15 November 2006

Ghost of the Charrette

As some will recall, the Clarendon section of Arlington County, Virginia was referenced with Bethesda, Maryland as examples of urban design during the Charrette. Although I have not seen it mentioned on any of our local blogs (and I could be wrong about that), Clarendon, and its associated development was featured in the Monday edition of the Washington Post Business section.

The Washington Post published two articles (More Urban, Less Village and Remade City Centers Find Mass Appeal), both authored by reporter Kim Hart. In addition, the www.washingtonpost.com has an online chat with the reporter, panoramic views of the new development, and satellite imagery of Clarendon from 1962 to present day.

In summary, there is plenty there for everybody. An analysis of urban centers, concerns about the loss of local businesses, traffic, etc…

What I took away from the published articles and online content is as follows:

Bethesda always finds its way into every story. The following quote appears in the Remade City Centers Find Mass Appeal article:
Instead, people amble along pedestrian-friendly streets in places like Bethesda, Takoma Park and Silver Spring. Downtown Alexandria and Annapolis epitomize the model, experts say, weaving together the threads of an old-fashioned main street in a modern setting.
It is unclear to me who these experts are, but they are most likely at odds with the Co Fo Co Do (Coalition for Columbia’s Downtown) crowd. As stated in their executive summary, they too look to Annapolis as a model for downtown Columbia. Could Clarendon fit their model too? I am unsure.

The Remade City Centers Find Mass Appeal article also provided some numbers behind the Urban Village trend:
Businesses in urban villages generate more revenue than those in traditional shopping centers and strip malls, planners say. Shoppers spend $84 an hour in an urban village's street-side stores; in a typical enclosed mall, they spend $57.50 an hour, according to the Urban Land Institute. Some large retailers bring in almost 20 percent more revenue per square foot in a village setting.
"Retailers know the power of the place-making dividend. People stay longer, come back more often and spend more money in places that attract their affection," said Ed McMahon, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute. "No one wants to go to a strip mall to hang out."
What I find most revealing about both articles is how each piece closes:

The concluding paragraphs of the More Urban, Less Village piece state:
David DeCamp, one of the forces behind the new Station Square, said the density incentive is a good compromise to preserve some of the art-deco architecture and old-fashioned main-street style. "I don't think anyone wants to overdo it and turn Clarendon into a soulless suburb," he said.

Nick Langman, co-owner of the Clarendon Ballroom, said businesses benefit from working with the neighborhood's idiosyncratic feeling, not against it. He and his partner preserved the hall's tin ceiling and ornate molding. The ballroom often has a line wrapping around the corner on weekend nights.

"You can't buy charm," he said. "You can't rebuild the sense of place that's already here."
While the Remade City Centers Find Mass Appeal closes with this:
To keep a neighborhood from turning into a shopping mall -- or a carbon copy of another town -- experts say developers should concentrate on retaining local character.

"The historical and social fabric has to be retained in the place to keep it from becoming another Ballston or Bethesda," Nelson said. "Use the market revenue to sustain a piece of that memory."

The emphasis of developing while maintaining the existing character of place, coming from local business owners, experts, and others shows at least a little shared vision among all stakeholders, something we are lacking here in Howard County.

Lastly, Clarendon decided to use a height limitation similar to that proposed by Howard County DPZ. As part of the www.washingtonpost.com online chat with reporter Kim Hart, the following exchange can be found:
Questioner from Arlington, VA:

What is the county board doing to keep the independent retailers in Clarendon? Do they get tax breaks, lower rents?


Arlington County has been proactive in keeping smaller businesses in the neighborhood, especially in Clarendon. Developers who promise to rent to small businesses get the chance to add an extra floor or two to their new buildings, which can help offset the lower rent they charge the independents. Many local business owners do think the county could do more, however.

So maybe a hard cap on building heights could endanger local atmosphere here in Howard County. We should all think long and hard about this.


Anonymous said...

A hard cap on building heights could "endanger" local atmosphere in Howard County?

Yeah, I'm thinking we're really going to need 50-story skyscrapers to give that nice comfy main street feel. Throw in a cacophony of cab horns and asphalt as far as the eye can see, too, while you're at it.

B. Santos said...

My late night anonymous friend:

Asphalt as far as the eye can see? Cars honking horns? Have ever been to downtown Columbia? Honestly, the moat of asphalt around the mall already exists, evening rush hour traffic fills the afternoon with noise, and on most days the primary way that people view downtown Columbia is only through their windshields. Certainly that must be written somewhere in the Columbia vision n'est pas?

Your hyperbolic assertion that 50-story buildings is completely an overreaction on your part. If you read the accompanying stories on Clarendon, you will find that the tallest building is (as I recall) 12-stories high. Yes, they let someone build two stories more to preserve local merchants in the downtown area. Would you rather have a building two floors lower and welcome the onslaught of national chains, such that your aversion to is satisfied, but at the cost of and array of soul-less national chains?

wordbones said...


