center has been built in Kings Contrivance village, even though land there has been so designated for many years.

Mr. Forester said interfaith center land sometimes is used for another "community use" if an interfaith project doesn't materialize.

In Kings Contrivance, for example, a religious organization plans to build housing for adults with severe physical disabilities on part of the site, Rouse officials say.

Similarly, in Harper's Choice village, the Winter Growth Adult Day Care Center was built at a site eventually deemed impractical for an interfaith center because of its proximity to Wilde Lake.

Rouse officials say opinions to ward an interfaith center could change in River Hill as its population grows from about 1,400 to 6,000 by 1999. But Mr. Wilson said he doubts the concept will generate excitement in the 1990s.

"My guess is [the village center] is going to be a very hot commercial property," he said. "This area is going to hop."

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