If you ask Alan Ward what's lacking in downtown Columbia, the landscape architect and urban designer working on the Town Center master plan will tell you that it's pedestrians, along with a sense of connection and vitality as you walk.
"What's missing is an urban, residential environment," Ward, a principal with Sasaki Associates Inc., said in an interview last week. "There are pockets of residential, but it doesn't add up to the street life like you'd expect in an urban neighborhood. I think the expectations are to make it more lively and to make it more of a destination."
Ward kicked off a series of public forums Wednesday night to introduce the design and planning team working on the master plan for General Growth Properties Inc. About 250 people attended the event at GGP's Town Center lakefront offices.
Ward has more than 30 years of experience at the design firm. His accomplishments include acting as principal landscape architect responsible for winning the international design competition to develop the master plan for the site of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and for the development of Reston Town Center in Virginia.
He has taught architecture and landscape architecture, and is the author and photographer of the book American Designed Landscapes: A Photographic Interpretation and editor of Reston Town Center: A Downtown for the 21st Century.
Some of the lessons learned from work on the Beijing Olympic site might have parallels in Columbia, said Ward, who has traveled from his Boston-area office to Columbia at least 15 times in the past two years.
In creating site plans for the Beijing Olympic Park, his firm was careful to consider the traditions of town planning and garden design, and of the site and land itself, he said. In Columbia, that would translate into respect for nature and the land, attention to natural processes and connecting green corridors and figuring out how those relate to a new downtown, Ward said.
"A poetic place resonates with the land, the history and the people," Ward said. "It's a process, yes, but it is a creative endeavor that synthesizes all the issues in a meaningful way."
His firm's role is to focus on the overall plan, especially the landscape, the connections to village centers and the open spaces, he said. He declined to discuss specific details of their plans.
General Growth has said that it will release its draft master plan for Town Center on April 28.
"If you were to look at other parts of the country that have vibrancy, that are destinations that people seek out, and those destinations typically correspond to higher densities than we see in Columbia," he said. "When you have large surface parking lots, it dissipates the energy and vitality of the streets."
But those destination places don't necessarily involve high-rise construction, he said, citing Annapolis and Adams Morgan as local examples.
"Typically, the experience on foot is a seamless kind of interesting experience," he said. "You tend not to walk through parking lots or disconnectedness."
Columbia's strengths include its spirit of experimentation, its relationship to land and nature and its history. But the downtown site is not without its challenges, he noted.
Among the greatest of those is working around the highly-successful existing mall, the many grade changes in Town Center, and what to do with existing buildings and roadways.
Symphony Woods is both an opportunity and a challenge, Ward said.
"Merriweather Post Pavilion is important, but what else goes on in Symphony Woods?" he said. "What could make it more part of the life and future of downtown? Making it more usable beyond concerts. Maybe arts and cultural uses to extend the season."
The main forces that will shape Columbia's future are what the community wants to happen and how the market evolves, he said.
"You can have an approach, which is do nothing and have change happen, but there is potential, if you have a vision, to create a special place," he said. "Through the planning process, we have heard from the public that they have expectations for something more in the Town Center. They realize the Town Center could be more interesting, more vital, could be a more exciting place."