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Columbia and the idea of the civic mall

August 27, 2014

hurleyak

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The American City Building once housed the American City Corporation, a Rouse Company subsidiary devoted to improving life in cities.

After snooping around the Frank Gehry-designed Whole Foods last week, I couldn’t resist a walk through Columbia’s small downtown area. In the heart of his new town, which broke ground in 1967, founder James Rouse put a manmade lake, Lake Kittamaqundi, where residents might listen to concerts or stroll on a warm day. So far, so town center-ish.

Columbia lakefrontBut Rouse had another idea for the commercial hub of his community, and that was an enclosed shopping mall. (If Wikipedia is to be trusted, not only did Rouse build the first enclosed mall east of the Mississippi, he also popularized the term “mall” to describe such structures.)

Columbia MallToday, we dismiss malls as junk spaces, byproducts of an era of auto-oriented sprawl that we’re desperately trying to reverse. We assume they’re hostile to walkers and anti-civic by definition. Not so Rouse. It’s fascinating that Rouse viewed both the mall and the lakefront area as essential civic spaces, and complementary ones.

I suspect he took a similar view of walking and driving–that cars and people could happily coexist in a low-density suburban town. What struck me most on my brief walk was this massive concrete stair, rising from a parking lot to a pedestrian walkway over Little Patuxent Parkway that links to the mall area. No one was using it.

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image-2It is serious infrastructure. It would not look out of place in Boston’s City Hall Plaza or a London council estate. Yet here it still is, in the land of the Cheesecake Factory and Clyde’s sports bar.

Today, Columbia doesn’t look any different from other auto suburbs in Maryland–until you look harder. What’s left from the original town-building era is sometimes a little hokey (foreshadowing New Urbanism?) but also self-consciously modernist. Perhaps the self-consciousness is what makes it seem hokey, almost 50 years later.

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The Dealings: a sculpture of James Rouse (R) in conversation with his brother Willard

It’s easy to write off Rouse’s vision as naive. Car suburbs were still new; the experience of walking amid lanes of 50-mile-per-hour traffic had not yet proved miserable. But with his mall, Rouse was on to something. It was, and is, Columbia’s center of gravity. Just a few years ago, locals howled in protest when the mall’s management tried to end the tradition of a holiday “poinsettia tree.” (They prevailed.) The mall remains busy and profitable, which is worth remembering as developers prepare to demolish it piece by piece.

From the parking lot, I admired a JC Penney store with a striated concrete facade–not long for this world–and looked over to the new development massing on the horizon. Columbia is getting a suburban retrofit du jour. A mixed-use, walkable town center will gradually replace the mall. If that means more affordable housing in a growing metropolitan area, then I’m all for it (especially if transit improvements follow).

But let’s not call this a cure for a “dying mall.” Malls are the suburban commons. Some have failed, but others are thriving, and of course developers want to maximize their profit by creating more square feet to lease. The current generation of developers in Columbia is building on Rouse’s success, not correcting his failure.

Columbia redevelopment

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