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A Vision for a New Columbia - part 2: the public realm

As I stated in the last post, Town Center needs to the jewel in the crown of all development. It's what makes a statement of what Columbia is supposed to be. and I'm not talking about it from a design prospect, but from a community standpoint. This brings in the elephant in the room: the mall. The mall takes up so much space  and is arranged in such a way that makes all further development difficult if not impossible. In order to get from one side of TC to another, you need to either go around the mall (a long walk no matter what) or go through the mall (and face the ring of moving cars, meander through the parking area, walk a lengthy stretch of the mall to get to a door on the other side, come out then face the parking lot and the ring of moving cars again). With all of that said, it's evident to me that the mall as it stands today needs to go.

I realize that it's a tough problem to tackle. It is a huge draw to TC and in a lot of ways, the economic engine that makes TC as prosperous as it is. However it's isolated from the other attractions downtown. The tricky part is how to merge the mall area and the rest of TC into one area. I've spent a few years thinking about how to remove the behemoth and integrating that into a true city center. For most of the proposals that I've come across so far has neglected something important. The area below ground line.

The underground

The area below the ground is an untapped asset that can really make a lot of things possible. I'm not sure how far down we can go, but we can place several things down there and open up the rest. The primary idea is to use that area for car parking for residents and truck loading areas. It'll get the trucks off the main streets. give them plenty of room to move around, provide some warehouse space, or even provide space for artisans and construction crews to ply their trade in a relatively safe space. We can also use some of this space for nightclubs where the sound could be isolated from the rest of the community. More importantly, it can provide space for all of the mechanics of the heating/cooling systems, some power distribution (need for blast proof walls, ceilings, etc. necessary to allow density while still being safe to those around it. See this article about The Planet - Houston) as well as data center space for the corporations at TC. This is particularly advantageous when we start considering geothermal heating.

Geothermal heating is a technology that uses the temperature in the ground to heat and cool spaces above ground. This is an incredibly efficient system as compared to the air cooling systems already in place. Basically, the ground remains around a constant 50-60 degrees. Pipes are run below the ground and liquid is run through the pipes. The ground cools or heats the liquid to the ambient temperature of the ground then it's brought to the surface. The primary benefit would be to cool the power systems and the data center spaces, which would be the primary beneficiaries of the system since they're critical pieces of equipment where overheating could be dangerous. The secondary beneficiary would be the shops and restaurants on the ground level, where there tends to be a significant amount of heat generated from lights, stoves and the like. The rest of the available cooling could be used for the office spaces and residential units located above the shops and restaurants. This might need to be supplemented with air based heating and cooling units on the roof. Since it's a relatively simple system and uses little energy, that's money in our pocket.

This also brings up the issue of park land, with geothermal heat pumps below the buildings, that's a lot of heat put into the ground. Since it only works when the ground is relatively cool, we need space for that to dissipate. That's where park land comes into play. Park land is not only essential for the well being of people, but it's necessary of the well being of our cooling systems. If we need to route a secondary system from the parks through the building cooling systems, that can easily be done by utilizing the area underneath the paths. This is another reason to leave Merriweather Post alone for the most part.

All above ground

The shopping area could then be spread out over the entire area. This would probably be primarily outdoor, although a certain portion could be made indoors. For any indoor facility, the area above ground should be accessible by pedestrians and select vehicles to enable access to the office and residential developments. The indoor facilities would also have to be de-emphasized by not having the entrances at ground level, but sunken down into the ground level. Probably halfway down the height of the overall height. If the overall height of the stores is 20 feet, it would be sunken down 10 feet. I would limit this to one story. For department stores, who are typically 2 or 3 stories, one floor could be below ground and the other(s) would be above ground.

Visitors parking to the area would be supported by parking garages on the edge of TC to ensure that the actual shopping area would be car free except for private security and county police, as well as VIPs who, due to security concerns, may need to be driven to a particular entrance. We would try to minimize the later though to extreme cases only. Since the nightclubs would be underground, security surrounding the bands would be handled there. Since the train station would probably be on the outside of TC (I would guess near Merriweather Post) we would have an enclosed, raised people mover to enable fast movement from one side to the other. That would minimize complaints about having to walk "miles to get to the station". Plus a benefit would be that it could be mildly heated and cooled so the commuters would feel comfortable using it year round.

Finally, within the public realm of the TC overhaul, there would be an old fashioned city square that could be used as a secondary focal point in addition to the main lakefront area. If kids are going to hang out, they would tend to hang out there. They could be watched, subtly, so that if anything really is going on, action can be taken. Otherwise, just left alone for the most part.

In my next installment, I'll begin to discuss the private spaces. Stay tuned!

--Chris