As Columbia's original village, Wilde Lake was meticulously designed by developer James W. Rouse, and its residents strive to stay true to his vision of offering a cross section of affordable and high-end housing.
But that high end could soon skyrocket.
With a scarcity of land in a highly sought-after location, a developer wants to tear down homes in Wilde Lake and erect million-dollar mansions in their place.
At a time of low interest rates and rapidly rising home prices, such development is happening around the Washington, D.C., area.
But it would be a first for Columbia and could not only change the landscape but also challenge the philosophy of its founder.
This case will also be a test for Columbia's strict architectural covenants, as the 37-year-old town has never had to consider such a situation.
"It's just a matter of time before we're really expecting to see more of these teardowns occur, not just in Wilde Lake but in other parts of the county," said Steve Lafferty, Howard County's deputy county planning director.
"With land values as they are, it's easier to redevelop existing land than it is to find green fields," Lafferty said.
John McDonough, president of Keswick Homes, said his company has torn down older houses to build new ones in Virginia towns where few vacant lots are available - Vienna, McLean and Great Falls - and he's hoping Wilde Lake can be the next endeavor.
He's building his own home - a 5,300-square-foot mansion that began as an 1800s stone home that he renovated and added to - near Wilde Lake on an outparcel of Columbia.
Nearby, he is also constructing a home that he said has been sold for "well over a million" to buyers who were attracted to the prospect of moving into a finished neighborhood.
"What the people liked very much was the fact that it was an existing established community - great location, all the street trees were mature, the landscaping is in, all the paths are in," said McDonough, who has built homes in Columbia. "It's beautiful."
McDonough said he envisions building similar homes in the village after tearing down older, single-family homes that are beginning to deteriorate.
He said he believes such construction will help rejuvenate the area.
Rick LaRocca, a real estate agent with Re/Max in Columbia, said there's a market for million-dollar homes in Wilde Lake, where prices range from condominiums in the low- to mid-$100,000s to single-family homes in the $400,000s.
He said McDonough's homes would be in line with Rouse's vision by replacing "functionally obsolete" homes that have small master bedrooms and kitchens with houses that meet the desires of current homebuyers.
"No one is talking about tearing down all of Wilde Lake village and starting from scratch," LaRocca said.
Wilde Lake officials said they knew the time would come when homes would be demolished and replaced.
They say it's the natural growth of a town, pointing to the redevelopment adjacent to the village in Town Center on former commercial property, where a four- to five-story condominium complex is planned for near Lake Kittamaqundi, and nearby a high-rise with condominiums and commercial space is proposed.
Amid this redevelopment, the Rouse Co. recently made an unsuccessful bid to Howard County to add more residential units to Columbia's downtown in an effort to create a more urban atmosphere.
"I think you can only plan a community, fine-tune it so much into the future," said Vince Marando, a member of the Wilde Lake Village Board. "Then other kinds of forces - availability of homes and forces of desirable location - they have an impact, and we're in the middle of those changes."
Task for village board
But before homes can be torn down and new ones erected, the Wilde Lake Village Board has to develop a policy for considering such a proposal under its architectural covenants - a task that board leaders said they will undertake this year.
When the village's covenants were drafted more than 30 years ago, builders were constructing homes for the first time.
Over the years, the board has been accustomed to making decisions about the outside appearance of properties - whether owners can paint their homes a certain color, install fences or build additions.
"I don't think you can plan, back in 1967, and say it's going to look like this forever, but maybe you can keep the character ... if you have an open development process," Marando said.
Village board member Mary Pivar predicts that if McDonough is allowed to proceed with his development plans, he will face stringent building guidelines.
"He will find a tough sell in Wilde Lake in terms of value systems," she said.
"He won't be allowed to build gargantuan piles of excess around the lake," Pivar added.
Other residents are skeptical about the proposed development and worry about how it will affect the rate of affordable housing in a village that has a variety of apartments, townhouses and single-family homes.
Developers "don't want to have a mix of older residents, newer residents, people that are poor or lower middle class," said Larry Madaras, a Howard Community College history professor who studies Columbia and lives in Wilde Lake. "They just want to make it look like the rich county we've become."
Blow to diversity
Resident Henry Shapiro echoed Madaras' concerns: "I just feel that the whole idea of Columbia was diversity, both in terms of culture and economics and so on, and this just takes a chunk out of that concept."
County Councilman Ken Ulman, a West Columbia Democrat, said redeveloping deteriorating homes could be healthy for a neighborhood, but added that he worries about gentrification.
"I don't want to live in a community where there are only million-dollar homes," he said.
Top of the market
McDonough acknowledged he's not seeking to fill the need for affordable homes.
"At the point when we buy a home and tear it down, by the time we put up a new one, it's going to be a custom home," McDonough said. "It's going to be more in the top of the market, rather than the bottom of it."
Lafferty said that while some homes in Wilde Lake and Oakland Mills are beginning to deteriorate and would be good candidates to be torn down, the integrity of a village depends on an adequate balance of affordable and high-end housing.
"I'm not sure that Jim Rouse anticipated the land market to be the way it is today," Lafferty said. "The vision really included a diversity of housing types. ... To be true to the vision, that diversity needs to be maintained."