Rethinking Columbia

The Baltimore Sun

Twenty years ago, a Washington-based architecture critic was invited to ruminate in a local magazine about Rouse's new city as it turned 20.

He called Columbia's downtown "salvageable."

Roger K. Lewis also concluded in his 1989 article that there was no "there" in Town Center in responding to the article's central question, "Are we there yet?" But he left the door open to possibility.

Lewis - an architect, University of Maryland professor emeritus and columnist - returns Wednesday to assess Columbia's progress after two decades.

He will give a talk on "Becoming a City: Lessons for Downtown Columbia" as the guest of Bring Back the Vision, a group formed in 2006 to support the ideals of Columbia's founder, James W. Rouse.

Now, Lewis describes the architecture of Town Center as "mediocre," calls its lack of a geometric grid of navigable streets "lamentable," refers to its dominant shopping mall as "regrettable" and says its hidden lakefront is "under-exploited."

And yes, "salvageable" still comes to mind when he surveys Columbia.

"Columbia is a distinct settlement with the identity, population and geography of a city - it just doesn't look or behave like one," he said.

The critic said he will not render a detailed analysis of Columbia during his presentation but will offer generic observations and suggestions gleaned from lessons learned by other cities and from Columbia's own mistakes and successes.

The Washington resident's visit comes during a pregnant pause in the continuing discussion of Columbia's redevelopment, as the new 30-year master plan submitted by its owner, General Growth Properties, is reviewed by the county's planning board.

"I think we will all learn some things we didn't know before" from Lewis' presentation, said Emily Lincoln, a 40-year Columbia resident and spokeswoman for Bring Back the Vision.

"We need to somehow bring the community together on this," she said, referring to arriving at a consensus on GGP's recommendations for revitalizing Columbia.

"Reaching a consensus on the vision of a place is always the most difficult part," Lewis said.

In these early stages of considering the redevelopment, consensus in the community has been elusive. At public hearings and meetings on the plan in recent months, some citizens have offered up sharp criticism of various aspects of the GGP plan.

"There are good things in GGP's proposals, without a doubt. But this needs to be done thoroughly, in a way that is enforceable and that brings the plan as presented to fruition," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, whose district includes Columbia and who has been among those raising questions.

"What we don't want to see happen is all these residential units get built and nothing else," Bobo said.

Others have come out to strongly advocate for the developer's plan. Lincoln said her group formed to counter "the sizable opposition to the development of downtown."

Lincoln asked Lewis to speak after noticing a mention of Columbia's proposed makeover in his recent column on economic downturn as a possible catalyst for smarter growth, she said.

She said she thinks Lewis will bring a new perspective as someone who has kept tabs on Columbia and several other suburban districts, including Rockville Pike in Montgomery County and Tysons Corner, Va.

"There are probably six different ways that Columbia could be developed, and some adjustments will have to be made along the way," she said. "But it's really important to finish this and to have a plan in place."

David Yungmann, a co-founder of Columbia 2.0 - which formed in July to involve a second generation as caretakers of the Columbia concept - called hosting Lewis "a neat idea."

A longtime county resident whose father worked for the Rouse Co. for 30 years, Yungmann said the driving force behind his group is that all county residents should feel stewardship over Columbia's future.

"Columbia is either our engine or our anchor," Yungmann said. "I think it's an urgent situation that we shore up our economic, social and cultural heart, and that is Town Center."

Lewis agreed that action is appropriate for Columbia and other suburban areas heading into makeovers.

"Throughout the U.S., thousands of communities that have developed since World War II are in need of rethinking," the author and Texas native said.

"Back then, it all made complete sense," he said of Columbia's beginnings in the 1960s and '70s. "Columbia epitomizes the 'it seemed like a good idea at the time' principle of design."

Take the mall, for example.

"Having as the town's centerpiece a privately owned and internally focused regional shopping mall was conceived as the right thing to do, but now we see there is no 'Main Street' in Columbia," he said.

Lewis has written that the mall should be turned inside-out to make it street-friendly.

"There is a clear advantage to having a downtown that is more than a central business district," he noted.

And Lake Kittamaqundi - home to icons such as the People Tree and the statue of Jim Rouse and his brother, Willard - is more than a hidden amenity.

"The Lakefront is a lost opportunity in a culture that has rediscovered [the benefits of living and playing near] water," he said.

Lewis' solution to salvaging Columbia is fairly straightforward.

"I support the notion of retrofitting small cities, making them denser and filling them with a greater variety of uses in order to create destinations where you want to be 24/7 and 365," he said.

The thing Columbia has going for it is it's big enough to accommodate complete diversity, he said.

"If there are naysayers who object to change, they need to go look at places where the urban fabric has a synchronicity, energy and vitality - like Annapolis, or Olde Town and Mount Vernon in Virginia," he said.

"Columbia is a patchwork of disparate elements, and it's not greater than the sum of its parts," he said. "But it could be."

The meeting of Bring Back the Vision will be held from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at Vantage House, 5400 Vantage Point Road. Dessert and coffee will follow. The meeting is open to the public but reservations are requested by e-mail to

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