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Architecture Column

The Baltimore Sun

Some longtime residents will readily admit that one of the flaws of Columbia - the scrupulously planned Howard County community that urban visionary James Rouse launched as a development model in the 1960s - is that it opened without a cemetery, as if no one would ever die there.

But a more serious flaw is that Columbia has never developed much of an urban center - a walkable Main Street or public square where people can gather and carry out many of the rituals of civic life.

The community of roughly 100,000 residents has a picturesque lakefront, an impressive shopping mall, a popular concert pavilion, excellent schools and attractive residential villages. It has more than its share of parkways and loop roads and curving streets with poetic names.

But for all of its greenery and other amenities, Columbia lacks the sense of place one immediately finds in Annapolis, Georgetown or other communities based on traditional town-planning principles, including the late Rouse's hometown of Easton.

Forty years after the first residents moved in, one is hard-pressed to find conventional intersections where roads cross at right angles, much less a rectilinear street grid that is the hallmark of most successful towns and cities. Aside from the lakefront, perhaps, "there is no 'there' there," as the writer Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, Calif.

All that would finally change if builders follow recommendations in a new master plan that is being developed to guide the growth of Columbia's town center over the next 30 years.

The first phase calls for the creation of a pedestrian-friendly "cultural spine" that would link The Mall in Columbia with the Merriweather Post Pavilion and add more cultural amenities along the way. Branching off from this cultural corridor would be a new greenway with tree-lined terraces and lushly planted pathways that would connect the mall and concert pavilion with Lake Kittamaqundi. It would be Columbia's version of the Spanish Steps in Rome. These are the sorts of sophisticated public spaces that have the potential to give Columbia the memorable urban core it lacks today.

The plans for the cultural spine and "Steps to the Lake" are just a few of the ideas proposed by General Growth Properties, the company that bought the Rouse Co. in 2004 and now controls much of the land in the town center. One of its top executives is Thomas D'Alesandro IV, a Maryland native whose father and grandfather both served as mayor of Baltimore. His aunt is Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

As part of the company's effort to map out a strategy for future development in Columbia's town center, D'Alesandro turned to some of the nation's leading thinkers in the fields of planning and design, just as Rouse consulted leading thinkers in the 1960s.

The planners include Cooper, Robertson & Partners, which has developed plans for successful urban places such as Battery Park City in New York and Celebration, Fla.; Sasaki Associates of Boston, a nationally prominent land planner, Gail Dexter Lord, who specializes in cultural planning, and Biohabitats, a specialist in ecological planning.

They've studied other successful communities and developments that contain a mix of uses, from Reston, Va., and The Woodlands in Texas to Val d'Europe in France and Santana Row in San Jose, Calif. D'Alesandro, who helped develop Reston and the Woodlands, encouraged the designers to build on Rouse's vision for Columbia but also draw on ideas that weren't in vogue when Columbia was planned, such as the "New Urbanist" movement that looks to proven town-planning strategies from the past, and strategies for "green design" and environmental sustainability.

For the first phase, planners focused on the public realm, as opposed to private buildings. Their idea was to create stronger links between the million-square-foot mall and other key destinations, and establish a framework for all that would follow.

A direct link to the lakefront was not easy to achieve because General Growth didn't control all the land that would be needed. But it did control most of the land needed to link the mall with Symphony Woods, the area around the concert pavilion.

Knowing that, the planners proposed a pedestrian spine connecting the mall with the concert pavilion - a 10-minute walk to the south. Along the way would be sites for new buildings and attractions that could reinforce the idea of a cultural corridor and community gathering place - a skating rink, a relocated Howard County library branch, a new home for Toby's Dinner Theatre, a hotel and possible new quarters for the Columbia Association and Columbia Archives.

It would be the sort of Main Street that Columbia doesn't have today and the start of a rectilinear street-grid system that would help people become oriented when they're in the town center. To connect this new cultural district to the lakefront, the planners proposed an elaborate greenway that would have a series of terraces stepping down toward the lake.

As presented at a community meeting last week, the draft master plan is still very much a work in progress - the first page of the latest chapter of the town's history, as Columbia general manager Gregory Hamm puts it. Planners haven't provided specifics for some key issues that many residents are concerned about, such as new housing and changes to traffic flow.

For example, the developers want approval to build up to 5,500 residences over the next 30 years, but the first phase doesn't indicate where they would be, how they would be configured or where the new residents would park.

As part of a later phase of development, planners have suggested building a bridge over part of Lake Kittamaqundi to connect the mall with the Village of Oakland Mills. But it's unclear to what extent a bridge might adversely affect the lake, ecologically or aesthetically.

In discussing ways to improve cultural offerings, planners have suggested expanding or relocating existing community assets, but there is an opportunity to think more broadly. Does Columbia need a symphony hall comparable to North Bethesda's Music Center at Strathmore? A Clipper Mill-style center where artists and artisans could set up studios? A full-fledged art museum? One building that would make a terrific museum is General Growth's own local headquarters on Lake Kittamaqundi, with its large terraces and abundant natural light. A museum there could be a powerful anchor for leisure-time activities and promote public use of the lakefront.

In addition, planners say they want to "restore and enhance" Merriweather Post Pavilion by raising the roof, putting more seating under cover, building a new stage, adding back-of-house amenities for performers and upgrading restrooms and concession areas.

Some of the suggested changes are potentially controversial because one of the pavilion's architects was Frank O. Gehry, lead designer of the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and one of the world's best-known architects. One of the smartest moves General Growth could make would be to hire Gehry to redesign the building he helped create, perhaps along the lines of his much-admired concert pavilion in Chicago's Millennium Park. It would be a high-profile commission that would instantly put the entire Columbia project on the map.

Now that the draft master plan has been unveiled, General Growth has scheduled a series of public meetings to address some of the questions it raises and hear community reaction. Planners are likely to get an earful - as much about what they haven't shown as what they have.

Focusing on public space and cultural amenities in the first phase makes good sense, but that's not necessarily the toughest part of the planning process. In many ways, it's the easy, Mom-and-apple pie stuff. Who's going to oppose a skating rink or library? What the planners have done is like serving dessert before the main course. The battles will come when they get more specific about housing and traffic and funding.

Still, General Growth has made a promising start by assembling such a strong team of experts and offering a vision for giving Columbia a long overdue shot of urbanity.

When it came to planning, Rouse was fond of repeating an admonition attributed to Chicago architect Daniel Burnham: "Make no little plans," he said. "They have no magic to stir men's blood, and probably will not themselves be realized."

Rouse also encouraged colleagues to "think big, because reality will compromise us soon enough."

As the master plan moves through the community review process, General Growth should push its heavyweight consultants to think even more boldly. Columbia stands apart today largely because it sprang from an extraordinary planning effort. It deserves an equally creative and far-reaching followup.

ed.gunts@baltsun.com

Public meetings

General Growth Properities will hold three community meetings this week about its draft master plan for Columbia, with each session focusing on different elements of the plan. The meetings will begin at 7 p.m. at General Growth's Columbia headquarters, 10275 Little Patuxent Parkway, and are open to the public:

Tomorrow: Sustainability and Environment

Wednesday: Transit and Traffic

Thursday: Culture

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