On Saturday, I took a walking tour around Town Center led by Jane Dembner, the Columbia Association's Director of Community Planning.
As you may know, I'm fairly new to Columbia. I took over the responsibilities of editing Columbia Patch in early March and have been quickly learning the ropes of a new, yet historical city.
Currently, one of the most talked-about issues in Columbia is the into a more urban, walkable downtown. I went on the tour as an opportunity to explore today's Town Center.
On a beautiful Saturday May morning, the first thing I noticed was the lack of people at the lakefront. I wondered why, in a city of 100,000 people, there weren't more people enjoying the lake—fishing, sailing, walking or connecting with their neighbors.
Dembner started off the tour by pointing out the , the bronze statue that symbolizes the interconnected Columbia that the developer James Rouse planned in the early 1970s. The tree was the former logo of the Columbia Association until it was to be more social-media friendly.
Dembner briefly explained that Town Center is slated for development. Over the next 30 years, the area will be developed in three phases to include up to 5,500 residential units, 4.3 million square feet of commercial office space, 1.25 million square feet of retail space and 640 hotel rooms, according to the Downtown Columbia website.
Recently, Howard Hughes Corporation to develop the Warfield neighborhood of Town Center with 872 new residences and 76,000 square feet of retail space.
From the lakefront, we headed into one of Columbia's 93 miles of pathways. To me, entering the pathways feels like breaking into another world where the low-rise residential buildings, winding roads and bustle of daily Columbia life are obscured by the woods, shrubs and flowers that were protected by vision of a city at one with nature.
We walked along at a brisk pace and were frequently passed by dog-walkers, joggers and mothers pushing baby strollers. We reached the Vantage Point neighborhood, where power washers were cleaning the outside of a high-rise building.
We then headed back to the lakefront plaza, where Dembner addressed the Rouse Company Headquarters building. The building was designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry in the early 70s as his career just started to take off. Rouse wanted it to be a community center for Columbia, as well as a highly functional headquarters for his development company, according to Rouse's letters, which are held at the Columbia Archives.
When it opened it was hailed as an architectural gem. But today, only about 15 Howard Hughes employees use it, said Dembner. A plan to for a grocery store fell through and a Howard Hughes official said the building would to be fully functional.
Dembner pointed out that as Gehry became famous for his free-form style, he disowned the building because of its differences from his later buildings. But, she said, he's taken a greater interest in the building recently. The building is protected due to its historical significance in Columbia, but its future remains uncertain.
Speaking with Dembner after the tour, she said it would be hard to say exactly what Town Center will look like when the development finishes. She said the current high-rise buildings that surround the lake, such as the Teacher's building which currently houses the Columbia Association, may be demolished in favor of new buildings.
She said she hopes Howard Hughes will be able to develop the Rouse Company Building into a mixed-use retail and office space building. Currently the lakefront is dominated by restaurants. In my view, adding shops to the area would encourage more people to visit and walk around.
The tour helped me to understand the difficult balance that officials determining Columbia's future face. Columbia is a large city with changing needs. they want to attract young, highly educated professionals who will energize the community and support its growth. Putting in lakefront retail and housing as part of a walkable downtown will play a large role in doing so, they said.
But at the same time, planners say they are aware development must be done with care, so as not to offend the long-time residents who came to an early Columbia with the understanding that it would be a welcoming community embedded in nature.
As I learn more about Columbia and the differing viewpoints of how the city should evolve, I look forward to delving into this subject more.
Please let me know how you feel about the changing nature of Columbia's Town Center in the comments.