Howard County Blog

A Blog on what is going on in Howard County

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Architecture Downtown

Columbia is studied in urban planning classes the world over. Many architects would love to have their work showcased in Columbia’s downtown. I think that architectural competitions should be held for the buildings to be built in downtown Columbia, particularly signature buildings. In this way we can attract a superb array of unique building that will draw people to downtown rather than get plug and chug buildings that are not truly going to achieve the vital draw that I think we all want downtown Columbia to be.


Blogger Eldersburg1976 said...

That is a GREAT idea....

10:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It should be noted that most architecture and civil planning classes note Columbia as a failed experiment that doesn't work in today's society.

One could argue, that Columbia’s hyper-inflated residential home values are more a factor of it’s prime location between DC/Baltimore and less of the “virtues of Columbia” so often quoted by the Elitists of the area.


11:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And the competition criteria would be what?

Would the developers go along with such ideas or require the architects to compromise their artistic integrity to meet each development's profit target?

Similarly, wouldn't Town Center architectural covenants also constrain the architects creative flairs?

Would a BigBox store designed instead to appear as a BigOrigamiSwan really be any more appealing?

I'm 100% in favor of aesthetic and conscientious architecture, but, sadly, I expect $ will be the primary arbiter.

11:24 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

Eldersburg1976, Thanks!

Locke, One need only have attended a high school reunion of one of the high school’s that covers part of Columbia (like my Oakland Mills Class of ’96 reunion a couple weeks ago) to see what a great success Columbia has been. Of course it is all how you measure success, but if you measure success by its impact on people as I think Rouse would have done Columbia is an overwhelming success. Rouse intended to use urban planning to break down societal barriers, encourage a stronger connection between people and the environment, and stimulate the mind to think and be creative (for this last item it as Bill Santos so beautifully said in one of his very first blog posts). As I walked around talking the peers I grew up here in Columbia with I marveled at the people Columbia had produced. They are the single most intelligent, creative, environmentally aware (at least among the ones where this subject came up), and they look at people as individuals and not as groups and thus do not carry over the stereotyping that we sadly see way to often in other parts of our country including in large segments of nearby counties. Rouse achieved better people and that is an accomplishment that few others can boast of. (It also was one of clearest goals.) Columbia also does not have the degree of congestion one finds in Montgomery County or Northern Virginia. Growth in our county has been managed better because of Columbia creating walkable communities rather than sprawling subdivisions. The sense of identity and community in Columbia (and I noticed this also among my former classmates at my reunion) is higher than virtually any other community I have encountered. Columbia has been a success that I would bet exceed most of Columbia’s original planner’s expectations. Yes, there is some places that Rouse’s plan wasn’t perfect and some fixes could improve achievements of its goals, but as a whole it is a remarkable success.

Anon, I really wish you would use a pseudonym. As to your points, I am in the process of thinking through the procedure, but the goals to me seem to be to encourage architectural innovation, make sure the building achieves the uses the developer desires as long as it conforms to the uses the community has through the zoning process allowed the developer to pursue, and the community gets a significant role in determining which design is approved. To do this it seems that both the developer and the community at different stages of the process should get to set parameters (which each currently do in the current process through zoning and instructions to architects by the developer who hires them) and narrow the choices until a final selection is made. I am working on a process, but I am open to suggestions.

3:09 AM  
Anonymous No fun said...

Evan: I have a pseudonym you can give to your anonymous friend. Wet blanket.

9:10 AM  
Anonymous Locke said...


Thank you for the detailed response, don't have the time today to digest and respond to it but I will in the next day or so. Been a hectic day.

One quick point, from someone who is relatively new to the area and not familiar with the complete community, I'd suggest that Columbia is definitely much more friendly to people who have grown up here and it not as open and accepting of newcomers as some strive to be. Columbians close a lot of doors to people new to the community and trying to move in. Other areas of the country I've been to, including Northern Virginia, have been a lot more open to outsiders.

4:49 PM  
Blogger FreeMarket said...

Evan- Don’t confuse the quality of the Ho Co school system with some kind of inherent benefit of growing up in Columbia. I graduated from Glenelg in ’96. Since that is not a Columbia school, are you suggesting that the average Columbia area school grad is generally more socially aware and environmentally concerned than the folks I graduated with? If so, I will take you to the mat on that point. Many public schools in wealthy suburban areas generate students like the ones of your class.

8:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


So nice to see you coming around on the building issue. Can you complete the process and rid yourself of the 14-story limit and mandated 20% greenspace? To do otherwise would be to expect Van Gough to create Starry Night with only blue and yellow crayons.

10:02 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

Locke, Sorry to hear you have not found Columbia very friendly. When my parents moved here 26 years ago I know many of their early friends were people they met taking me to local tot lots and they found it very welcoming then, but maybe things have changed. If so I find that sad. Maybe we need to find a way to be more welcoming. Do you have any suggestions? I have for a long time thought CA or individual villages should throw new resident welcoming parties. Columbia is more than a little bazaar in how things work so anything we can do to help people figure out the community would be a plus to anything. If you want a tour of how Columbia is designed and the logic behind seemingly bazaar things, I am happy to give you or others such tours. I have done so for many others before. I consider Columbia a beautiful piece of art once you understand what you are looking at. You can email me at

Freemarket, I actually think the Columbia mentality has spread though much of the county, particularly among the people who grew up around the same time we did. 40% of the county is made up of Columbia and those who mix in the schools, through sports, mutual friends, and student clubs share and spread values. I hear from a lot of old-timers who were here before Columbia about how bad the racial divide was then. Now though there are pockets all over large sections of our country that still have major problems on this front I think Howard County (particularly for younger people who grew up since Columbia developed) has progressed a lot further. Add to this that the teachers move from school to school in the county and a significant segment of teachers in the county now actually grew up in the county and this to helps share and disperse the successes of Columbia’s design. This is in part why I speak of Howard County values, because I truly feel these values are countywide even though I think they are a product of Columbia being a critical mass of the county population. I also think that I have seen a substantial difference in looking at people as individuals rather than groups mentality and the creativity in problem solving aspects in Howard County students verses students that went to school in Montgomery County or other wealth suburbs in California, New York, or Illinois. I think Rouse achieved something special in Columbia that did not exist in this county before and managed to have it spread throughout large segments of the county often times without people realizing that it was spreading.

Anon, again I ask you to use a pseudonym. As to your comment I am not sure what you are referring to. I have been consistent on my standing on downtown redevelopment throughout, with the one exception that I initially had no problem with very tall buildings (I even made a comment to Marsha McLaughlin, the head of the Department of Planning and Zoning, after the first Focus Group meeting), but as I have spent time counting the building heights in DC and other cities I have become convinced that building heights roughly the height of the tallest buildings in DC (i.e. 14 stories) is most appropriate for Columbia. I consider that one change as an example that sometimes when you investigate and take time to give serious consideration of a subject you can learn something. As I think you can probably tell I have spent a lot of time on this downtown redevelopment over the past year plus and have spent a lot of time challenging myself and thinking it through. I am not sure what “building issue” you think I am coming around on. I also as why do you oppose 20% greenspace?

1:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why 14 stories and not 12 or 16; 4 or 24? It seems arbitrary. Why not a feet limit?

What difference does the height of a building really make and why is one number better than another?

Shouldn't we tie development to infrastructure and APFO instead of how tall it is?

If we make buildings shorter they will be fatter and eliminate more green space. What's more important?

7:05 AM  
Anonymous Locke said...

Personally, I'd love to see a more urban landscape and a true downtown Columbia. The life, activity, and streetscape of a true urban core are amazing. The tower, as presently designed, could be one of these signature buildings. Since it has already been approved by the various authorities, let them break ground. Our gov’t and legal system will come to a screeching halt if every appeal and nay comment after the final approval indefinitely stops a project.

Most of the large signature buildings worldwide were criticized before (and some after) they were built (Eiffle Tower, St. Louis Arch, WWII Memorial, etc). The Columbia Tower isn’t on the grand scale of these buildings on a national sense, but it will be in Columbia.

3:07 PM  
Blogger FreeMarket said...

Evan- Maybe I am misreading your statements, but you seem to suggest that Columbia was the impetus that gave rise to a cultural and environmental renaissance in Howard County. That is a great story, but I am not sure the evidence supports it. Sure there was a racial divide in the 60s prior to Columbia. However, the moral zeitgeist has changed significantly since then, not only in Howard County but across the entire country. Martin Luther King had more to do with that process in Ho Co than Jim Rouse. Jim Rouse was clearly a visionary who deserves a great amount of respect. However, I don’t think it proper to say that the “Columbia mentality” is the cause and not an effect of the changing social climate of Howard County. Are you suggesting that you and I would be racist whackos if not for Columbia?

