Commentary: Change and Renewal in Columbia

Jim Rouse was an idol of mine, growing up in Severna Park. It was such a thrill for this twenty something in the early 1970s to see Columbia for the first time; to visit the Exhibit Center and take in the architecture and open spaces and design of this new city.  And having studied economics and considered Marxist analysis, I was impressed that the Rouse Company, a shareholder-owned corporation that was driven to make money, created this wonderful city.

Cathy and I moved to Columbia in 2001. We have loved our life raising two wonderful kids, our friends, the lack of traffic, the schools and other amenities, the trails and open spaces. And it was disappointing to me that for the first few years, Columbia acted like a city that was done creating – it was finished, dying. Village Centers were deteriorating, big box stores were introduced in strip development.  The City seemed to have lost its way.

I’m an environmentalist, married to a five element acupuncturist. It makes me very conscious of the cycles of the seasons. Death and deterioration is inevitable. Change and renewal is necessary to maintain life. It applies to the forest, to each of us humans, to our city of Columbia. And I seem to recall Jim Rouse remarking at a Village Center dedication that he hoped Columbia would never be finished.

Life changed in 2005, when discussions began about redeveloping Downtown Columbia with charettes, the advocacy of citizens and countless meetings, the work of the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning, culminating in 2007 with the approval of planning guidelines by the Howard County Council, “Downtown Columbia: A Community Vision.”  The developer, General Growth Properties, responded with its Downtown Columbia redevelopment proposal in 2008, and following countless more community meetings, expert analysis, public hearings and work sessions, the Downtown Columbia Plan was adopted by the County Council on February 10, 2010. We, the people, had determined to make Columbia alive again.

2008 Postcard from General Growth Properties, which later morphed into Howard Hughes Corporation.

We have to partner with developers to enliven our City.  We have to hold our leaders accountable to manage that growth by assuring that plans comply with zoning laws, environmental standards, design guidelines, and that infrastructure keeps pace.

I am excited by the change and renewal anticipated in the Downtown Columbia Plan. Huge efforts are being made to update our Village Centers. In Hickory Ridge, Kimco is willing to invest ~$25million to improve our Village Center and is working through the 22-step Major Village Center Redevelopment Process mandated by County law. I fully expect that the process will result in a design that considers everybody’s input. As much as we like the way things are, a design that makes Giant Food want to commit long-term seems critical in light of the competition.

We’ve got to allow for planned densities in Columbia to enable less dependence on cars and improved public transportation. Housing has got to include places our kids and other low wage workers can afford (the folks that staff our schools, healthcare facilities, and stores to name a few).  Kimco’s proposed ~$45million investment in apartments at our Village Center potentially addresses this and further insures their investment will be profitable, a cardinal rule of the Rouse Company.

It seems to me, to keep this good thing Columbia going, we’ve got to change and renew, because to do nothing is not sustainable. To me, participation in this process of change and renewal is what makes Columbia an exciting place to live. As I deteriorate, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

COMMENTARY:  Thank you for listening to mine; Your commentary is welcome.



Published by

Harry Schwarz

Nicknamed “The Professor” by his colleagues, Harry is a native Marylander who moved to Columbia in 2001. Harry’s wife, Cathy, is a Columbia acupuncturist and the family includes two college-age children, a dog and a cat. Harry is a partner with BearsolutionsLLC, assisting charter school authorizers to provide effective financial oversight. He is underemployed at this time and welcomes conversation about how he might help you.

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