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Columbia falls short of Rouse's '60s vision


In the beginning, there was the vision of creating a new kind of community, one touted by Columbia's planners as the "Next America." But 30 years later, the new town is becoming little more than a real estate agent's dream.

The decidedly liberal -- if not communal -- ideals of the 1960s infused the Howard County new town's core concepts: its village structure, green spaces, pathway system, "interfaith centers" and open housing for a mix of races and classes.

Now with 82,000 residents and 57,000 jobs, Columbia has matured into America's second-largest planned town and one of Maryland's largest communities -- a suburban "edge city" that serves as the relatively urban hub of the nation's sixth-richest county.

But for many of Columbia's residents these days, the social ideals associated with its birth take a back seat to more immediate concerns found in many other suburbs: rising crime, dying neighborhood stores, stagnating property values and mounting traffic.

"Let's all hold hands and be friends" is how Joan Varga mocks the once sacrosanct tenets of Columbia's original concept. "A lot of the '60s and '70s are still hanging out in the minds of Columbia," she says. "It needs to be readjusted."

Ms. Varga lives in River Hill, Columbia's 10th and last village, where $400,000 houses are common and there is provision for far fewer lower-income residents than in earlier villages.

She is embroiled in a neighborhood feud over plans for a community tot lot behind her house -- the sort of fight that would have been unthinkable at Columbia's founding and that now dumbfounds many Columbia pioneers who believed they indeed were building the "Next America."

"It's amazing it's changed to just a piece of real estate," says Michael G. Riemer, a community activist and owner of a land planning firm who has lived in Columbia 27 years.

Adds another Columbia pioneer, retiree Norman E. Winkler: "We had a great belief in the future. If we couldn't change the world, we felt we could build heaven on earth right here."

To be sure -- 30 years after its developer, the Rouse Co., gained zoning approval for sweeping plans for a model community on

14,000 acres in then-sleepy Howard County -- Columbia can count some impressive achievements that set it apart: its exemplary land planning, managed growth, burgeoning job base and relative racial harmony.

Breaking the mold

In this region, Columbia broke the mold of aimless suburban sprawl. Many residents simply love it.

"Columbia has been the most wonderful living experience," says Donna Gorjon, who has lived there since since 1969.

And it has made a lot of money, according to Rouse annual reports.

Since 1985, the firm has earned about $100 million in profits on land sales, primarily in Columbia.

Since 1967, Rouse and its partners have reported income of more than $500 million from land sales, primarily in Columbia. Rouse still has about 2,300 acres, or 16 percent of Columbia, to sell by 2010 when it plans to finish the new town.

Far from Camelot

But Columbia has turned out to be far from the suburban Camelot promoted by Rouse:

* Because of crime, the Columbia Association -- the huge homeowners' association that manages the new town's facilities is considering closing at night all its vaunted "open space," a quarter of the community's land.

* Safety concerns have led many parents to forbid their children from using the town's 70 miles of pathways to get to school -- though the paths were designed for that.

* Several of the community's village centers -- intended to foster residents' interaction -- are withering in the face of competition from nearby warehouse-style stores, new outlets developed by Rouse. A rash of armed robberies at the centers has compounded the problem.

* Aging properties -- particularly in Columbia's oldest areas -- are causing increasing neighborhood disputes over the community's architectural guidelines and revealing these rules as unenforceable.

Racial questions

* In Columbia's older areas, clusters of low-income housing have "in a way become ghettos," says Larry Madaras, a Howard Community College professor. Racial balances at elementary schools in some of these areas have shifted dramatically in recent years, indicating white flight. Recent efforts to build affordable housing have been few and have run into community opposition.

* A highly charged school redistricting battle last year between two Columbia villages had race and class elements with largely white, affluent parents fighting student transfers from high-achieving Centennial High to more ethnic, less affluent Wilde Lake High.