11:12 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

Locke, The buildings you mention were expressions of values. Sadly the tower with no mixed income, no mixed use (the developer claimed the coffee shop on the ground floor is just for residents so they don't need to plan meaningful parking for it), a exclusive pool on the roof, and not enough parking overall is the exact opposite of either the values of what everyone says the want and the values of Jim Rouse. Details matter. What makes the 22 story building a signature building? What other than its height makes it special? Certainly not its architecture, which as I understand it is an exact replica of a building WCI built in other communities. How does the tower reflect our values as the Eiffel Tower, St. Louis Arch, and WWII Memorial expressed values?

As for the 22 story building, what is the remedy when the government acts illegally? The county rules and zoning process were violated when the building was approved. That means its approval is not valid. If you break the law you shouldn't get to benefit from the breaking of that law. You talk of our government and our legal system coming to a screech halt and I think that if the government violates its own rules and doesn't follow the procedures it sets up then that is what will bring our government and our legal system to a screech halt.

Locke, you also say "I'd love to see a more urban landscape and a true downtown Columbia. The life, activity, and streetscape of a true urban core are amazing." I agree, but the current plan does not achieve any of that. I strongly urge you to look at the details.

Anon, I really do not think building height is the most important aspect of downtown issues and you still haven't answered my question on why do you oppose 20% greenspace? So when are you going to pick a pseudonym?

Freemarket, I do think that Rouse helped push Columbia and by extension Howard County further than large segments of other part of our country. I have seen in my travels across the country many examples of Martin Luther King's dream not yet being as advanced as I think it is in Howard County. Obviously nothing happens in a vacuum and I think that King and Rouse both had a major impact, but when one sees Howard County moving at a faster pace I think Rouse is the reason. This is a relative measure, not a argument of absolutes as you final question poses. The bottom line is that actions, design details, etc. do have impact. We should remember this as we move forward. We have the power like King and Rouse before us to through our actions improve society and the choices we make in downtown will impact future generations. I think both Rouse and King would find the lack of mixed income housing in the 22 story building and the private pool on the roof would make both King and Rouse gravely disappointed that we let a assault on the dream happen on our watch.

12:46 AM  
Blogger B. Santos said...


Keep doing what you’re doing, I appreciate your work, but get of your facts straight. The hypocrisy is killing you. Your point about architecture is well taken, but your basis is misplaced. Indeed, the proposed Plaza tower does look like other buildings in the WCI portfolio, but the American Cities building (just on the other side of Copelands from the proposed Plaza site) is a duplicate of a building constructed in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. So from the beginning of Columbia, there have been buildings constructed that are less than original design, and Rouse played a part in that.

Secondly, stop with the swimming pool. I share your aversion to exclusive amenities for apartment and condo complexes. However, many apartment and condo complexes in Columbia, on lien-assessed property, provide amenities for the enjoyment of only their residents and guests. I can think of at least a half-dozen apartments or condos that have swimming pools in Columbia. I believe the earliest example was the Turtle Cove Apartments (which have since become the Cove Condominiums) located in Bryant Woods and constructed before 1970. Other apartment and condo amenities in Columbia tout fitness rooms and the Evergreen apartments (erected only a few years ago) features a putting green. So to berate a proposed pool now when this practice was endorsed at the outset of Columbia and throughout its history is really bad form.

9:46 AM  
Anonymous numbersgirl said...

Freemarket, I can’t help but agree with Evan. Consider that in 1996, when you and Evan graduated, all schools but one pulled students from Columbia. The one school that didn’t pull students from Columbia-Glenelg- was and continues to be the least racially diverse school in the county.

Rouse sought, in part, to create a new town with its doors open to people of all income levels and racial backgrounds. Martin Luther King, who was assassinated one year after the opening of Columbia, was instrumental in leading a nationwide movement of racial desegregation. However, it was Rouse who brought it to the local level in Howard County.

12:43 PM  
Blogger Evan said...


Thanks. I think Mt. Hebron at the time also did not overlap Columbia, but your point is well taken. The overlap helped spread the values of Rouse throughout the county. Also even schools like Glenelg had a lot of interaction with students from other schools and the Rouse vision spread in that way. In high school I hung out with a number of Glenelg and Mt. Hebron students through a countywide community service umbrella group called Students Helping Other People and the girl I went to prom with was from Glenelg.

