Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Vision Thing

I just read Barbara Russell's letter to the editor in last weeks Columbia Flier. My first reaction?


For those who may not know, Ms. Russell is currently the Columbia Council representative for Oakland Mills. She also counts herself as being one of Columbia's pioneers (first 100 residents) and at other times has referred to herself as Columbia's first mother.

In her letter she wrote:
I have never been confused about Mr. Rouses vision for his new city.

Certainty is good but in this case I am afraid it is woefully misguided.

She went on to say:
In the concept plan that Mr. Rouse presented to the county leaders for approval and later in the concept plan/map that was distributed at The Rouse Co.'s visitor center, which was located on the Kittamaqundi lakefront, there was no typical traditional cityscape anywhere to be seen, including in the designated downtown area. As a matter of fact, Mr. Rouse presented his plan for Columbia as the antithesis of the typical urban environment and said Columbia was meant to be a new kind of city, "a garden for growing people."

I think she missed the key word here which is "concept." Concepts are very broad based ideas that allow for liberal interpretation. I also recall the concept plan. In fact, I remember the scale model that was made of what Columbia's future looked like back in 1966. Aside from Lake Kittamaqundi, there would be very little recognizable to a visitor today. For example, that original plan had a mini bus road bisecting the lake connecting Oakland Mills to Town Center.

The statement that I believe really misinterprets James Rouses intentions is:
It most definitely did not depict 20-story residential and other buildings casting long dark shadows over pavement and other buildings as in a traditional cityscape. The downtown was basically designed to service residents, not house them.

Let's be realistic here, concept plans do not depict specific buildings so claiming that Jim Rouse never intended a 22 story building to be built in Town Center because he didn't have one in his concept plan is just plain foolish.

I had the honor of working for Mr. Rouse both in Columbia and later as he set out to open malls all over the country. Though I would never claim to know his mind I was able to observe one critical thing; James Rouse was an evolutionary thinker. His ideas changed over time. This is evident to anyone who followed his career. After Columbia he determined that was better to focus on rebuilding existing cities rather than creating new cities in the suburbs. I highly recommend his biography by Joshua Olsen, Better Places Better Lives - A Biography of James Rouse to anyone who wants to know what this man was all about.

Today, I could easily envision Jim Rouse hunched over plans with Doug Godine at General Growth Properties mapping out the next evolution of Columbia's downtown. I think he'd be pleased that the community had matured to the point that it could attract the attention of developer such as WCI Communities.


Hayduke said...

It seems to me that an overriding principle of Jim Rouse's life was: change for the better is possible. New thinking was essential if we were to overcome the mistakes of our past. At various stages of his life, Rouse sought to change suburbia, urban downtowns/destinations, shopping centers, and distressed communities. That he would want us to create a new downtown based on a model from 40 years ago (that was built mainly for marketing purposes, anyway) strikes me as completely misguided, even antithetical to his beliefs.

Also, many of our current "issues" in Town Center planning stem from confusion over the difference between concept plans and implementation plans.

FreeMarket said...

WB, I’ll gladly second your recommendation of Olsen’s biography on Rouse.

Mrs. Russell is certainly entitled to an opinion, as we all are, but it is illogical how she tries to make it seem as if her opinion should carry more weight because she has lived in Columbia for so long. If length of time in Columbia and closeness to Rouse’s vision are legitimate reasons to make one’s opinions more valuable, there is no one in the community who should have more say than Rouse’s wife.

numbers.girl said...

The first thought to pop into my mind after reading Barbara Russell's letter was "high horse."

Many people, both individually and as members of groups, are claiming authority over Rouse's vision and over the future of Town Center.

No one single voice should be allowed to speak for us all- be it Ms. Russell or CCD.

Anonymous said...

interesting facts about the Russell editorial:

Word Count: 352 (almost 2X Flier Limit)

Number of Times Rouse is mentioned: 7

Number of Time vision (or variants) is mentioned: 5

JD said...

OK, Everybody. Take a deeeeep breath. Aah. Now count to ten.

Counting words? Conspiracy theory. Plot. Duck!

Plenty of room in the hotel Colummbia. Sit down, put your feet up and let's talk.


Anonymous said...

Yes, Mr. Rouse did go on to focus more on urban revitalization, as Columbia was well on its way to flourishing.

I do doubt, though, that he would be focused on trying to revitalize Columbia, a place that, by many accounts, local and elsewhere, is flourishing.

Instead, my guess (and yes it is obviously only a guess) is a higher priority to him would be revitalizing cities that are truly in need of such efforts, not figuring out ways to squeeze lots more upscale housing density into Town Center at risk of losing so much of what Columbia achieved.