Columbia's village centers, which have been relegated to secondary status as officials contemplate the future development of the downtown area, have received an important boost by a distinguished authority on urban planning.
Robert W. Burchell, a professor and co-director of the Center for Urban Policy Research at Rutgers University, said it is vital that the county preserve the viability of the village centers and that their future and vitality be central elements of a final plan to transform downtown into an urban center.
"There should never be a situation where downtown is being planned that the ripple affects of that plan is not being looked at at the village level," Burchell said in an interview last week.
Some residents have criticized the Department of Planning and Zoning's decision to examine the village centers after completion of the downtown plan, saying many of the centers are struggling and that adding businesses near the lakefront could pull even more customers away.
Burchell said the roles and futures of both are intertwined and should be planned for simultaneously.
"Not one minute should be spent on planning for the downtown where somebody is not saying, 'How is that going to affect the village centers?'" he said.
It might be necessary, he said, to alter the centers, including the addition of more commercial offices.
"There is a way of making sure that the village centers survive," Burchell said, "and that is by promoting lower rents, by having it exclusively convenience goods and then taking a look at the space and saying, 'Maybe we have too much space' ... and opening up some of that space for commercial offices. That's a nice mix for a village center."
The addition of a specialty store at each center would help draw customers, he said.
Burchell met with students at Oakland Mills High School on Thursday morning and with the public at Howard Community College that evening as part of a series of lectures on urban planning in general and the future of the downtown area specifically.
County Executive Ken Ulman and council members Calvin Ball, Mary Kay Sigaty and Jennifer R. Terrasa attended the discussion at Oakland Mills, as did school board member Diane Mikulis.
The series is being sponsored by General Growth Properties Inc., which became the primary landowner and developer of Columbia with its acquisition two years ago of The Rouse Co.
The county expects to release a revised downtown plan early next year. GGP anticipates having its own plan ready for public review by April, according to Douglas M. Godine, vice president and general manager of Mid-Atlantic operations for the company.
The county's current plan would, among other things, allow 5,500 additional housing units, 3 million square feet of new commercial offices and 750,000 square feet for retail.
Burchell, who in 1971 wrote his doctoral dissertation on Columbia, described the planned community as "a special place." But he said in some respects it has become a "little bit of a dinosaur."
"The center needs life," he said, adding his voice to those advocating the most profound change to Columbia since its inception almost four decades ago.
"The new market for [downtown] centers is not necessarily regional shopping centers," Burchell said. "It is much more of an integrated, mixed-use center with employment, retail and housing. ... In that way, Columbia needs to make that transition."
The planning for downtown, he said, is a delicate balancing act because while the benefits of the proposed changes are primarily for future generations, the desires of current residents must be respected.
"It is absolutely a paradox," Burchell said. "The basic thing that you have to assure is that those who currently live here like the way it's going. That is absolutely important - that they feel comfortable with the changes that are taking place. They are a voice and they are shareholders in the land. That's an important concept."
Burchell said density is key to transforming downtown, and he urged the community not to fear the height of buildings such as the 23-story luxury residential and retail tower proposed to overlook Lake Kittamaqundi.
"Can you make bigger and smaller work? Absolutely," he said. "In fact, it adds to the reality of it, because too small is too sterile, so you need that differential of height.
"The charm of the city is seeing that difference in height. ... They [buildings] look great. It's just making sure that you can design well."
While advocating change, Burchell warned against a complete overhaul.
"What you're looking for is an intensification that is well-done, with design that gives you a critical mass to bring some nightlife and give some reason to go downtown at night, other than just to go and make a purchase in a mall.
"Continuity is critical," he added. "Columbia has for itself something that is so nice in its present form that you really want to keep that. It's a unique environment, and so every time you wake up in the morning, you want to say, 'How can I make Columbia better?'
"Columbia ought to view this as an opportunity. ... It's an enormous opportunity."