Columbia has sometimes been viewed as a place on the road to someplace else, a quintessential suburb scorned by those who love cities.
But these days, Columbia is a whole thing, attracting young residents, businesses and visitors wanting to be part of the action. Billions in investments are creating a city giving Baltimore, DC, Bethesda and Towson runs for their money in the intra-regional quest for coolness and vitality.
Most of the action is happening in Downtown Columbia, most recently with the emergence of the Merriweather District, a new hub rising close to renowned amphitheater Merriweather Post Pavilion.
When complete, the district will include 2,300 apartments, a 250-room hotel, over 1.5 million square feet of office space and 314,000 square feet of street retail with a central park called Colorbust.
The Downtown Columbia project is being managed by master developer, The Howard Hughes Corp., as part of a 30-year Downtown Columbia Plan adopted in 2010.
Greg Fitchitt, president of Howard Hughes in Columbia, said the new development builds on the foundation laid by legendary community-builder James Rouse, and with an eye toward growth and sustainability.
“I think Jim Rouse would be thrilled to see what we are doing,” Fitchett said. “We are respecting his foundational values.”
Rouse’s stated goals for Columbia were to respect the land; create an environment that would accommodate growth of the people; create a complete city, not just a better suburb; and to make a profit.
Fitchett said Downtown Columbia is being updated as a walkable, urban, cultural center with ample open space, pathways and recreational amenities. By 2048, the net fiscal benefit to Howard County from the Downtown Columbia development is projected to be in the range of $25-$31 million per year.
Evolving over time
Columbia’s facelift began a decade ago, notably including the transformation of the iconic Frank Gehry-designed former Rouse headquarters building into a Whole Foods Market.
At the time, then-Howard County Executive Ken Ulman [a co-owner of Baltimore Fishbowl] said “landing Whole Foods as an anchor is akin to leading off the game with a home run. Having Whole Foods at the Rouse Building also achieves our objective of preserving and highlighting this Frank Gehry original.”
Since then, Columbia’s home runs have continued, with the complete renovation of Merriweather amphitheater, and the activation of adjacent wooded space into a curated arts place that recognizes and celebrates art and nature. The project, dubbed the Inner Arbor, a take on another Rouse development, the Harborplace at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, also is home to the Crysalis, a shell-shaped sculptural amphitheater.
Downtown Columbia also welcomed a landmark multi-family project, The Metropolitan; and the construction of Class-A mixed-use office buildings, which includes the cybersecurity firm Tenable, making it an anchor tenant occupying 150,000 square feet space for its 500 employees.
Taken together, these projects are effectively creating the new city that Rouse once envisioned, and are making people rethink Columbia. Just last week, Evergreen Advisors, a firm that previously said it was going to move to Baltimore in a new cyber-security hub, announced instead it was reversing course, staying in Columbia and signing a 10-year commitment.
“Columbia’s downtown redevelopment is the headline,” said Larry Twele, CEO of the Howard County Economic Development Authority, the agency responsible for attracting businesses to the county. “Apartments are flying off the shelf. The minute they are built, they get filled up. Columbia is a perfect mix of amenities. It’s just a cool place to be.”
In April 2021, Howard Hughes broke ground on the Marlow apartments, the second residential development in the Merriweather District. The Juniper, which is the first of the apartments to open in the community, offers market rate and income restricted apartments, a promise in the Columbia Plan and James Rouse’s goals when Columbia was built.
Two other downtown neighborhoods, Lakefront and Central districts, will be reconfigured and at full buildout, the three neighborhoods – part of a $5 billion investment – will have more than 14 million square feet of mixed-use development including 4.3 million square feet of commercial office space, 1.25 million square feet of street retail, 6,244 residential units, and 640 hotel rooms in addition to cultural and civic spaces.
To cater to Columbia’s growth and millennials who are attracted to Columbia’s downtown, lots of cool restaurants are popping up all over the place, including The Food Market, which started out in Hampden and opened a second location. “We chose Howard County for our new location because the people are wonderful and the community is welcoming,” the establishment posted on its website. “Our entire management team in Columbia came up through the ranks at our other locations and are excited to be here for you!” [A complete list of restaurants and other attractions in Columbia, compiled for Baltimore Fishbowl, can be found here.]
Columbia’s potential is also what attracted Andy Shallal to Columbia to open his ninth and largest Busboys and Poets restaurant in Columbia. The popular chain, which started in the mid-2000s in Washington, DC, is known for its restaurants, bookstores, open mics and events. When it premiered this past October in Columbia, a line formed around the building, a signal to Shallal that he had made the right expansion choice.
