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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Is it Time to Retire the People Tree?

Having listened to the audio interview with John DeWolf the Senior VP of Development for Howard Hughes on HoCoMoJo I was interested in learning his views on Columbia development. I welcome him to our community but didn’t hear much that encouraged me in his understanding that this community is not your average suburban community. I heard a lot about buildings, property, development and business but not much about “people” or “families.” I know that I am probably being too hard on someone that I haven’t met and is new to this community. So with that perspective I would suggest that he might want to take the short walk over to the Columbia Archives and look at some of the documents of the early planning for Columbia. Jim Rouse brought together “experts” on many aspects of a community that went beyond buildings. Religious leaders, sociologists, city planners and others talked a great deal about what made people happy and brought value to people’s lives. It is not a coincidence that the People Tree is the symbol of Columbia. The business of development of Columbia started with people not buildings. That is what made Rouse different (and more successful) than other developers who started with buildings. Mr. DeWolf in the interview stated that he hoped to restore the Rouse Building to its former glory and while that maybe a good thing to do but I would hope that he also consider how some of our festivals like the Columbia Fair could also be restored. It may seem like a small thing but I remember how Mr. Rouse would always cut a cake at the start of the celebration and mingle with the crowd afterward. What follows is taken from a speech that Mr. Rouse gave to a group of planners. I have highlighted how often he talked about people.

“A study of Howard's neighboring counties over the past fifteen years demonstrates many of the problems of growth, as well as solutions that have and have not worked. Rapidly rising taxes are characteristic of fast growing areas, because of the way in which development comes. First, single family residences are built on large lots. Most of the families who live in these homes have several children who must be educated. Large lots and scattered developments increase the cost of providing many services. Garbage trucks must drive greater distances, police must cover a wider area, sewer and water pipes must be extended over more miles and school bussing becomes a major factor in the education budget. Those steps of development, which have a favorable effect on taxes - apartments which contain fewer children, offices, industries and stores, are typically resisted until rising taxes and public demand make them necessary. But many of these uses are difficult to attract without complete services; the dilemma mounts. Other problems of growth - crowded schools, obsolete facilities, inadequate fire protection, rural roads that are suddenly crowded with commuter traffic - are common to many rapidly urbanizing regions. In addition to the readily apparent ills are the inconveniences - the long drive to the doctor or to good shopping, the lack of parks or recreation, the constant need for the second car. As the new families continue to arrive, something of the real beauty of the country slips away and is lost forever. In place of hills and forests, green meadows and stream valleys, monotonous subdivisions appear to stretch in endless rows of similar dwellings, none singly or together able to enhance the landscape, all seeming somehow to be taking away.

The idea that a whole new town might provide better and more complete answers to many of the problems of growth stems largely from a study of the way in which people live. In addition to houses, people need employment, education and transportation. They need shops and stores and goods and services of every kind. They need medical and dental care, churches, libraries and hospitals. They need restaurants, theatres and entertainment. And beyond necessities, people have a growing appetite for all the opportunities that are offered in culture and recreation, for human fulfillment and satisfaction. Safety and beauty, peace, quiet and protection - the list of needs, wishes and opportunities goes on. In a large city, many of the listed opportunities are present. But for the convenience he enjoys, the city dweller often must sacrifice almost an equal list of advantages - the lack of open space, peace, quiet, beauty and safety. On the other hand, these amenities are abundant in the country. As rings of suburbs move out from the city, opportunities for good shopping, for recreation and culture, the convenience of nearby hospitals and other services are sacrificed. As people continue to move into the outlying areas, the beauty and serenity of the countryside gradually slip away, the city's advantages are remote, and opportunities for people become fewer. The great, sprawling metropolitan area becomes oppressively out of scale, and the suburbs become monotonous and dreary. Through the scope and scale of its plan, Columbia has the opportunity to provide and support many advantages and institutions normally available only in large cities, such as a full service hospital, major shopping, entertainment and cultural facilities. Through careful design, Columbia also has the opportunity to preserve and enhance the natural beauty of the landscape, providing the attractiveness, quiet and safety characteristic of stable, high quality residential areas. It is along these two fronts that planning has progressed. Last Fall, CRD's staff of designers, architects and engineers began a careful, thorough and sensitive study of the land, systematically noting every detail. Forest and stream valleys, views, slopes and vistas, meadows and roadways, existing structures and historic landmarks were studied and recorded. The single purpose was to take advantage of every opportunity to preserve and enhance the land as a beautiful and useful asset of the community. At the same time, CRD began a parallel effort to explore systematically all the ways in which people live together in a community and as individuals with another clear objective: to insure that no opportunity was overlooked for providing a better, ,more efficient, more convenient, safer and more attractive environment for the growth of people.”

