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Architect shares Town Center ideas

The Baltimore Sun

If James W. Rouse were around today, he would be working to complete Columbia's Town Center - something that never got done in his lifetime, said a member of the design team planning the revitalization.

"Columbia was a very important idea, and it's like all good ideas, every 50 years or so you need to tweak them and make them better," said Jaquelin T. Robertson, founding partner of Cooper, Robertson & Partners and former dean of the school of architecture at the University of Virginia. "It's essentially completing his vision. Rouse wanted to have a Town Center. He started with the only thing that was viable at the time. He started with a shopping center."

Robertson, who talked with Rouse on about 10 occasions, shared his ideas for Columbia's future Wednesday night at the final of four forums sponsored by General Growth Properties Inc. to introduce its team designing and planning downtown.

Rouse understood in 1963 that if you wanted "a good place," you had to plan it carefully, said Robertson, whose firm has done award-winning architectural and planning projects in new communities at Daniel Island, S.C.; New Albany, Ohio; and Celebration and WaterColor, Florida. It also has prepared master plans for historic areas including Monticello in Virginia and the Battlefield Museum and Visitor Center at Gettysburg.

"You have to do the hardest thing of anything, which is to listen," Robertson said. "Your job is to understand what the issues are, what things need to be done and to find a way to do them that has lasting value."

His firm's role is to help fashion the master plan and to think about how buildings should respond to what's around them and to accommodate new plans and uses, he said.

General Growth is scheduled to announce its master plan to the public April 28.

Columbia's challenges include making appropriate use of Symphony Woods, which has been dormant for years, and making the area walkable, Robertson said.

"How do you walk from one place to another," he said. "What makes you want to walk someplace? Any place that you want to get out of your car and walk is a good place by definition."

He and many others have noted that getting from The Mall in Columbia to the lakefront by foot is not an easy or pleasant experience.

All over the country, people are taking 1950's era shopping centers and turning them into downtowns, so you'll still have the mall but you'll have stores that face the streets, he said.

What makes Columbia interesting is that it has the chance of being revitalized, restored and brought up to speed without changing its value system or why people want to live here, Robertson said.

"Columbia was a powerful idea and about all the best things," he said. "It was about how you should treat one another and what kind of environment encouraged doing that. It was about relating to other people."

Robertson said it's easy to be excited about his work here because he considers Columbia and its creator so important, and he wants good things to happen here in the future.

But those kinds of good things don't happen quickly, he said. Substantive changes can take 15 or 20 years, he said.

"You have to be patient," he said. "All I can tell you is good stuff done well doesn't happen overnight."

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