“You’ve gotta change that.”
I had just referred to Columbia’s urban core as Town Center. Since the first plans for Columbia were laid out on paper, that’s what it has been called, as far as I know. Last month, when Mark Thompson was our podcast guest, he insisted that I begin referring to it as “downtown” instead of Town Center.
“We’re looking for a much more urbanized character for Columbia,” he said. Mark is the newly-appointed director of downtown development for Columbia. Earlier this year, County Executive Ken Ulman tapped him to help coordinate the various redevelopment activities that will be occurring, now that the long-awaited process has begun. With three separate development projects already underway, each with its own 16-step public review process, it’s a pretty big job.
Apparently, part of that process is now rebranding Town Center Columbia as Downtown Columbia.
I’m not so sure about that move. Don’t get me wrong; I am a big proponent of the Columbia redevelopment program. I actively campaigned on its behalf during the past seven years. I just happen to think that there is nothing wrong with calling it Town Center.
Having lived here for most of my adult life, “downtown” always meant Baltimore to me.
“What about Washington, D.C.?” a friend asked when I shared that observation. Good point. One of the biggest selling points for Columbia has always been that the new city was between two major metropolitan areas. Couldn’t downtown also refer to the city at the other end of Route 29, they wondered?
Not really — that’s D.C. Downtown is Baltimore, Main Street is Ellicott City and Town Center is Columbia. Or at least it was. Already one of the largest land owners in Town Center, the Howard Hughes Corp. (HHC) has switched from using Town Center Columbia to calling it Downtown Columbia in its marketing materials.
Of course, this is all about positioning the redevelopment as an exciting new chapter in the 45-year-old planned community. Columbia’s center had become increasingly stagnant and a bit dowdy during the past decade or so. While development activity continued apace in other parts of Columbia, it pretty much stopped in Town Center. The last new office building was built in 2001 and along the lakefront the public spaces slowly deteriorated, culminating in the dismantling of the town’s carillon two years ago.
However, that’s now about to change. HHC has announced plans for 817 housing units and a new neighborhood called Warfield. General Growth Properties is planning 75,000 square feet of new retail space at The Mall in Columbia and a $2 million makeover for its office buildings on the mall’s ring road. And the Columbia Association has already allocated more than $2 million in capital spending towards new plans for the lakefront area, as well as Symphony Woods.
Last month, Columbia businessman Dave Costello purchased a 1.14-acre site next to Copeland’s restaurant for $3.5 million. Five years ago, before falling victim to the recession, this land was slated to become a luxury condo building. Presumably, Mr. Costello has similar plans.
In other words, by 2014 there are going to be some major changes to the physical landscape around Little Patuxent Parkway and Gov. Warfield Parkway.
But will that make it a downtown?
Some people I’ve spoken to actually think Town Center sounds better than downtown. They point out that downtown can invoke negative, as well as positive images, while Town Center sounds more friendly, almost pastoral.
And even if all the plans on paper for this redeveloped village come to fruition, Columbia will still be a shadow of the two cities that have always helped define it. Columbia will never have an NFL team, a Chinatown or a Little Italy.
It will be nice, though. There will be enhanced pedestrian and bicycle connectivity, interesting public spaces, the latest in green development practices and so on.
It also will be much more controlled and a good deal less spontaneous. That’s fine, but it’s not a downtown.
I told Mark that it wasn’t going to be easy to get folks to accept this new identity. He knows. “Believe me, its not easy for me,” he said.
Amen to that.
I still call the lakefront offices of the HHC “The Rouse Company” building. And they’ve been gone for more than eight years.
Dennis Lane co-hosts “and then there’s that… ,” a biweekly local news podcast on hocomojo.com, and blogs about stuff around here at www.wordbones.com.