This Is How Anything Changes
Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch!

Why Is There a Mall in the Center of Columbia?


I need to learn more about Columbia, Maryland, the place that has been my home for the past nine years.  During my sabbatical this coming fall, I'm going to be studying and writing about "A Spirituality of Us", a practical theology exploring our connection to God in community.  A big part of this project is reflecting on our experience of community--and considering how we can intentionally interact with that experience to improve it.  Luckily for me, I live in a planned community, a place that a group of people constructed forty-plus years ago for the purpose of making it easier for people to happy in their life together.

Columbia looks like a suburb to me.  I live on a cul-de-sac, after all, and there is a large, enclosed shopping mall in the center of the community instead of anything that could be construed as a "downtown".  So I was intrigued to learn in the first session of the mini-course offered by the Columbia Archives that Jim Rouse set out to create a "New City" of 100,000 in Columbia.  

Barbara Kellner ended the class this past Monday with a letter, written by Columbia's founder Jim Rouse to Irving G. Bjork, the Vice President of the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company.  Rouse states his goals for Columbia: "first to make a profit and secondly, to discover and to demonstrate what can be accomplished by bringing to bear In the planning and development of a New City the knowledge and experience that have been gained about urban living and the finest skill and talent that are available in the field of planning and urban design" (my emphasis). 

He goes on to say more about the importance of profitability.  This "New City" will point "the way to the kind of urban development which might be substituted for endless urban sprawl."  If it works, "then developers will pursue the process by which fine, small New Cities can be built In our metropolitan areas in lieu of a succession of dormitory neighborhoods."

Columbia was supposed to be an anti-suburb, an antidote to sprawl.  A big part of what this meant to Rouse was that people should be able to work as well as live and play in Columbia.  From the beginning, he worked hard to attract employers and industry to Columbia--and he was successful.

But what I don't understand is why Jim Rouse designed an anti-suburb without a downtown.  Instead of an area of dense development at the center of Columbia, there is a large, enclosed shopping mall, the signature development of American suburbia.

As far as I can tell, the reason why Rouse included a mall in the original design of Columbia was because, quite simply, that was how he made his money.  James W. Rouse and Company, Jim Rouse's mortgage company, got on the shopping mall bandwagon early, completing their first project in 1953.  He developed the Mondawmin mall in Baltimore which opened in 1956 to great acclaim and went on to develop many more such projects.  In their book, "New City Upon a Hill:  A History of Columbia, Maryland", authors Joseph Mitchell and David Stebenne write:

By the early 1960's, Jim Rouse's name had become synonymous with mall development.  The success of such ventures helped give him the means to begin working on the question that concerned him most:  could someone build a better city?  Flush with the characteristic optimism of that time, Rouse and his associates would soon decide to try.

Malls were profitable and Rouse wanted and needed Columbia to be profitable.  I get that.  But it seems to me that the presence of a mall at the center of the community indicates a lack of understanding about what malls do to a community.  Mitchell and Stebenne comment that Rouse saw malls at modernizing "the town center idea rather than replacing it altogether" but that seems strangely naive in retrospect.  

  • Malls are filled with national retail chains and fast food restaurants.  These stores are staffed, in part, by teenagers from the local community, but they are not, by and large, owned and operated by local people.  You don't get to know your local merchants at a mall.  In my experience, with the possible exception of the jewelers, mall patrons don't have a relationship with the people running the stores.  (Note:  I do understand that when the Columbia Mall first opened, there were many more locally owned and operated stores.
  • Malls discourage walking.  The Columbia Mall, like most others I've encountered, is surrounded by a sea of parking lots.  It is designed for people to drive there and back.  This is an inherently less social, less communal experience than walking to the store and walking home.
  • Malls are not places where anyone can go.  Most of us don't realize this because we come and go from the mall as we please.  But the mall reserves the right to kick anyone out who they feel is causing problems.  A number of homeless people I know have been banned from the mall because they have been deemed disruptive.  If they enter and are recognized, they are escorted out by mall security.
  • Malls are not places for public speech.  You cannot hold a candlelight vigil against hate crimes in the mall.  You cannot make a public speech.  You cannot ask people to sign a petition.  You cannot hold a rally.  Part of the reason why any community needs public, common space is so that people have room to do all of these activities when they feel called.  These things are part of our public life.  They can be disruptive to community, but they also build community.

