22 January 2007

A Pro-City Rouse

There has been a lot of discussion of late about what James Rouse had envisioned for this community. Recently, I came across a 1977 interview of James Rouse in the Columbia Flier. In this article, Mr. Rouse states:

“What Columbia stands for, he observes, is that “the accommodation of urban growth can be a rational process.”

Later in the article, reporter Len Lazarick writes:

“The planning began in 1963, and according to a speech by Rouse in 1967, four main objectives were set: (1) to build a better city – not just a better suburb, but a complete new city; (2) to respect the land; (3) to provide the best possible environment for the growth of people; (4) to make a profit.”

“From his work, he [Rouse] concluded that ‘the problem of the city and the problem of the suburbs was one of scale, of absence of place, of absence of physical for of community which could allow community to unfold among people.’ ”

At this time in Columbia’s history, Mr. Rouse was not the only official in the Rouse Company speaking about downtown Columbia. In a 1978 Columbia Flier article, then General Manager of Howard Research and Development Corporation, Michael D. Spear (as in the Spear Center) said:

“He [Spear] noted that in Columbia’s town center, which includes all the land east of Governor Warfield Parkway to Route 29, only about 1.5 million square feet of office and commercial space has been built, and 6 or 7 million square feet is planned. “You’re not even a quarter developed,” he pointed out.”


Just a few months later, Alton Scavo, the Director of Design for Howard Research and Development Corporation, was quoted in the same paper saying:

“Downtown Columbia is meant to be a true downtown – not just the heart of Columbia, but the urban hub for a real city between Washington and Baltimore.”

A few years later, Morton Hoppenfeld, the man for whom “the hug” statue is dedicated, reflected on Columbia Town Center in the publication Little Patuxent Review. In this article, Mr. Hoppenfeld states:

“Allow me to list for you some of the ingredients necessary to attain the downtown we would all enjoy in Columbia:

…Downtown needs apartments and condos: At high density within walking distance – on top of things like shops and offices. This is hard to accomplish, but HRD knows how. They may need help with zoning.”

Having grown up in Columbia, I know that not all these men were held in the same high regard as Mr. Rouse, but in this relatively short period of time, we find all of them describing downtown in the same way: An accommodation of urban growth, a city – not just a suburb, at high density, an urban hub.

Keep in mind, I am not advocating for downtown Columbia to become Shanghai, but we should look a little harder at what Rouse, and those employed by Rouse, had to say about downtown.

9 comments:

wordbones said...

Bill,

Well done.

-wb

Anonymous said...

Your summary of Mr. Rouse's 1977 statement of the original four objectives from 1963:

(1) to build a better city – not just a better suburb, but a complete new city
Check - as confirmed by accolades from multiple national publications.

(2) to respect the land
Check - although we could do a better job, fulfilling previous county General Plans' calls for interconnected greenways/wildlife movement corridors in the eastern part of the county

(3) to provide the best possible environment for the growth of people
Check - with great schools (K-12 and beyond), good employment opportunities, and low crime. Room for improvement in pollutiion (but we could do better to minimize light-, noise-, runoff-, and air pollution) and transportation (mass transit?)

(4) to make a profit
Check.

Your quote of Mr. Spears' 1978 take on Town Center commercial development said only about 1.5 million square feet of office and commercial space had been built as of 1978, and 6 or 7 million square feet were planned.

Here we are, 29 years later, and we are now somewhere over 4 million square feet of commercial space in Town Center (around 2/3 complete with commercial development of Town Center per Columbia's original plan). Between 1978 and now, the Mall was repeatedly expanded, HCC was repeatedly expanded, the hospital was repeatedly expanded, and multiple new office buildings were constructed inside the Mall loop and elsewhere in Town Center.

Mr. Scavo's coetaneous comments: “Downtown Columbia is meant to be a true downtown – not just the heart of Columbia, but the urban hub for a real city between Washington and Baltimore.”

Urban hub? A very nebulous, non-definitive term.

Real city? Columbia has certainly achieved that moniker, having all the amenities of a real city - unless a bona fide city government, traffic congestion, lots of street noise day and night, etc., are true requirements to attain 'real city' status. To quote the recent Money article that referenced Columbia as-is in high regard, "Americans are flocking to places that offer big-city opportunities and amenities -- with a lot more green space and a lot less stress."

Mr. Hoppenfeld's statement of that '78 timeframe: “Allow me to list for you some of the ingredients necessary to attain the downtown we would all enjoy in Columbia: …Downtown needs apartments and condos: At high density within walking distance – on top of things like shops and offices. This is hard to accomplish, but HRD knows how. They may need help with zoning.”

