Certainly one of the most desirable qualities of an urban area is a center city area that attracts not only persons living in the community but draws persons from surrounding areas.
Baltimore has the Inner Harbor,
New York has its Central Park,
San Antonio has its Riverwalk
Copenhagen has its Tivoli Gardens
We have the Columbia MallIn Columbia we have a Mall, Symphony Woods and the Lakefront. Each probably fails as a significant area to define our community. Except for the Wine in Woods, Symphony Woods serves mostly as a buffer between Merriweather Post Pavilion and the surrounding community. Can you remember the last time you ever used this space with your family? The Lakefront serves as a venue for occasional community fairs and activities but lacks a draw that keeps people coming there. The Mall is a dinosaur of 1970's retailing that will probably be significantly changed over the next 10 to 20 years as the newest model of suburban retailing moves to a more open model.
I am not implying that we could have the significant features of the other communities---at least not on their scale but that doesn't mean that we could develop features of our community through the use of public art and other venues that had educational and entertainment value to our downtown. Wouldn't the Robinson Nature Center have been a nice feature of the renovated Rouse Building? Or a downtown ice rink? I would look forward to the day when the Mall comes down and the area can be developed into a much more interesting "urban core."
The other prominent feature of an urban community is an extensive public transportation system. This is something that Columbia will always struggle with because of our lower density. Having a system that provides fast and convenient public transportation is not going to be a reality with the public transportation systems that exist today. Having buses that are lightly used and travel times that are slower than riding a bike are never going to be the mode of transportation for most people in our community. In the early planning of Columbia there was the thought that the village centers could be accessed often by walkers and bikers. A visit to any of our village centers shows how that reality has never been achieved.
So does that mean that Columbia will always have to resemble a suburb rather than an urban area? Will the Downtown development ever be more than adding upscale housing and retail merchants? I am not very optimistic that we will see many "out of the box" features as this area is developed.