* Just 23 years old, Wilde Lake -- the community's prototype high school -- was torn down recently because of the failings of its open-classroom layout. It is being replaced by a $20 million building with more traditional classrooms.

* Some religious congregations have left or shunned the new town's "interfaith centers" in favor of separate facilities. The new River Hill village wants to forsake entirely the concept in which various faiths share the same sanctuary.

* In developing Columbia's last major residential areas, Rouse is concentrating high-priced housing in River Hill and putting more townhouses and apartments in the more densely developed Kendall Ridge area -- in sharp contrast to the firm's original emphasis on mixing housing.

Citizen participation lacking

* Citizen participation in Columbia's affairs is so lacking that it long has been a struggle to draw enough candidates and voters for village elections. A yearlong drive to increase self-rule via incorporation has fallen flat in the face of a typical bedroom community's mix of disengagement and self-satis-faction.

"It's like everyone is plugged into an individual service station," says Rabbi Martin Siegel, head of the Columbia Jewish Congregation and a leader of the faltering drive to turn Columbia into a city. "In the early days, there was a sense of something larger to which we were committed. That's certainly gone. The quality of the original dream and original times has disappeared."

The fading of the Columbia ethos mirrors much larger changes in American society over the past three decades -- changes that have seen middle-class suburbia across the country grow far more conservative, fearful of crime and self-absorbed.

In Columbia since 1980, Republicans have sliced Democrats' voter registration lead from 4-to-1 to 2-to-1. "People change, times and conditions change," says Robert Tennenbaum, a 28-year Columbia resident and one-time Rouse planner. "This is the 'Me Generation.' Then, it was, 'What can I do for my country?' "

Founder still lives there

Even so, Columbia's visionary founder, James W. Rouse -- who still lives in the new town -- says its differences from the rest of America are more significant than its similarities. "It's a remarkable happening," he says. Mr. Rouse maintains he built "a real city, not just a better suburb."

But Howard Community College sociology professor Mark Canfield sees Columbia evolving into just "a typical fringe city. I'm afraid Columbia has become almost too amorphous. It will be very hard to recapture the sense of being special."

With a constant influx of newcomers' "prejudices, misconceptions and own value systems," it is only natural that Columbia would undergo a form of "normalization," adds Ernest Erber, retired urban planner and former resident.

"There's a limit to how far you can go in solving deep-rooted national problems within the confines of a community," Mr. Erber says. "We're slowly being engulfed by greater American society."

Modern day company town?

But some residents say Columbia's evolution into just another high-income suburb has been driven by Rouse's profit motives. They view Columbia as a modern-day company town where resi-dents are no more than loyal customers and all decisions about land and other major matters are controlled by two private corporations, Rouse and the Columbia Association, the homeowners' group that it spun off 30 years ago to manage the community's amenities.

"Some of the people in leadership are very nervous about widespread citizen participation," says Morris T. Keeton, former president of a citizens group that studied Columbia's future. "People in power want to protect their turf. We're not exempt from it no matter how glorious the ideals were."

Alton J. Scavo, Rouse's general manager for Columbia, denies that. But he also stresses that the firm has responsibilities to its stockholders to make money in a 1990s business environment

that is "much more competitive" than the 1960s.

"After four recessions," he says, "a lot of us became a little more sensitive to what it takes to keep the dream alive."

And even some who were in the thick of Columbia's hopeful beginnings acknowledge starry-eyed reminiscing can distort the planned community's infancy.

Wes Yamaka, a California minister, came to Columbia to help start its interfaith centers. His silk screen prints symbolized the new town's embryonic ethos and made him its most popular artist.

'There was a soul'

"Columbia was a place of hope for a lot of people then," Mr. Yamaka recalls. "There was a soul then, brought about by a single purpose. The city could have failed. It could have lingered as a mudhole."

But he cautions: "It wasn't Camelot everywhere you turned. It's like a marriage. People think, wow, this is going to be the Garden of Eden forever. And it ain't."

Tomorrow: The newest America has bypassed the "Next America."

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