Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Master Plannin'

I thought last night’s meeting on the Downtown master plan went pretty well. The plan seems to be coming together - questions are being answered and blanks filled in. There was a decent-sized crowd, many of whom offered thoughtful, constructive comments following the Department of Planning and Zoning’s presentation of the draft plan, which is available for viewing here.

Although I don’t have a fully thought-out response to the plan, there are a couple of observations that I would like to share. Here they are, bulleted for convenient reading (just looking out for y’all):

  • I’m glad to see the Mall has been added as a district in the plan, bringing to five the total number of Downtown districts. Ignoring the Mall - even though it’s probably going to be around for a long, long time - hurts the credibility of the plan.
  • It was also good to see a clear schedule for the development and approval of this plan. It’s worth keeping in mind that this is a process, not an event. We’ve still got at least a year before the plan and necessary zoning changes are approved, and from there, another 30 years until the development called for in the plan will be complete.
  • The inclusion of a design review board is also commendable. Apparently, the intent was to craft design regulations so stringent there would be no need for design review, which is a very bad way to plan for architecture (just as creating an master plan with excessively stringent regulations is a bad way to plan in general).

Related to the design review board, I really liked hearing Bob Tennanbaum talk about architecture and what downtown should look like. Although the general principles of the plan are based on New Urbanism, Tennenbaum warned against adhering to the less attractive tenants of this new planning paradigm - namely, the focus on older, more traditional architecture. As evidenced by the buildings and many houses of early Columbia, Jim Rouse was such a proponent of “forward-looking” architecture that he would force builders to change plans that called for the same old same old.

(Driving around Columbia’s villages in order of their creation gives you a good idea of the decline in Rouse’s influence over his own company.)

The more I think about this, the more I realize how right Tennenbaum is. Typical New Urbanist places are nice in the same way an amusement park is nice: everything’s convenient, safe, and mildly attractive, but underneath it all, you know its fake. I think inspiring, original and unique architecture will again show how forward looking Columbia is and will be the difference between a good plan and a great one.

I’ll have more to say about this later.

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