What does one do when he’s 80 years old, retired from a distinguished career as an architect in the Nation’s Capital and a 30-year Howard County resident who once served on its planning board?
You go back and start that graduate thesis — about the effect of Columbia on the rest of Howard County — that you put off 40 years ago, that’s what.
That’s the case with Ted Mariani, who has been involved in the practices of architecture and engineering in the Washington area since 1957. After his undergrad days at the Virginia Military Institute, he started his graduate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, earning an M.S. in Architectural Engineering.
After further grad studies at The Catholic University, he served in the U.S. Army from 1953 to 1954 and again in 1960, reaching the rank of captain.
His firm, Mariani Architects Engineers, to this day specializes in large scale institutional work. Among the plethora of projects on the firm’s dossier are Georgetown University Medical Center, the Van Ness Campus of the University of the District of Columbia and District of Columbia General Hospital, as well as the East buildings at Social Security Administration headquarters in Woodlawn, the Northwest Airlines Terminal building at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and the Washington Convention Center.
Mariani’s list of professional accomplishments is too numerous to include herein, but also of note is the Woodbine resident’s (he bought Gov. Warfield’s mansion at auction in 1980) stint on the county’s Planning Board; he was chairman in 1995 and 1998.
And by the way, he plans to turn his dissertation in to his adviser for publication by Dec. 1.
What inspired your interest in this topic?
When I was in grad school at Catholic U., my professor was Mort Hoppenfeld, the chief planner of Columbia. So, I got a full indoctrination on the founding of the city. When I started working on my thesis this past spring, I realized that there had been so little written about Howard County — as opposed to Columbia — that I picked that focus as my topic.
I interviewed 34 people who had been involved in the process, from farmers to businesspeople to former politicians. I also used the general plans and what I had gleaned from my own experience, which included my six years on the Howard County Planning Board in the ’90s.
What are the major divides that you’ve found in your research between Columbia and the rest of Howard County?
It was interesting that in its early days, Rouse sought a progressive, fresh perspective from new people who came from higher density neighborhoods, but they really didn’t understand the conservative rural culture.
That cultural clash lasted for a while, but recently that mood has mellowed. There are still a few rural folks who don’t appreciate Columbia and won’t go there, but that attitude has generally disappeared.
What are the best things that Jim Rouse and his people did when they created Columbia?
I think almost everyone will agree that the building of Columbia accomplished two main things: It slowed the development that would have eventually come to Howard County, while building a great tax base. So Jim Rouse was, in effect, its first economic development czar.
Also, when the young, well-educated, upwardly mobile people moved to the county, they wanted a strong educational base for their children, and that kick-started Howard County becoming one of the finest jurisdictions for education in the country.
But that wasn’t all. Columbia brought culture and diversity to the area. The county was 90% white and 10% black before Rouse came here. That’s obviously all changed; as an example, today Howard County has the highest Asian population of anywhere in the state.
What would you have liked to have seen done differently when Rouse and his people created Columbia?
Columbia was created within an enclave, and it doesn’t really have much connectivity to the rest of the county. That was a bit of a challenge in the early days. It may have been intentional, because Rouse based the city on the new towns, like those in England, that are built outside of major population centers. They all have an undeveloped “green belt” around them.
Also Rouse created Town Center, but it never became dense enough to quite make it a truly urban downtown. Then Rouse developed Columbia Gateway, which actually created a competition for Town Center. The new plan for Town Center may reduce that trend somewhat because it will include more housing, employment offices and retail. Columbia still has the potential to develop a downtown, so we’ll see what the future brings.
Columbia also needs to develop a better transit system, not just between Gateway and Town Center, but to D.C., Baltimore and Fort Meade. Commuter buses still connect to all three locales, but the county needs to do more on that front.
What is your opinion of the overall effort to update the Town Center plan, starting with the charrette?
The future of Town Center is key to the future of Columbia. Some observers have said, “As Town Center goes, so goes Columbia; as Columbia goes, so goes Howard County.” Most of my respondents felt that Howard Hughes Corp. and the county can do even more than they have in the current plan, notably create better transit links. That will take some time, but I think they should work on that now.
When I worked on the Metro project in D.C., people thought it was too expensive to build, but most of it got built anyway. It didn’t connect Dulles or Baltimore at the time; they’re connecting Dulles now at great expense; if they had connected it to Baltimore, that linkage would have included Columbia. That would have been a trifecta.
Did you know that a street car system connected the two cities in the 20’s? There’s no reason that a similar connection can’t happen again.
To call the plans for Town Center much ballyhooed would be an understatement, but has enough attention been paid to the plans for the rest of Howard County?
Howard County has had an excellent planning record, starting with the 1990 General Plan. In fact, the American Planning Association awarded Howard County first prize for its Comprehensive General Plan out of all of the counties in the country. It really set the tone for development here for the next 30 years and has held up well throughout the runs of the various county executives.
Before 1990, much of the planning was focused on Columbia and little thought given to the rest of the county. However, with the new plan as a basis, the quality of development improved throughout the county. The key thing that planners did was create the non-planned service area for sewer and water infrastructure, which is a line that basically runs just to the west of Ellicott City, through Doughoregan Manor and on to the Fulton/Highland area. To the east of it, you have the more densely-developed parts of the county with sewer and water, while the area to the west has to rely on well and septic, so that line has allowed west county to preserve its rural character.
What’s the biggest surprise that you’ve discovered during your research?
The outstanding quality of local government. Prior to the charter, most decisions were made for the county out of Annapolis (before the advent of Columbia), but in the late ’60s, the county got its charter and elected its first county executive, Omar Jones, and a five-member council.
If you look at the neighboring counties, they’ve all been plagued by various issues involving malfeasance and corruption, but we haven’t had that here. Meanwhile, the county has grown from less than 50,000 residents to more than 300,000.
I really think that the county is, and has been for years, run by straight-up people. And when Rouse showed up, he was very sincere and open, and made his case to build Columbia based on his (and its) merits, with no attempt to influence anyone behind the scenes. It was done without graft of any kind; no payola, no back door deals.
Then when the new Columbia residents moved in, they tended to be utopian people who embraced the spirit of making Columbia and Howard County all it could be. We are blessed to have our outstanding local government officials that enjoy the support of the well informed and community focused citizens they represent.