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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Is Having a Visionary Leader Important?

In reading Tom Coale’s blog, HoCo Rising, last week about the decline in interest in being a candidate for Columbia Association Board and the conflict of interest between the “old” Columbia residents and the “new” Columbia residents, I decided to post today on the importance of vision in creating a livable community.

First an admission. I am one of those early Columbia residents who moved here because of Rouse’s vision of creating a community where the needs of people carried equal weight with what worked in a business sense. Without that vision we get “faux” communities like Kentlands, Emerson and Maple Lawn. Like Columbia without Jim Rouse.

A big part of that vision was a belief that racial and economic diversity was an element important in a livable community. Am I discouraged to see that those elements have been weakened drastically over the recent past? Yes, yes, yes. We all know that Columbia now has neighborhoods and schools that are perceived as “good” and “bad.” The economic diversity of our villages declined with the development of our newer villages. The values of developers in those villages didn’t match Rouse’s balanced perspective. The developer’s economic bottom line defined the housing we got in those villages. Starter homes? Forget it. Affordable rental units? Too much of a 60’s thing. Remember how Rouse envisioned the assets of the Columbia Foundation coming from businesses in Columbia? It would be the price of operating in Columbia. As I remember it the old Columbia Bank and Trust was the only business that had that requirement. The downturn in the economy killed that business requirement and the connection between business development and community philanthropy.

The future of affordable housing in Howard County is taking a new form of mixed housing being developed by the County government with Guilford Gardens and Hilltop. This maybe a better model than the old stand-alone subsidized housing model of the 1960’s. Matching this public effort with a requirement of private developers to have a certain number of below market rate housing units in return for higher density zoning maybe the new model to develop new affordable housing.

Opining for the way Columbia was had me of two minds. I am a big advocate for change as a way to improve things. I am generally opposing folks who think things should always stay the same. But I realize that on things that I like I can be as reactionary as those that I generally oppose. OK, I can give up the “old Columbia” features like Mrs. Z’s for the new diversity of ethnic restaurants that I enjoy. I certainly like better the new large Wegman’s that we are getting to the small Giants we had in the old village centers. I do love Starbucks, Borders and Barnes and Noble but do miss the smaller coffee shops and bookstores. Change happens.

Back to the “vision thing.” With the recent death of William Donald Shaffer we are reminded how important it is to have a person in a position to implement a vision for a community. We in Columbia are equally blessed to have had our own “Willy Don” in Jim Rouse. When you look at the traditional developers version of a new town you see that the old style homes with front porches but leaves out the affordability element. With the death of Jim Rouse and the sale of the Rouse Company to first General Growth and now to Howard Hughes is the “Columbia vision” outdated? Do the folks at Howard Hughes look at Columbia as just another commodity? Time will tell if affordable housing is in their vision for Columbia.

So is there an entity that has a new vision for Columbia? Is it Howard County Government? The Columbia Association? Foundations like the Columbia Foundation or Horizon? Organized citizens like Columbia 2.0? Howard Hughes Corporation? The problem is that the unified vision of one visionary leader can be difficult to recreate in a collective vision with multiple players and multiple visions. Group vision is an oxymoron.


Tale of Two Cities today has a great post of the unheralded heroes in our community.

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