Columbia, at 30, shows its age


THERE'S TROUBLE in Paradise. Columbia, turning 30 this summer, is looking in the mirror and discovering lines in its complexion, slipping into bed each evening with aches it never noticed before, and wondering if its youth is gone forever.

Is this legal? Hadn't creakiness been outlawed when Jim Rouse first imagined his Howard County enclave? Wasn't there a moratorium on decay? Weren't intelligent community planning and liberal goodwill supposed to ward off every problem from crime and mindless sprawl to bad manners? Quick, somebody form a committee to investigate the invasion of reality.

"Well, you know how Columbians are," says Pam Myers, manager of the Columbia Association office at The Mall in Columbia. "We expected Utopia. We still have the wonderful openness, the great diversity of people. But things change. The changes are mostly good, but I"

But, as reality always dictates, not everything is good. Some days, it rains. Last year, there were three homicides in Columbia. Already this year, one. There are 85,000 people in Columbia now, and some of them are teen-agers who wear nose rings when they hang out at the mall on Friday nights. Some people are actually moving out of Columbia for newer suburban developments. There are vacant stores in some of the village centers, and you can hear the sound of sniping aimed at the Rouse Co., which manages the centers and promises changes are coming.

OK, so the problems don't exactly sound like crack alley in Baltimore. In America, nobody wants to grow old. But in Columbia, once criticized as being too planned, too plastic, charmless because it had none of the nook-and-cranny character that comes with age, they're discovering that youth eventually fades.

Rouse built centers in the geographical heart of each Columbia village, where residents could not only shop but worship, hang out, chat with each other, plan each bright new Columbian day.

But the four original centers - Harper's Choice, Wilde Lake, Oakland Mills and Long Reach - are having problems with the approach of middle age. Of 68 original stores, 21 are now vacant. Things are looking rundown. A Giant is closing, threatening all of the smaller stores that depend on its drawing power. There are charges of neglect, of shabbiness, talk of new anxieties after dark. Even Elizabeth Bobo, the former Howard County executive now a state delegate from west Columbia, has made uncharacteristically angry public remarks about Rouse Co. neglect.

"It's like having a house," says Pam Mack, spokeswoman for the Columbia Association. "After 30 years, you have to make renovations. Not just the buildings, either. Society is different than it was 30 years ago. The challenge is to adapt."

In some of the older Columbia neighborhoods, committees have been formed. From the beginning, that's been the Columbia way: Got a problem, work it out together. Once, though, it meant organizing a nature walk or inventing a softball league. Now they're talking about repairing sidewalks, cleaning scattered trash, upgrading streetlights.

Some people talk about new crime. At the Columbia Mall, women strolling with small children say they're a little anxious on the street in the evenings. Such a thought was once unimaginable. Wasn't urban blight bng stopped at the cutoff from U.S. 29?

Columbia's average household income is $72,200 a year - about three times higher than Baltimore's, and one of the highest in the country - but the notion was always to bring in a cross section of people, even if some would inevitably get themselves into trouble. Is crime anxiety justified?

"For its size," says Howard County police spokesman Steven Keller, "Columbia is an extremely safe community. Very safe. In fact, there's generally been a drop in crime, even though the population's gone up."

As for troubles in the village centers, the Rouse Co. responds with this: Harper's Choice is undergoing $3.5 million in renovations. Wilde Lake, with nine vacancies, is preparing to fill two of them with a bank and a video store. Long Reach, with six vacancies, will undergo renovations to double the size of its Safeway. Of Oakland Mills, which is losing its Giant at the end of June, Rouse says it's looking for a new tenant.

"One thing I never accepted," says Mack, "was people saying Columbia was plastic. Columbia had soul right from the beginning. It had passion. It had a passion for integration. and a passion to make itself accessible to all income levels."

Today, she says, Columbia's 76 percent white, 18 percent black, 6 percent Asian and other.

"There are some people who think maybe there was more passion in the beginning than there is now. The early people were taking a risk by moving here. Nobody knew if it would work. Today, some might question if that passion's still here."

Sometimes, passion fades. Youth runs out, and unanticipated problems arrive. There are cracks in the sidewalks. But Columbia's lucky. How nice for a community to face its little problems before they become unmanageable.

Pub Date: 4/17/97

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