As pedestrian bridges spanning highways go, Columbia's version over busy U.S. 29 has all the charm of any urban backwater, swathed in protective fencing, with secluded pathway connections that keep most residents away.

"Its current state is disgraceful," said Gregory F. Hamm, Columbia's general manager and master developer General Growth Properties' chief proponent of a 30-year makeover of the planned town's central core.

"It looks a little like Guantanamo Bay," said resident and retired planner Philip Engelke.

"I think people don't feel safe on it," said Howard County Councilman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat who represents Oakland Mills.

Although not a major issue in the overall plan, the 26-year-old pedestrian/bicycle bridge has inspired one of the most innovative ideas to emerge from the five-year-old discussion of how to provide Columbia with a real downtown.

A group of residents and designers called Bridge Columbia is pushing to remake the bridge into a wider, more attractive key link that would accommodate a transit shuttle to connect the town's hospital, community college and revived town center west of U.S. 29 with the Village of Oakland Mills and the new Blandair Regional Park set to begin construction east of the divided highway.

The group is pushing its idea of a redesign as perhaps the most visible symbol of Columbia's rebirth - a signal to passing motorists that Columbia is regaining its spirit of innovative excitement instead of succumbing to stagnation after 42 years.

"This is one issue everybody seems to feel pretty positive about," Engelke said, though no price tag for the project or a final design has been determined.

Some residents such as Alex Hekimian, Oakland Mills' representative on the Columbia Association board, want the current county-owned and -maintained bridge demolished and replaced in another location along the highway. Hamm said General Growth is offering $500,000 toward improvements and a study as part of the huge redevelopment proposal. Hekimian said the county, General Growth and the Columbia Association should share the costs.

"It will be an exclusive busway shortcut, the shortest distance across Route 29 to Oakland Mills and beyond to Blandair," said Frederick Gottemoeller, a former deputy director of the State Highway Administration and co-designer of the open design for the proposed new bridge.

"We really feel that with this new project there would be more direct access" that could help revive Oakland Mills village, said village board chairwoman Abby Hendrix. The village center for Oakland Mills, the second-oldest community, has struggled in recent years as big-box retailers farther east took away retail trade and occasional crimes gave the center a bad name.

Ball pointed out that the village center is less than a mile from town center.

"I think the downtown Columbia plan offers a wonderful synergy with the revitalization of Oakland Mills," he said.

Despite public perception that the bridge is a dangerous place, Howard County police report one or two street robberies nearby per year. The last one was an armed robbery on an approach path that occurred during mid-morning Nov. 12.

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