22 September 2006

Downtown Building Heights

With all the discussion yesterday, I have not had the chance to address an issue raised in the Wednesday edition of the Baltimore Examiner. The article, entitled “Leader says high-rises conflict with vision for Columbia,” amplifies the opinions of Barbara Russell and Mary Pivar. Although the article in Wednesday’s paper did elevate the issue of downtown building heights, the quotes from Ms. Pivar and Ms. Russell are only opinions. I would hope that the Examiner, when researching issues for publication would seek to find a diversity of opinions and a diversity in demographics. In general, Mary and Barbara are part of the same demographic and represent only one side of the discussion. Let’s try to find other voices, especially when dealing in opinion, such that the presentation of the issues is balanced.

I have known both ladies for years. Barbara Russell is a community treasure and on the occasions that I have had the chance to chat with her, I have always found her to be knowledgeable, insightful and passionate about this town. Mary Pivar and I served on the Wilde Lake Village Board together, and although I have disagreed with her on some topics, I am impressed with her energy and she has maintained her brown Toyota well.

Unfortunately, I have to disagree with both on the subject of downtown building height. As I describe in this post, regulating building height in downtown to a single arbitrary limit will decrease affordable housing, reduce downtown vibrancy, reduce retail options, and encourage mediocre architectural design.

Barbara Russell starts off with a generalization stating that “Practically everyone wants a height limitation,” and that people are appalled at the 22-story Plaza. Fair enough, although the height limitations Ms. Russell may have in mind may be different from other people’s ideas, and those folks who have put a down payment on the condos in the Plaza certainly are not opposed to it. For the record, I object to the Plaza height.

Further on, the article states:
She [Barbara Russell] also referred to Columbia founder James Rouse, who said in
his 1963 speech titled “It Can Happen Here” that serious problems in society
stem from “the fact that the city is out of scale with people.”

Now I know that Ms. Russell had knew Mr. Rouse, and I believe she may have specific insight into what Mr. Rouse was talking about in the “It Can Happen Here” speech. However, I took out my copy of the speech and read it carefully, and more than once. It is my belief that Mr. Rouse was referring to the bulk size of cities and how people relate to the scale of the entire city, not just to building heights. (In fact, the whole thrust of the Rouse “It Can Happen Here” speech was to say that planning should be people focused before we start discussing building heights, traffic flows, etc. I think we are doing the opposite of what Rouse spoke of in the “It Can Happen Here” speech. I plan to write a post dedicated to that topic in the near future.)

There are other quotes from James Rouse and other Columbia luminaries that portray a different view of downtown. In an April 19,1996 speech to the Council of Shopping Centers Annual Convention in Los Angeles, CA, James Rouse stated:
“Urban growth is our opportunity, not our enemy. It invites us to correct the
past, to build places that are productive for business and for the people who
live there, places that are infused with nature and stimulating to man’s
creative sense of beauty — places that are in scale with people … which will
enrich life; build character and personality; promote concern, friendship,

This quote also appears (with attribution) on page 6 of the current, unfortunate file name, Columbia Association Public Information Guide (PIG.pdf).

Fifteen years later Mort Hoppenfeld, a Director of Planning and Design at the Rouse Company and a man whose name appears on the dedication of two statues in downtown Columbia, stated in the article “A Critique of Town Center Options” (Little Patuxent Review, 1981, p. 110):
“Downtown needs apartments and condos: At high density within walking distance –
on top of things like shops and offices.”

Now I don’t want to get into a war of quotes, because I believe I am outgunned in this arena. However, the above quotes do suggest that there was a perception that Columbia would evolve into a city and would be urban in character (not a suburb, not a bedroom community). In addition, high density was discussed and (at some level) advocated by those who founded Columbia.

Finally, Barbara Russell states that higher building heights would allow more development. It seems that Ms. Russell’s logic mirrors that of former baseball player Yogi Berra . Famously, Yogi Berra ordered a pizza and was asked whether he would like it cut into four or eight pieces. "Better make it four. I don't think I could eat eight." Like Mr. Berra (who was focused on slices and not realizing the pizza size was fixed), Ms. Russell has focused on building height, not realizing the amount of development is fixed.

Howard County Director of Planning and Zoning Marsha McLaughlin provides the following clarifying information in the article:

“It’s like playing with Legos. There is a certain amount of development that can
occur, and a certain amount of Legos. You can stack the Legos taller, and there
would probably be more open space on the ground,” McLaughlin said.
“But you don’t get more legos.”

With respect to Focus Group member Mary Pivar’s remarks, I wish she had chosen her words better (granted, what is said by someone is sometimes not what gets in the paper).
If tradeoffs are going to be considered, the limit should be at six stories, and
no buildings should be taller than 12 to 14 stories, said Mary Pivar, a member
of the Downtown Columbia focus group, in which residents meet with the planning
and zoning department to discuss the redevelopment of Town Center.

With the dramatically diminished skyline envisioned by Ms. Pivar, these low slung buildings will have to be very long and very wide to accommodate the proposed development. Buildings will more than likely be built to their setback limits and would reduce the opportunity for trees, sculpture, plazas or fountains. I cannot think of a more soul-less streetscape.

Her statement regarding a 3-story limit at the Lake Kittamaquandi waterfront is preposterous. I believe the south side of the Rouse Building has four exposed floors, as does the Teachers Building lakeside wall. The American Cities Building, the Lakeside Condos, the Sheraton Hotel tower, and that building where the Rusty Scupper used to be are all more than double the limit imposed by Ms. Pivar. Should we start the deconstruction?

Ms. Pivar’s further assertion that “There is nothing negotiable about the lakefront,” is completely out of place. On whose authority can she make statements like that? Is she speaking for the whole focus group? Did the Howard County Government cede special authority to the focus group to dictate terms? (I think not, but I felt the need to balance Mary’s hyperbole). Regardless, I wish Ms. Pivar would not resort to ultimatums when discussing downtown. She is in no position to dictate terms.

In closing, I invite the HoCo blogosphere to comment and provide any details as to what you might think building heights should be in downtown Columbia. As I linked before, my views are posted here. I also hope that we will get more balanced reporting on the downtown issue in the future

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I believe Rouse would have loved the idea of tall buildings gracing the Columbia skyline....