The Next America Replanned

I grew up in Columbia, Maryland, given the tag line “The Next America” by its planners. A few years ago I wrote a paper about it “The Next America Revisited” which was published in the Journal of Planning Education and Research.

In it, I said
“The original plan placed the Town Center on the west side of Columbia, adjacent to U.S. 29, which bifurcates Columbia. U.S. 29, a major highway connecting Ellicott City (and thus Baltimore) with the District of Columbia, has (consistent with the plan) over time been upgraded to a freeway through Columbia. The placement of the major office and shopping complex on U.S. 29 rather than I-95 sacrificed marketability and profit for
planning goals. Edge cities, of which Columbia is one, are suburban activity centers that most often crop up at junctions of freeways, ensuring both maximum access and maximum visibility for corporate cathedrals (Garreau 1991). By nestling the Town Center off the less-trodden U.S. 29, and not immediately on the roadway even there, both
marketing and access punch seem to have been dissipated.

At the center of town, topped with glass pyramids allowing in natural light, and occupying the symbolic location for the Crystal Palace in Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City (1965) sits The Mall in Columbia. The Mall, the city’s “main street” opened with two anchoring department stores in 1971. Soon thereafter, one of the anchors
(Baltimore’s Hochschild Kohn), closed its Columbia store and underwent a reorganization, from which it never recovered, as happened to many of the department store chains in Baltimore, Washington and other cities. In a few years it was replaced, and in 1981 the Mall expanded to add a third anchor and a total of 190 shops. The
second original department store, Washington’s Woodward and Lothrop, went bankrupt in the 1990s. In 1999, two additional department stores and some more shops were added, and a theatre, some restaurants, and one more store in 2001. The Mall had been planned for ultimate expansion to six anchors and 300 stores, and seems to be
approaching that initial target.

The second key feature of Town Center is the shore of the (man-made) Lake Kittamaqundi. The lakefront is home to the Columbia City Fair, Exhibit Center, the Rouse Company headquarters, a hotel, restaurants, and offices, forms Columbia’s best public space, and contrasts with the clearly private Mall. The People Tree, an
abstract sculpture located on the Lakefront, where instead of leaves, there are people holding inter-locking hands constitutes the unsubtle symbolism internalized into the belief system of all the early Columbians – who came more as idealists than homeseekers. The People Tree, the city’s logo, now appears on tee shirts, mugs and bumper stickers. An aerial photograph of the Town Center shows the two isolated pedestrian realms, and Little Patuxent Parkway and two parking decks which separates them. It also shows the office growth around the mall, and the new residential neighborhood being constructed between Governor Warfield, Broken Land and Little Patuxent parkways in the southeast corner. The construction was a revision of the initial plan that had designated that area for offices, since the conclusion was drawn that the demand for additional office space was just not that great.

Despite “big box” retail, one must note the dominance of the shopping mall in America’s suburbs, it is shopping malls around which edge cities are built, in contrast to the ports and rail terminals of times past. However, the design of malls have changed over time. The first suburban shopping centers were little more than strips of stores.
Eventually they were turned inward, surrounded by parking. By the late 1950s, they were enclosed, and then double decked. This is the model chosen for the Columbia Mall. But evolution did not stop there, the 1980s saw the emergence of a new urban form of shopping mall, enclosed in glass or a remodeled older form (in more than one case a recycled rail terminal). This new form was introduced by Columbia’s Rouse Company, at sites such as Boston’s Faneuil Hall, Baltimore’s Harborplace, and New York’s South Street Seaport. Even as they are replicated in city after city, they still retain more visual interest than the traditional mall, and draw larger crowds. One cannot help but think that if the Columbia Mall came 15 years later, it too would be a glass enclosed shopping pavilion adjacent to Lake Kittamaqundi in the Town Center rather than a quarter mile away across a parkway and two parking decks. Since 1967, progress has been made in ideas of urban design, towards an integration of the urban core at a pedestrian level. Columbia came a few years too early to see that applied at a suburban level. Consequently, its suburban core, while inviting to the auto, is separated into two unconnected pedestrian realms: the inside of the Mall and the promenade along the Lakefront.”

More recently, The Rouse Company was acquired by General Growth Properties, a shopping mall developer with out the same credibility in the planning community. After some false starts about what to do with Merriweather Post Pavillion, a new planning process for the Town Center area was begun. It proposes a number of innovative ideas, among them running a main street parallel to the Lake and to the east of Little Patuxent Parkway. Several issues remain (judging from the draft artist sketches):

The “Crescent” development to the South of Symphony Woods is still detached from the rest of the Town Center.

There is still a lot of surface parking around the Mall in Columbia. One would hope that this gets developed, but to put development there, and maintain total New Town Zoning control totals for square footage of office would mean less development elsewhere. Since development near the Mall is probably the most desired by residents (compared with the Crescent district around Symphony Woods, which most people probably thought was open space, it would be easiest to come back for a zoning increase later there, then to devote zoning quotas to develop around the mall now and ask for a zoning increase to justify development elsewhere later. It is disappointing that the vision still has so much blacktop.

Rather than emphasize an East-West axis to connect the Mall (which is where most of the pedestrians are) to the Lake, emphasis is placed on a fourth north-south axis (Main Street) (in addition to the Lakefront, Little Patuxent Parkway, and the Mall). The sketches do identify some connectivity between the Mall the and Lake (which terminates in the old Teacher’s Building, currently the CA headquarters), but it isn’t emphasized to same extent as the other axes.
— dml

One thought on “The Next America Replanned

  1. Wincopin Street

    I just discovered this blog entry about Columbia and Howard County, Maryland: Howard County Blog: Where would the southern extention of Wincopin Street go?. They seem to have some of the same concerns about the proposed redevelopment of downtown Columb…


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