I need to learn more about Columbia.  I need to learn about the ideas of the founders and learn about how those ideas have played out over the past 44 years.  Does our mall work as a town square?  Or is there something missing in our community because there is a mall at the center?


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Rick LaRocca

I am certainly not an expert on this planned city, but I can offer what insight I have, based on what I've read, heard, and experienced, and of course my personal perspective and opinions.

The Columbia Mall is situated in Town Center, but the master plan for Columbia shows a very vibrant vision and plan for what the Town Center is to be. The "plan" was for it to be "people-scaled", so to speak, much like you described it should be. That's how I understand it.

From my experience, having grown up here, the Mall most definitely served as a central meeting place, and was ideally suitable to meet the needs of what was a small community of Columbia "pioneers" at that particular time of its development. The Mall started out much smaller than it is today. There were two anchor department stores, one at the North end and one at the South end, where J.C. Penny and Macy's are today. Those two stores were not chain stores. The Baltimore based Hecht Company at the North, and the Washington based Woodward & Lothrop at the south end. Between the two stores, on two levels were the stores, I don't recall any chain stores, rather mostly local small businesses and mom & pop stores,,interspersed with a handful of established Baltimore/Washington based larger businesses. If there were any chain stores in the beginning years, I don't remember them. If so, it could only have been a couple.

As you may know, The crux of Mr. Rouse's vision for Columbia was the Village and Neighborhood concept, which was pivotal if this "city" was to be the type of community that Mr. Rouse envisioned. The City was to be a cluster of "villages", each of which would consist of small neighborhoods. Each village would have its own "village center" of shops, it's own "town square", so to speak; each of the neighborhoods would spoke off from there. Again, "people-scaled". The plan was for village center shops to provide the every day needs of the people in the neighborhoods so they would not have need to leave their village. For instance, each village would have a grocery store, pharmacy, restaurants, liquor store, dry cleaner, fast food restaurant, etc. plus community center (I.e. Slayton House) for community meetings and classes, and the like. Every neighborhood would have its own convenience store, as well as a "neighborhood center" for neighborhood meetings, etc. the original plan even called for each neighborhood to have its own schools! Again, "people-scaled".

The Mall would serve as the town center for the city, where people from all the villages would come together. In the early years this would best suit the immediate needs of a population of only a couple thousand, if that. Also, as you noted the first goal for the city was to make a profit. Certainly,Mathis had to be stated as the firs goal because Mr. Rouse, if he was going to have any success in convincing Connecticut General to come on board as an investor, he'd better darn well demonstrate profitability. An enclosed shopping center in the heart of the city is a good start.

Later, the town center would be developed to be more like the downtown you described. Back in the early days one couldn't go to the Mall and not run in to several, many people you know, both from your neighborhood and from other villages. Looking back, having an enclosed mall made it easy to gather year-round. Plus, I can tell you that the shop owners and employees did know most of their customers by name, and they lived in the neighborhoods.

It is true the things you noted are not allowed to occur at the Mall in Columbia because it is private property. But I might add, that Columbia is not an incorporated city. The property that is not owned by residents is actually private property of the Columbia Association, a "homeowner' association" (albeit likely the largest one in the country), but also serves the residents as quasi-governmental body.

Lastly, I would like to add what I understand to be the driving force behind Mr. Rouse's steadfast pursuit of his vision. He once stated in an interview about his vision and planning of Columbia, something to the effect of "serving God with all our heart, mind, and soul". When I heard that I rewound the tape to listen again. Yes, I heard it right the first time. Two words immediately came to mind. Love. Community. And to that I say, well done faithful servant; rest in peace Mr. Rouse.

Millie Ribeiro

What do you mean by a "downtown".

I grew up overseas, in Latin America. There a "downtown" is defined by a town square around which you will find a church, the offices of the town mayor, and small shops. The square is very important because it provides an area for festivals, farmers market and or political activities.

In my travels in Europe and Asia I have noticed similar concepts for downtowns.

When I think of downtown Ellicott City a Main Street comes to mind.

Would you prefer to have a Main Street for a downtown? In other words, would you prefer a linear concept?

The comments to this entry are closed.