This is a tale of two Maryland cities. Ellicott City was established in the early 1700s, cut from the banks of the Patapsco River. The western end of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad’s first stretch of track, it grew organically and retains its historic core. Columbia, on the other hand, was among the first modern master-planned communities in the United States, designed in the 1960s by developer James Rouse as part of the New Town Movement. Yet the cities share schools and other infrastructure and drive most of Howard County’s economic and real estate development.

“Ellicott’s historic district held up fine as a destination because of its old-world character,” says local architect Charles Alexander, principal of Alexander Design Studio. In Columbia, however, the original town center was a mall. “That is all being challenged by a desire to get more diversity of uses, as well as density, in the center of town,” Alexander adds. Indeed, a 30-year master plan for Columbia was approved in February.

The cities also share an economic driver, says Christopher Lester, principal of Columbia’s George Vaeth Associates: the federal government. Nearby Fort Meade is home to the National Security Agency’s headquarters. The upcoming opening of the U.S. Cyber Command at Fort Meade means thousands more residents for the county, according to the Howard County Economic Development Authority. This will fuel demand for housing stock, amenities, and office space.

In addition to commercial development, Columbia is seeing a new kind of residential building. Its original “settlers” are now aging out of their homes, creating demand for active senior housing that will allow them to age in place. These folks like the current quality of life in the area—at least for now.

Howard County population in 2010: 281,884, an 11% growth in 10 years. Jobs grew about 9% over the same period.

Class A office market was 14% vacant in September 2010; average asking rate: $25.47/s.f.

Median home sale price, September 2010: $395,000.

• High-quality K–12 schools
• Proximity to Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
• Good quality of life

• Increasing sprawl
• Aging infrastructure
• Housing affordability

“The major challenge,” says Daniel Ball, president of Daniel Ball & Associates, in Columbia, “is the management of growth in a manner that keeps the spirit and character of the communities while adapting to the present and projected socioeconomic trends.”