Len Lazarick Reflects on Columbia at 50

Downtown Columbia on the shores of Lake Kittamaqundi at 11 a.m. July 2, 2016. Photo by Len Lazarick
Source: MarylandReporter.com

A MarylandReporter.com article (2016-07-11) published the first article in a 12 article series dealing with the founding and history of Columbia, which will be celebrating its 50th birthday next June.  The article, be MarylandReporter.com founder Len Lazarick is a memoir that includes both facts and Lazarick’s own thoughts and opinions as a long-time Columbia resident. In the memoir, Lazarick recounted how “visionary” developer Jim Rouse created Columbia as a different and unique type of planned community and both the aspirational and practical considerations Rouse worked through to achieve his vision.

After providing the history of why Rouse thought the location for Columbia made sense, how Rouse acquired the land, and how Rouse went about physically and socially planning the community, Lazarick covered the four goals Rouse espoused in the planning of Columbia:

As Jim Rouse often described it, Columbia had four key goals that grew out of the social planning work group, his own experience growing up in small-town Easton, and the spirit of the times. In some lists, the goals are in a different order, but this one makes the most sense.           

Goal No. 1: To respect the land. Rouse believed strongly that “there should be a strong infusion of nature throughout a network of towns; that people should be able to … feel the spaces of nature all as part of his everyday life.”

Goal No. 2: To provide for the growth of people. Rouse believed that “the ultimate test of civilization is whether or not it contributes to the growth — the improvement of mankind. Does it uplift, inspire, stimulate and develop the best in man? … The most successful community would be that which contributed the most by its physical form, its institutions, and its operation to the growth of people.”

This was embodied symbolically in the People Tree in Columbia’s town center, which was once the symbol for all of Columbia and still stands there today.

Goal No. 3: To build a complete city. Rouse explained it this way.

“There will be business and industry to establish a sound economic base, roughly 30,000 houses and apartments at rents and prices to match the income of all who work there. Provision has been made for schools and churches, for a library, college, hospital, concert halls, theaters, restaurants, hotels, offices and department stores. Like any real city of 100,000, Columbia will be economically diverse, polycultural, multi-faith and inter-racial.”

Howard County at the time had only a smattering of those institutions and none of those qualities. The schools were not considered top-notch, and they had just been desegregated, though the housing wasn’t; one of the newer developments even had covenants excluding Jews. While there was a long Catholic presence, with Jesuit and Redemptorist seminaries nearby, most of the churches were mainstream Protestant. (This was before the great ecumenical opening of the Catholic Church in the Second Vatican Council going on about that same time.)

Goal No. 4: To make a profit. This final explicit goal is often glossed over as secondary, but as Rouse would say, making a profit “brings discipline to all the other goals.” It was also important to him to demonstrate that good development focused on the other three goals could make money if other developers followed suit.

As lofty and attractive as these goals were, Rouse’s pitch was practical as well. Columbia would be a boon, not a burden, to the small county, which would at least triple in size if the town were built. The inevitable growth in Howard County’s future, he insisted, was better channeled into a concentrated area. The housing density in the new town and the business parks that would bloom there would gain revenue for the county, more than supporting the public services needed,  and they would prevent sprawl.

Lazarick also discussed why Columbia decided not to become an incorporated municipality, its tax structure, how the city tried to be profitable, and the types of residents the city drew at its founding. He also tracked key developments and challenges Columbia faced through the subsequent decades, noting that the final planned phase of Columbia is just occurring:


The plan from the start was that as the town grew with apartments, townhouses and single family homes, the land at its core would become more valuable, and more expensive land prices drives buildings upward, creating urban density.

Prior to the economic troubles, the original economic model envisioned Columbia’s full development in 1980.

Thirty-six years later, that final phase of urban development is just beginning to happen. High-rise and mid-rise office buildings are again sprouting up on Little Patuxent Parkway; new urban-style apartment blocks are underway near the mall. The arts area around Merriweather is being redeveloped and enhanced. The downtown of a new city envisioned 50 years ago has finally been kicked off.

In a speech in 1979, in a rare admission of imperfections, Rouse said, “There are a hundred ways that Columbia is deficient, lots of things that are wrong, but there are a thousand ways in which Columbia is far beyond anything that could have happened unless we had worked toward an ideal.”

MarylandReporter.com plans to do one article on Columbia a month until Columbia’s 50th anniversary next June. The next article will look at business development in Columbia.