Well, this is a surprise:
A little less than a year before developer James Rouse opened Columbia in 1967, he sought financial backing to construct what he called a "tower" between 300 and 500 feet tall in Columbia's Town Center, according to a letter in the Columbia Archives.
The letter, dated July 28, 1966, goes into few details about what the tower would feature, other than that it would offer a bird's-eye view of the Baltimore-Washington corridor and could feature a restaurant or gift shop.
The letter came to light this week, as the Howard County Planning Board was slated to hold a May 24 hearing on a proposed change in zoning law that would temporarily place height restrictions on new buildings in Columbia.
Hmm. That's an interesting new wrinkle, huh?
However, an opponent of the Plaza Residences countered that the tower Rouse described bears little resemblance to the Plaza. Instead, Rouse sounds as if he is describing a non-residential structure akin to the Space Needle in Seattle, said Lloyd Knowles, who is one of the residents challenging the Plaza in court.This is true. The two towers are different. But this still doesn't account for the fact that Rouse was interested in having tall buildings in Town Center.
"That kind of tower is not like a mundane residential structure," he added. "There is obviously a big difference in towers. He is not talking about the kind WCI is talking about."
Alan Klein, a spokesman for the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown, a citizen's group that supports restricting building heights in Town Center, said Rouse and his associates had many ideas for Columbia that they later realized would not fly.I would argue that it wasn't Rouse who decided it wouldn't work, but rather those who were deciding whether or not they should pay to build it. What the market wouldn't support in the 1906s it, apparently, seems ready to support now.
"We don't know whether by 1967-68 he determined, 'This does not work,' " Klein said of the tower proposal.
But what does all of this really mean? The Flier weighs in with an editorial:
People on all sides of the debate over the redevelopment of downtown Columbia -- and, in particular, plans for a 22-story condominium in Town Center -- have invoked the name of James Rouse, insisting that the town's founder would have supported their view, whatever their view happens to be.I don't think that's right. The arguments against the Plaza take mainly two paths: 1. that it was allegedly approved illegally and, 2. that it's too tall.
There still is no definitive evidence on who's right about that. We would argue it's an increasingly moot point, regardless.
...Rouse couldn't sell Connecticut General on the idea, so he dropped it. But the letters would appear to refute the contemporary argument that he was dead set against tall buildings in his city.
This revelation by no means negates the entire argument against the Plaza Residences.
Details of what Rouse wanted are sketchy, but the structure he described might have been twice as tall as the controversial condo. However, it apparently wouldn't have had people living in it, using the roads and schools and water and sewer.
In terms of public-facilities impact, comparing what Rouse sought to the Plaza is apples and oranges.
But the discovery does change the landscape of the aesthetic argument, which, for many, is just as important.
(There is also Evan Coren's argument against the tower, which is that it's a "middle finger" to what Rouse stood for because it's full of expensive condos and has a private pool, but there are many apartment complexes that already have their own pools and Columbia is a place where anyone can live, even people who want to spend $2 million on a condo. A lack of mixed income housing within a single building does not imply an diminished commitment to affordable housing elsewhere, even next door. Also, the point can be made that supply restrictions are bigger impediments to realizing a truly economically diverse community than a luxury condo tower.)
Those concerned about overwhelming infrastructure present their case in the context of the entire Town Center master plan, the latest draft of which calls for more than 5,000 additional residential units.
If CCD is comfortable adding 1,600 housing units, what difference does it make on infrastructure capacity if these come in the form of 10 160-unit, 22-story towers, or 160 10-unit, three-story apartment buildings, or 1,600 townhouses? In fact, greater density of the same unit count could actually mitigate impacts.
Then, there's this:
Interpreting historical texts can be a tricky and often subjective business. Some will no doubt latch onto the Rouse letter as proof that the Plaza has the blessing of Columbia's lionized founder. That's a stretch.Is it not also a stretch for some to reference a now-dismantled model of Town Center to claim the absence of tall buildings is definitive proof of Rouse's intentions? I understand this was just a letter to the editor, but as editors, if you chose to print it and paid to distribute it, shouldn't you bear at least some responsibility for allowing it to enter the dialogue?
That said, this is right:
In any case, the interested parties can advance the public discourse immeasurably by ceasing to play "the Rouse card."If only such good sense could have been shared earlier. Toot-toot. (Yeah, that's my horn.)
Rouse's idealism about equal opportunity and community should always be the guiding principle of life in Columbia, but claiming his legacy in support or opposition of a given project is a red herring.
We have to make such decisions in the here and now, without the benefit of his wisdom.