“Columbia is a natural fit for us in many ways,” said Shallal, who said he received texts, calls and emails from residents and business leaders urging him to bring the restaurant into Columbia.
What also swayed him, he said, was Ulman, who made a compelling argument on why downtown Columbia was the right place and would make the restaurant successful. Shallal then connected with Howard Hughes for development. Everything was going well, he said, until the Omicron variation of Covid hit, forcing the restaurant to cancel parties and reservations. He said it also took 40 percent of his staff out of commission because they or a family member contracted Covid.
“Now, we are rebuilding,” he said. “What started out to be hot is now lukewarm.”
A Tale of Two Columbias
Columbia’s growth and future direction represents a tangle of emotions for some longtime Columbia residents who are coming to terms with the reality that it is not the same place as when they came.
Back in the day, Columbia, MD, was mostly a community of neighborhoods, conceived of by Rouse in the late 1960s as a blend of the best of city and country living where, as it is often told, that the janitor could live next to the teacher and the doctor. Columbia was an integrated community before federal laws made it illegal to discriminate.
As one of the first master planned communities in the country, Columbia experienced massive growth in the 1970s and 1980s, attracting diverse homeowners who bought into Rouse’s vision and were committed to civic engagement.
Six minutes and two miles from Downtown Columbia in the city’s village of Wilde Lake, the oldest of Columbia’s 10 villages, the look and feel could be 100 miles away from the Merriweather District and Downtown Columbia.
On Anne Wallace’s street, single family homes back up to a park. Wallace lives in the corner house with her husband Bill, granddaughter and dog Riley. When they moved into the neighborhood in 1994, she said it was, in large part, because of the philosophy and ideals of Rouse, who built the planned community to bring together a diverse cross section of residents. Wallace, a nurse, lived across from a civil rights activist and down the street from a University of Maryland professor and around the corner from Rouse himself.
Inside the Wallace’s home, a large framed 1970s poster of Columbia holds a place of honor in the hallway that separates the foyer from the kitchen. The colorful yellow poster highlights Columbia landmarks of the time: the Rouse Building, Columbia Bank and Trust, Woodworth & Lothrops and Hechts department stores, Cross Keys Inn, Harper’s Saloon and Clyde’s. Although most of the landmarks on the poster are no longer around, Wallace said she can’t part with it because each of the places on the poster hold good memories for her and remind her why she chose to make her home in Columbia.
On a table shelf by a sofa is another treasure: the book, “A Larger Vision…Jim Rouse and the American City,” a compilation of Rouse works and speeches. Inside the cover is a note from Rouse thanking Wallace for caring for him at Howard County General Hospital, where she was a nurse at the time.
On this day, Wallace is lamenting about all the changes in Columbia, including cars and trucks speeding through her neighborhood because drivers have discovered that her street can take them around traffic tying up the main drag, Little Patuxent Parkway.
“All of this new growth is a yin and yang for me,” she said. “I understand that things change, but my concern is the traffic, the population density and the loss of open space. Now things seem to be so crowded and the thoughtfulness that made up Columbia is not there anymore. I don’t object to growth as long as it’s in the scope of how Columbia was originally planned.”
Calvin Ball, Howard County’s executive, said he understands how Columbia’s growth and evolution may cause concern and anxiety among longtime residents who like Columbia the way it was.
Ball said changes in Columbia will be for the better. “It will be more walkable and offer more opportunities for residents to engage. Columbia will continue to be the best place to live, work and play.”
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Not all the residents share the same enthusiasm of what has occurred in “downtown” Columbia. High density housing, cramming people into small apartments and town houses was not the original vision of James Rouse. Owning a home with a yard and tress to raise a family in Columbia was the dream fulfilled for many families. Now we have concrete and no vegetation. Living in the area for 20 years the Columbia Town Center is now overcrowded and crime has increased. Progress ?
My late husband, Mort Hoppenfeld, would be proud of Columbia’s burgeoning appeal & revitalization.
Thank you for such a thoughtful article.
I agree with Bruce. I’m a resident who doesn’t agree with the transformation that has and will take place in Columbia.
The vegetation that is slowly being taken away is not part of Rouse’s dream. In fact, his dream of community is being replaced by money making businesses.
The article mentioned a federal law regarding decriminalization being the reason the changes. What I liked about Columbia 20 years ago is how diversed Columbia was then.
Decrimination is being targeted against the old residents who value nature, less pollution (air and noise), less traffic and crime.
What happened to compromise?
What happened to the taxpayers point of view? I feel taxes are going to increase with development. Yet developers tell us this is tax raising revenue. I would like to see proof of that.
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