That seemed like his request, about 15 years after Columbia's original plan, to change the original plan. At that time, it could have been done, without changing Columbia's overall density, by reducing the intensity of development in then-unbuilt villages such as Clary's Forest and River Hill, and shifting some of those residences to create a higher density Town Center. That could have been a greener design overall for Columbia. But that wasn't done.

Instead, those and other villages continued to be and were developed at about their original planned densities. Or was there even some more dense development requested, approved, and implemented during those high-inflation times than the original plan requested? Do you have similar quotes of estimates and commitments from involved parties if additional density for New Town zoning was requested and approved during that same general period? If that was the case, it may be wise to evaluate these quotes of that period in the context of any trying fiscal waters in which the Rouse company may have found itself.

To now increase the population and building density of Town Center specifically and Columbia overall would, contrary to your post, be in discord with Mr. Rouse's original vision as implemented, not in agreement with it. How would you then rebalance the yang of increased density, congestion, pollution with the yin of ample greenspace, low stress, and uncrowded openess?

Here we are again, being asked by some for yet another density increase (if one was granted in the late '70's-early '80's timeframe), further straying from Columbia's original plan, putting both greenspace and less stress at risk.

B. Santos said...

Anon,

I think you may be reading a bit too much into my post. I merely wanted to point out that Mr. Rouse, and other principals in his employ envisioned a more urban setting in downtown. There is a lot more discussion that must happen before anything is realized, one way or the other, and I am open to that discussion.

With respect to past changes in Columbia density, I get the feeling that you have more insight into this topic. If you do, please share. I am only vaguely aware of a discussion between Lloyd Knowles and Al Scavo during the time period you state. Could you provide more detail?

Anonymous said...

Lloyd Knowles is, by far, a better resource than I for information regarding zoning discussions, proceedings, and agreements of that time.

This letter may provide some insight.

PZGURU said...

Anonymous,

Good comments. I tried to post a comment on Hayduke's blog for a similar post he has on the Town Center "debate, but it didn't show up for some reason.

The gist of my comment was that if Rouse was active in the actual construction in Town Center until the mid 1980's, then what exists now is exactly what he chose to actually build. If the actual differed from the initial concept plan for Columbia, so what. Most projects, esepcially ones of this scale (land area), change significantly from concept stage to construction stage.

The other point I want to make is that people need to think back to the context of Columbia compared to the rest of the County, based on how the County looked 45 years ago. Compared to the vast rural/farm characteristic of the County, Columbia Town Center WAS considered very urban, which was in keeping with Rouse's vision. Just because the rest of the County has become much more developed over the last 30 years does not take away the urban characteristic of Town Center. Nor does it justify in any way these recent calls for Town Center to be re-developed with high rises and higher density. With the infrastructure (specifically roads) already in place, it is not feasible to re-invent Town Center. There are still several undeveloped parcels in Town Center, such as the Crescent Property, and I fully support the proposals that GGP put forth for that property since it was within the existing approved PDP for Columbia.

I'm sure this debate will continue for a while so I do not need to go into every thought I have on the charette plan and so on. I hope to post some of my own thoughts on David Keelan's blog in the future.

PZGURU

Anonymous said...

Good points yourself, PZG.

I do still wonder if calls for more residential development in Town Center are more to support viability of additional commercial development in Town Center instead of the more altruistic expressions of need for increased housing.

Thus far, the recent housing being placed in or planned for Town Center has appeared to be significantly high-end units, hardly addressing affordable housing.

Without addressing a public need such as that, should the public even be willing to take on the varied costs of increased density beyond Columbia's plan? Environment and traffic will degrade. County expenditures will increase.

Columbia's celebrated positive notoriety and living as a result of being a well designed planned city. It's a shame some want to get out a giant eraser and change the "New City" into more of the same old skyscrapers and gridlocked streets.

The commute in and out of west Columbia, if such dense development occurs, will not be fun.

PZGURU said...

More good points Anon.

Anonymous said...

Columbia has failed. There is nothing urban about it. Rouse was disappointed when he was alive and he's disappointed in his grave.

pzguru said...

Not sure of your basis for knowing how Rouse felt alive or now in the afterlife.

I wouldn't say Columbia has failed. Not by a long stretch. Any area can and will have up and downs in its characteristics. Anyone who thinks Town Center is "dead" has not been to the mall at lunchtime or tried to find a parking space on any Saturday of the year.

This whole debate comes down to some people want the change and some don't. In my opinion there's no need for the change.