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A Vision for a New Columbia - part 1

It seems that I'm having a difficult time getting away from the topic of Columbia, MD. No matter what, it seems what I most often talk about with others. I grew up here. After living in other places for periods of time, I always seem to make it back. Admittedly a few times was because I couldn't make it out on my own, but there's a weird thing about this town that is somewhat indescribable.

Case in point, a little over a decade ago, I was at a bar in northern California and I was talking to a bunch of people. One person I knew from DC and another from New York. The rest I didn't know. However, one person in the group asked out of the blue, "Did you grow up in Columbia?" I answered in the affirmative and it seems that this person went to Wilde Lake and we had about 10 friends in common even though we never ran into each other before this. It seems that he could just tell that I was from here. There's a particular quirkiness that we all exhibit. I mean, just look at Ed Norton... sorry Ed... not really...

I have heard people who grew up in and around Baltimore, and they look down on Columbia because it's "plasitc" and "fake". This usually happened at the Ottobar, Goodlove, Fletcher's or some other such place. I start pointing around the room at roughly a third of the crowd and say which high school they went to, sometimes what neighborhood they live(d) in. And many of those people were either the DJs, band members, or just the "faces" of the scene.

I have heard people around DC and they look down at Columbia because it's not Montgomery of Fairfax counties, which are "wealthier" and they're the place where "people really want to move to." Then they point out a few famous people who came out of there as proof that they matter more than Columbia. (Although we do have Greg Hawkes, who was/is pretty damn awesome musically an mildly influential to me. I didn't even know he was a HoCo boy until I met someone who knew him in High School.) All of their arguments were attributable to image and braggability. Then I start pointing around the room at roughly a third of the crowd and say which high school they went to, sometimes what neighborhood they live(d) in. And many of those people were either the DJs, band members, or just the "faces" of the scene.

And that was usually (but not always) a different group of people. all of the "freaks" and "weirdos" that came out of this town would easily be 500+. That's more than the capacity of Nottingham's (a.k.a. Snottinghams) and certainly Sonomas. And that's just people around my own age! What a wasted economic opportunity. What a wasted cultural opportunity. I ask those who moved to either Baltimore or DC and they cite four usual reasons:

  1. In Baltimore, housing is more affordable.
  2. There's more to do to do in the City (a better nightlife).
  3. In DC, you can get around without a car.
  4. The suburbs are just uncool.

All four issues are addressable. We need a town center that is like a city. Shopping, a grocery store, mass transit oriented, entertainment oriented, and plenty of places to just hang out. From there, the village centers can act as hubs for more specialized purposes. You know what you want to do, you know where to look. And if we have a decent enough density, that will solve the problems of the younger people moving away. Let's take it point by point.

Town Center

Town center needs to be the hub of everything. Therefore, all points need to lead to TC in some way.

It needs to be our mass transit hub. With the growing environmental crisis and the idea of peak oil being a distinct possibility (I'm not a good judge of that topic, but I'll assume that it's true to be on the safe side), and road congestion becoming a major headache, we need a mass transit system that does not focus on roads. That means trains. Whether it's the traditional iron rail or a new fangled maglev system, it needs to be a practical alternative to the car, but a symbolic one as well. That and trains are just really damn cool. If we're smart about it and plan ahead, the space above the tracks can be solared out. The trains can run on that power, excess can be sold to BGE, etc. This would connect Baltimore and DC (or maybe Silver Spring?) through TC. Robots could additionally be used for cleaning of the panels and flagging problems that need to be inspected by a human, reducing some costs involved with maintenance. Excess power would be sold to BGE and that would be used for building rail stage 2 (to be discussed later) and eventually subsidized rates for those that need it. This is not something that can be pushed somewhere else. TC is the jewel of the crown. That needs to be the first impression and our best face forward. Office parks along with park and rides do not qualify.

TC also needs to be our corporate center. It needs to remain the financial center, legal center, and where we the premier corporations based here are located. We do a fairly good job there, but we can do a little better.

Finally, TC needs people. We have the town houses and the garden apartments, but they really look cheap, bland and boring. It's either adequate housing or just ill planned. And no place for the young and single. I'll get into that in Part 2.

--Chris

Thanks to @JessieX and @SpiralEyes for the talk that inspired this series.