A great deal of time has been spent the past few years on thinking about the development of the “downtown” of Columbia and how it could enhance our community. This will take up a considerable amount of Mr. DeWolf’s time as he starts his new job. In the early planning of Columbia the models that were constantly referenced were Tivoli Gardens in Denmark and Ghiradelli Square in San Francisco. The idea that the center of the town had to be a place that was fun to come to was important. Festivals and amusements along with cultural, educational and religious spaces were stressed. An “art” film house, art gallery, museums, sculpture garden, flea markets, farmers markets, boats on the lake, a dinner theater (Olney Dinner Theater was approached about moving to Columbia), discotheque (this was the 60’s afterall) and lots of lights were attributes mentioned. Discussions were held to have a branch of the Peabody Art Institute and the Brunswick bowling lanes to each have a space downtown. Neither of these worked out but they were seen as desirable. Glen Echo Park, Dorney Park and Hershey Park were looked at models desirable for downtown that could attract people to downtown from a wider geographic region. Daytime activities for families and children and nighttime activities for singles and adults were discussed. A carousel or ferris wheel were mentioned as the symbol for downtown activities.

It is also interesting to know that Jim Rouse had 2 or 3 meetings with Walt Disney around 1963-64. No records are known about these discussions that took place in the last couple of years of Walt Disney’s life. One could image that Disney’s focus the last few years of his life on the development of his model community of EPCOT would have been a natural point of discussion with Rouse. I will conclude with another part of Mr. Rouse’s speech that related to his vision of the downtown.

“Columbia's town center will capture all the vitality and excitement of urban life in a setting of natural beauty. Clean, bright, well-lighted office buildings surrounded by gardens and fountains will accommodate much of Columbia's business population. Ample parking throughout, and the convenience of the bus system add to town center's advantage as a business location. In the heart of town center, a beautiful enclosed shopping mall will house more than a hundred shops and stores along a completely air conditioned street. On a rain or snow splashed winter evening, the shopper can enjoy a stroll along the warm and sheltered mall, surveying the cheerful displays of stores without fronts. A theatre and several restaurants open off the mall, and benches in groves of tropical plants are plentiful. On a hot summer day, sunlight floods into the mall, but the temperature remains a comfortable 70 degrees. The buses connecting Columbia's villages with the town center will drive into the mall itself to pick up and discharge passengers. Around the entire perimeter, landscaped parking will permit the visitor to arrive at any of a dozen entrances. Between the mall and the lakefront, other offices and commercial buildings will surround the town center square. On an early spring day, the square will be alive with strollers and shoppers, with people who have business or an appointment or who have come to town center for the fun of being there. In the evenings, the lights and sounds of the restaurants and cheerful cafes along the lakefront will welcome people out for an evening. A concert and music hall, theatres and other amusements will cluster along the water's edge, offering a profusion of opportunities for enjoyment. Along the lakefront will be docks for small sailboats and other craft. Farther along the shore, townhouses and apartments will accommodate residents who desire the conveniences of in-town living. Along the lake in the other direction from the square, a large hotel and inn will afford visitors to Columbia an unparalleled location-within walking distance of offices, shopping, churches, entertainment and transportation. Beyond the inn, headquarters or branches of company offices will occupy prime locations between the lake shore and the town. To the landward side will be the town center park. Today a magnificent stand of trees, this forty acre woods will be permanently preserved and cultivated as a quiet, convenient and strikingly *beautiful asset of the town. To one side of the park, the college will occupy a spacious and attractive campus within easy reach of the town center's main library and other cultural and entertainment attractions. The college will include a stadium and other facilities, together with classroom buildings, laboratories, lecture halls and dormitories. Across the approach road from the college, land has been set aside for the development of a major hospital and related medical offices. Town center will thus become important to the health of its residents and of the County as well as to a wide range of other requirements. Many activities of town center and all of the opportunities for small and large businesses will add to the vitality and richness of life in Columbia. Provisions are included in the plan for second hand bookshops and silver smiths, for music teaching and travel agents, for a quiet sandwich or a symphony concert. Through all of the town center, the visitor will be struck by the beauty, the cleanliness, the convenience and the design of places. Landscaping, trees, gardens and fountains complement the streets, parks and squares seem to be in s c a l e i t is a place for people.”

Welcome to Columbia, Mr. DeWolf.


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The Big Apple said...

Thank you for a warm but insightful welcome. I'm not sure we are unique but we are exceptional.

Trevor said...

I think this is an interesting, well researched post. I have been planning my own trip over to the Columbia Archives to research a very similar topic for a future blog post, and a proposal that involves the People Tree.

It is very important, as we plan for Columbia's future, to look at Columbia's past. We should learn from what worked, and what didn't work. Columbia is a fantastic place, with a fantastic history, but we must remind ourselves, it is not perfect, and can be improved.

We have the unique opportunity to build on what has come before, and help create the Columbia where the next generation, and generations to come can live, raise families, and grow.