No fooling, Columbia’s becoming a city

7 minute read

Rendering of proposed Crescent development in downtown Columbia

Rendering of proposed Crescent development in downtown Columbia. View is of Area 3 looking east, with the proposed swim center to the right. Click for a higher-resolution version. Image © 2014 Howard Hughes Corporation; used with permission.

Columbia is well on its way to becoming a real city with a real downtown. (This is not an April Fools’ joke.)

Last night I attended the pre-submission meeting at which Howard Hughes Corporation presented its plans for the Crescent area next to Symphony Woods and Merriweather Post Pavilion. (I arrived a few minutes late, missing the introduction of the presenters and the opening remarks.) For now I’ll leave a more complete description of the meeting to the professionals (see Luke Lavoie’s story today in the Baltimore Sun) and will just give some initial somewhat disconnected impressions.

The attendance seemed a bit less than that for the pre-submission meeting for the Inner Arbor plan. (Luke Lavoie concurs, citing 75 people attending the Crescent meeting and about 100 at the Inner Arbor meeting.) I find that a bit strange in at least one sense. In the case of the Inner Arbor plan people got exercised over what I consider relatively minor things, like identifying the exact number of trees to be removed from Symphony Woods, and presumably showed up at the meeting in force to make sure those concerns got on the record. To me this is a case of not seeing the forest for the you-know-whats, given that the Crescent development will change Columbia in ways far more radical than anything that might happen in Symphony Woods. In the immortal words of Vice President Biden, this is a big [expletive] deal.

Without really trying to I ended up sitting next to Jane Dembner of CA; the same thing happened to me at the Design Advisory Panel review of the Inner Arbor plan, and (if I remember right) at the Inner Arbor pre-submission meeting as well. I keep running into the same people at these events; I get the feeling that there’s a core group of perhaps a few hundred people at most who have influence over, strong opinions about, or (in my case) an abiding interest in what happens in Columbia and Howard County—call them the Howard County 0.1%.

The presentation itself was divided into two parts: One section on the site plan, roads and pathways, public amenities, design guidelines, sustainability, and related matters, presented by two Howard Hughes employees whose full names I didn’t catch, and a second section providing more detail on the actual buildings, presented by Howard Hughes SVP John DeWolf. This second part was apparently an adaptation of a pitch DeWolf does for investors and potential tenants, so it included a lot of high-level marketing stuff about the appeal of Columbia and Howard County, the desirability of a vibrant downtown Columbia, and the ability of Howard Hughes to execute on that vision. Due to time constraints DeWolf had to march through this second presentation in about 30 minutes, including interspersed questions and answers; this was unfortunate since this section contained some of the most interesting material from my point of view.

DeWolf was clearly enthusiastic about the project (as he himself said, the man likes to build stuff). He went out of his way to emphasize the importance of Merriweather Post Pavilion to the Crescent project, particularly as a way to “make Columbia cool” and attract a younger demographic. Whether the hip twenty-something with a lip ring depicted on one of his slides will actually want to live in Columbia (as opposed to just attending a Merriweather event) is an open question, but full marks to DeWolf for trying. DeWolf didn’t mention anything specific about Merriweather renovation or plans for Merriweather parking, but did make a brief aside about his tiff with Ken Ulman. He didn’t mention anything about the Inner Arbor plan. In general DeWolf is an entertaining presenter, though having done lots of sales presentations myself I think I can tell what’s unforced enthusiasm and what’s a bit feigned for the benefit of prospects. (For example, does DeWolf really think the lengthy multi-step Howard County approval process is a great thing for developers, as he seemed to imply?)

As Luke Lavoie’s story indicates, the possibility of 20-story-high buildings in downtown Columbia was a major theme and concern at the meeting. It reminded me of the controversy several years ago over the proposed 22-story WCI Plaza tower near the Columbia lakefront. For various reasons that plan eventually died an ignominious death, but by all indications thus far the Crescent proposal should escape that fate, 20-story buildings and all. For what it’s worth, I think 20-story buildings in the context of the Crescent development are appropriate to the setting. They don’t stick out as stand-alone structures, but appear to exist in the context of nearby buildings of somewhat smaller size. I don’t mind the contrast with the adjacent Symphony Woods either; it actually reminds me of the buildings next to New York’s Central Park, a juxtaposition I find striking and attractive. There’s an open question as to whether and how much those buildings will shadow Symphony Woods at various times of the day and year; I hope to see something about that in future presentations from Howard Hughes.

Speaking of “massing” (to use the technical term for defining the overall shapes and sizes of buildings), I think the Crescent plan actually works pretty well in relation to its site. One person commenting at the meeting was concerned about the implications of the Crescent area being relatively isolated, in the sense that it was hemmed in by Symphony Woods and Merriweather to the north and by existing roads and development to the east, south, and west—not to mention the areas within the Crescent development itself that are unsuitable for building and will remain in a relatively natural state. Far from being a bad thing, I think this might actually work to the benefit of the development. Among other things, the compact and constrained site forces a higher density of development and helps prevents the sort of “micro-sprawl” I’ve noticed in places like Tysons Corner and Reston Town Center, where large urban-scale buildings and their associated “structured parking” sit next to low-density suburban-style strip shopping centers with large open-air parking lots.

The compact site and relatively high density will of course lead to increased traffic, which was another major concern expressed, along with concerns about the implications of that increased traffic for pedestrian access to and within the Crescent area. I suspect that true mass transit (e.g., heavy or light rail) will be a long time coming to downtown Columbia, if it ever does, so I don’t expect any relief on that front. Nevertheless I’m reasonably optimistic about the traffic situation, based in large part on the advances occurring in automobile automation that will likely be widely adopted within the longer-scale time frame of this development. Even if we never get to fully-autonomous “self-driving” cars, I think increased intelligence in automobiles will go a long way to making cars more safely co-exist with pedestrians, as well as potentially speeding up traffic by allowing cars to intelligently cooperate with each other to improve traffic flow and reduce congestion caused by stops and starts due to humans’ poor reaction times.

Other thoughts: I was surprised by the interest shown in a proposed swim center (or natatorium, if you want to get fancy). I wasn’t paying much attention to the discussions over the future of CA’s swimming pools, so missed the fact that there is a fair size group of people actively lobbying for a high-end professional-quality swim center that could host local and regional swimming competitions—something Howard County currently lacks. It sounds like a worthy facility, and one which could attract lots of visitors to the proposed hotel and restaurants in the downtown area. There was also mention of locating a new library downtown, but not much discussion of that. For the record, I think the Crescent area would be a better location for a new Central Branch than near the location of the present facility. I for one am looking forward to the possibility of a large multi-purpose central library of some architectural distinction.

Finally, as implied above I didn’t really get a good feeling for how parking at Merriweather will be addressed as the various phases of construction proceed. However I did glimpse some slides that may shed some light on that question, and if I can find out more I’ll post again.