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Friday, June 3, 2011

Can Columbia be a Walkable Community?

I attended a fascinating session hosted by the Columbia Association and Howard Hughes Corporation Wednesday night. Christopher B. Leinberger was the speaker addressing the topic of “walkable” urbanism.  Both organizations should get credit for the interesting presentation.  Mr. Leingerger is the author of the book by the title of “The Option of Urbanism; Investing in a New American Dream.”  His talk was very relevant as Columbia attempts to envision what the future of Town Center will be.  This line of thinking is similar to some of the thinking of our former Governor Parris Glendening and his interest in “Smart Growth.”  Basically both men think that the suburban sprawl that developed after World War II and the goal of many families wishing to have a home with land was a mistake in how best to use our land resources. 

In our planned community of Columbia Jim Rouse tried to take elements of urban and suburban environments and combine them with planned residential and commercial areas.  The idea was to have a place where people could both live and work.  The idea was even idealistically envisioned that many Columbia residents could walk, bike or use buses to get to work. As we all know that reality is not one that many Columbians experience today.  More likely is an hour and a half commute to DC than working in Columbia.  We have always been more of a suburban community for DC or Baltimore commuters.  Columbia is still very much a community that relies on the car for transportation.  The bike paths have never really provided an alternate path to get around Columbia.  It is not unusual to have more cars per household then members of the household.  Can you imagine a high school junior in Columbia who has to use a school bus to get to school?  Have you seen the traffic jams around any high school 5 or 10 minutes before school starts?

There were a few comments that Mr. Leinberger made that I found very interesting that I wanted to share.  First is the decline of the era of the regional enclosed mall like the Columbia Mall.  He indicated that there has not been a regional enclosed mall built in this country in the last 8 or 9 years.  It certainly made me think of the last mall I remember being built in the area.  The super mall of Arundel Mills was the only one of which I could remember.  Although our Columbia Mall seems to be doing fine one only has to go to Owning Mills Mall to see what a declining mall looks like. Will the Columbia Mall still be humming along in 10 or 20 years?  Mr. Leinberger pointed to the new types of retail development being more along the lines of what was done in Pasadena, California and Tampa, Florida. Perhaps the biggest weakness for the lack of development of our Town Center has been the enclosed Columbia Mall that is a place you drive to and doesn’t add any outside vitality to Town Center.  How many people who drive to the Mall walk over to the Lakefront? I know I will loose some of you with my next question but here goes.  Would our quality of life as Columbia residents be enhanced or diminished if the Columbia Mall was replaced by a park in the center of our town like Central Park in New York with walking and biking paths leading out from it in all directions?  Is a 20th century shrine to commercialism like the enclosed Mall what makes us a livable community?  OK call me a “tree hugger.”

The second point of his talk was the need for mass transit that was a true alternative to the car.  While the commuter buses do provide some alternatives for commuters to DC and Baltimore what would really make an impact would a light rail line from Columbia to the subway systems in each city.  Talk of such a line up the middle of Route 29 has been talked about but doesn’t seem to be in any real plans.  A monorail system that was discussed in early plans for Columbia was never a realistic alternative when the option of building roads was more cost effective.  High-speed monorails seem to only be for Disney World.

The third point was the walk ability of an urban core for those individuals who wanted to walk to work and shopping as maybe the case in some urban locations that were planned for walkers.  An enclosed mall with acres of asphalt parking isn’t for walking.  If you try to walk around the Town Center area you quickly see by the lack of sidewalks and roads with few cross walks that you would be quickly confronted with traffic that was not accommodating to a walker.  Try walking anywhere in the Dobbin Center area and take you life in your hands!  Foolish you for thinking you could walk to the Dobbin Center.

The last point is especially relevant for Columbia and that is the availability of “inclusionary” housing.  The topic of where is the affordable housing in Columbia is one that bloggers have been asking frequently.  Are the newer villages in Columbia any different in housing choices and price ranges than any other upper income suburban community in the US?  From the mid 1980’s the homebuilders seemed to have ruled in the types of housing built in our last few villages. Rouse’s vision of diversity of housing choices and prices lost out to the builders desire to build only the large single-family homes. Many of us have seen our children priced out of Columbia in both the rental and home ownership areas.  The days of the affordable starter new home of 1500 square feet that Ryland and others built in the 60’s and 70’s was never an option in the newer villages.  We all know that we really have two Columbia’s---pre 1980 and post 1980. What happens when the pre 1980 housing deteriorates and has to be replaced? One example is what happened to a house on Tamar that a fire destroyed a couple of years ago.  The home destroyed was one of those “California” ranchers that was built on a concrete slab in the early 1970’s all over Oakland Mills.  They were priced affordably in the $35,000 range when they were built.  The new home built on the lot after the fire is a large 3000+ square foot all brick home that was priced $450,000+.

Maybe Mr. Rouse’s last creation, Enterprise Corporation, will have to look at its hometown to keep affordable housing when our older neighborhoods have to be rebuilt.  Who’da thunk it?

After reading Frank Hecker's post on this talk I wanted everyone to read his post for the detailed description of the talk.  As I commented to his post he was the student that had two notebooks of notes for every class in school and I was the one who filled up maybe a couple of pages and hoped to "wing it" on the tests.


Anonymous said...

I believe that the house you refer to is on Thunder Hill not Tamar.

duanestclair said...

Right you are! I always get Thunder Hill and Tamar mixed up.

Mediaprophet said...

And that's Long Reach.

Ryland wood-frame slab houses aside, you could put a leaky tent on a quarter acre lot in River Hill and sell it for $450,000.

jessiex said...

Thanks for the post, Duane. I was busy toing and froing throughout the event that I didn't hear Mr. Leinberger's full presentation.

Re Dobbin Road and the scariness for pedestrians that road is, a year ago, May, I wrote a rather furious piece on the same subject -