B. Santos,

I don’t see how I was being hypocritical. I never clamed that replica buildings do not already exist in Columbia. Actually Rouse often reused architectural designs in Columbia houses to save money. My cul-de-sac growing up had 8 houses with four layouts with 2 houses of each layout. I was just saying we have an opportunity to do something special downtown. I think we will all agree that unique architecture will help make downtown Columbia a more vibrant draw and that is something we all want. I also personally do not think the American City Building is an example of architecture that I am interested in replicating much in downtown. I think we can do a lot better.

As for the pools, just because we screwed up doesn’t mean that we cannot fix it going forward. We should be asking ourselves want best achieves the vision we want and then have the plan implement that vision.

Bill, you seem dead set on saying what cannot be done and declaring these arbitrary boundary lines. Once upon a time you were an ideas guy, that would dig into a topic to see how to get something done. What happened? I really miss that Bill.

1:50 AM  
Blogger Hayduke said...


Which of these help us achieve the values we all seem to agree on: Denying a bunch of rich people the right to a pool on the roof of their building or making CA's existing network of pools more affordable to everyone; building height limits or taking advantage of an opportunity to make a real dent in the affordable housing issue by building up and not out; dedicating 20% of each lot as open space or systemically targeting open space and environmental protections on parcels of most importance and where impacts will be meaningful; effective mass transit or low density?

Your group has tried to claim the position as the sole torch bearer for the Columbia vision, but its not. Believe it or not, we're all committed to the Columbia concept and are arguing not over what that means, but rather how we implement it. You chide Bill for no longer being an "ideas guy" and for setting arbitrary limits on things (isn't that what 1600 units is?), but why? On his blog he is constantly linking to stories from other communities that are dealing with similar problems in an effort to better inform our own discussion. Moreover, he questions you because he and others have rightly recognized that we're eventually going to have to deal with tradeoffs in the master plan, and the only way to do that is to prioritize things based on how they help us implement a set of shared values. You and Alan have even acknowledged that not everything on the CCD wish list is achievable but that you're engaged in negotiation/game tactics to force GGP's hand, or something like that.

But I don't see it that way, and neither does Bill (I think). Rather than playing this game and pitting GGP against citizens, we're trying to engage in a collaborative back and forth discussion, where we're up front about our priorities and about the tradeoffs we're willing to make. The time for games is over.

9:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Denying a bunch of rich people the right to a pool on the roof of their building or making CA's existing network of pools more affordable to everyone"

I don't think those two things are linked at all, so it seems improper to phrase that as either or. Additionally, if the building design is what I think, the pool area at the top will be illuminated, obscuring the natural night sky.

Can't see the moon? Too bad, you need to be reminded of the exclusive, luxurious pool. A beacon of non-inclusion in the heart of diverse Columbia? Yuck.

"building height limits or taking advantage of an opportunity to make a real dent in the affordable housing issue by building up and not out"

Unless I'm mistaken, building up in this case will put zero dent in affordable housing as all of the units are luxury condos, true?

"dedicating 20% of each lot as open space or systemically targeting open space and environmental protections on parcels of most importance and where impacts will be meaningful"

*If* the community was in favor of increasing the population density of Columbia beyond its design and zoning, I would prefer that some higher structures be built to preserve greenspace. Yet, does anyone really want to see a cluster of very tall buildings in downtown Columbia with little or no preserved open space integrated into the neighborhood?

Requiring 20% of each lot would keep preserving open space pretty straightforward. There are just too, too many loopholes in allowing offsite credit for open space, often negating the intent of open space preservation. If, however, code was tightened up to remove the loopholes and if relocating open space to offsite areas required preserving perhaps 25-30% of the space and the land had to be of equal or greater environmental value, then I'd be ok with allowing some, but not all of the onsite open space requirement to be met offsite.

"effective mass transit or low density?"

This one isn't necessarily an either or, too. Effective mass transit can be had with low density if it is the right kind of mass transit.

We don't have to create high density to get mass transit. We don't have to sacrifice Town Center open space either. We don't have to permit considerably taller buildings. Columbia was designed for a certain population. Increasing density beyond that will certainly affect the environment, indigenous wildlife, and many other facets of our lives, too.

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