We've been to the past, and it's not working yet


THIS PAST WEEK, my sense of civic pride has been challenged by the drubbing Columbia has gotten at the hands of this venerable newspaper.

It's not that I don't think Columbia deserves some of the criticism it received in the paper's two-part special report. In fact, over the years, I've been one of the critics.

What really called me to respond was the comparison made between Columbia and Kentlands, the planned community in Gaithersburg that is the latest cause celebre among urban planners.

The neo-traditional concept that Kentlands embodies -- its narrow streets, alleyways and town squares -- is being touted as the latest answer to suburban ills, just as Columbia was at its founding a quarter-century ago.

Planners and architects who have embraced neo-traditionalism's back-to-the-future design say their ideas are preferable to the the ones that fostered Columbia because they reduce residents' need for the automobile.

Kentlands? Hah

While I've never seen any valid research to suggest the neo-traditionalists are right, on a recent visit to Kentlands I came dTC away with plenty of reasons to believe they are wrong.

The car is hardly obsolete in Kentlands and never will be.

Granted, the ideas behind this absolutely stunning, upscale community would suggest the creators have found a way to discourage our over-dependence on the auto.

Garages are built on alleyways for storing the car; theoretically, out of sight, out of mind. Narrow streets discourage speeding and congestion. Those are the parts of the concept that are being implemented.

But the corner mom-and-pop store, the post office down the street, the ice cream shop that everyone was supposed to want to walk to because it was so close?

None of it is there.

And because it's not there, I suspect Kentlands residents use their cars as much as the rest of us.

No escape from the auto

Not only do they have to get into the car to go to the only shopping center built for them -- a decidedly traditional plaza -- almost anything else they would want to do requires the auto.

Unlike Columbia, a city, Kentlands is no more than a development stuck in the middle of a very bustling part of Montgomery County.

It has yet to generate any industry of its own. Plans to create a Main Street with homey shops for small merchants have been put on the back burner by the bank that foreclosed on the project in 1991.

The idea that Kentlands will answer the car problem in a way that Columbia failed to is mostly wishful thinking.

A main feature of the community's visitors center is, ironically, a cassette tape that guests are given so they can tour the community while driving in their cars.

And if diversity is a goal, Kentlands has a long way to go.

Its backers claim that Kentland's will have a better mix of income levels than Columbia, where housing types are segregated into small enclaves.

What about diversity?

But except for $500,000 single-family homes and expensive apartment buildings and condominiums, Kentlands is hardly a hub of diversity.

The idea that poor people will be living in in-law apartments above people's garages or in flats above storefronts has yet to materialize on a scale worth bragging about.

I suppose on some level it can be argued that Columbia has segregated housing, with housing types grouped into communities. But in terms of successfully integrating all those housing types with one another, Columbia has no rival.

There have certainly been strains generated by those communities being in such close proximity, but I will always prefer the variety that exists in Columbia to the sterile sameness of Kentlands.

Still, there is no question that Kentlands is beautiful. Would that we could all live in that kind of splendor -- in houses built of stone and brick on all four sides, our children playing in little pocket parks directly across the street.

But Kentlands is a rarefied environment for the very privileged among us. One of the enduring legacies of Columbia has been to make the American dream accessable to so many.

There really is no comparison between these two communities.

One has stood the test of time. The other hasn't.

L Kevin Thomas is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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