Very nice post. I am glad you picked up on the Washington Post piece. It is very apropos to the current discussion of Columbia's downtown.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Bill,

I'm glad that you're opening a discussion of growth in Downtown Columbia, certainly a pivotal issue for the future of Howard County. Thank you for your reference to the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown. Although I was not an Ulman supporter in this past election, I am nevertheless pleased to say that on Nov. 3, County Executive-elect Ken Ulman released a vision for Downtown that is closely aligned with those of CCD (http://kenulman.com). Mr. Ulman, along with County Council-elects Jen Terrasa, Mary Kay Sigaty, and Courtney Watson, have also signed on as supporters of CCD. I'll look forward to working with these folks and others in the community as we seek to design a Downtown that reflects the values Columbians hold dear.

Rebecca Johnson
Member, Coalition for Columbia's Downtown
writing as an individual

Anonymous said...

Hi again,

I don't know how long Ken's campaign website will be up now that the election is over. In case it comes down, here are his Nov. 3 remarks describing his vision for Downtown Columbia:

Three years ago, I led the fight to block the Rouse Company’s request for additional density in Downtown Columbia and to Save Merriweather Post Pavilion. Now, I am asking for the opportunity to finish the job by seeing Town Center become the world’s model for green development, sustainability, and positive community planning.

We know that Jim Rouse wanted a vibrant, wonderful, town center, filled with cultural amenities and people of all backgrounds enjoying them. As County Executive, that is exactly what I will deliver. Columbia’s Town Center will truly become the “garden for growing people” that Rouse envisioned.

I was proud to initiate the charrette process, the first time the County reached out to citizens to shape the vision for the future of our community.

There were concerns coming out of the charrette that the County would rush into adopting a new master plan without adequately addressing the details. I shared those concerns and advocated to slow the process down to take the time to look at those details carefully and incorporate more community input. I called for a delay before the Department of Planning and Zoning would submit any plan to the Planning Board and asked the department to continue to work with citizens and continue the public process.

Over the past year since the end of the charrette, I have been relatively quiet about my own personal vision for downtown Columbia. Other than advocating for an open planning process, I have intentionally refrained from suggesting my own vision, because I felt strongly that the plan for downtown Columbia should reflect the people’s vision, rather than mine or any other elected official’s. The whole point of the charrette process was to create a community-driven plan; I did not want to dictate my plan, so I felt I needed to sit back and let the community drive.

The community stepped-up to that opportunity with enthusiasm and commitment, bringing thoughtful and creative suggestions to the table as well as critical insight to examine all ideas proposed.

Over the course of the past year, I believe the voice of the community has been clear; and while all residents certainly do not agree on all points, I think there has been considerable movement toward an emerging consensus on the community’s vision. Unfortunately, however, the Department of Planning and Zoning – despite hosting the forum in which the community has been voicing its vision – has not heard the message, or has simply chosen not to listen.

I am disappointed in many ways in the direction DPZ has taken this process and the resulting level of distrust among community members. We must change the direction of the process before it reverts to an adversarial process in which the community and DPZ are unable to engage productively.

As County Executive, I will put this planning process back on track as originally intended, and my administration will work with the community to shape their vision into a plan. I believe there is still much work to do before we reach a final master plan for downtown, but I believe that working together we will create a downtown that preserves Columbia’s character, honors Jim Rouse’s vision, and reflects the values on which this community was founded—values which I share and hold deeply.

While I continue to believe this process MUST be community driven, I feel it is important to answer the calls from a large section of the community to hear specific plans and visions from elected officials. I will share with you what I see as the core features of the master plan based on my own personal vision and what I have heard from the
 Downtown Columbia will be a model for green development and sustainability. Green development will be mandated—green buildings and green infrastructure, such as porous paving, rain gardens, green roofs, onsite renewable energy, energy conservation, etc.
 I will establish a Conservation Commission to review all development plans – no plan will move forward unless the environment will be better off after the project is completed.
 Columbia was created with the goal of being a diverse community, and Jim Rouse voluntarily integrated affordable housing into his plans to ensure economic diversity. We must ensure that a full range of housing options will be part of any new development, and an affordable housing requirement will be added to New Town Zoning.
 Throughout the development process we will require that amenities such as parks, plazas, public art, pathways and other improvements be delivered at the beginning of the project, rather than at the end.
 Symphony Woods will be converted to Rouse Park in Columbia, as a shining tribute to our founder, James Rouse. I envision a park with creative features such as a “Symphony Playground” where every piece of apparatus is a musical instrument and public art featuring pieces that honor the social values of Columbia and Jim Rouse.
 Public art will be prominent throughout downtown, as a certain percentage of the total budget of any new project will be invested into public art.
 Merriweather Post Pavilion should be converted to an indoor/outdoor venue, open year round and featuring diverse cultural and family programming in addition to the shows we have come to enjoy over the years.
 I believe making downtown pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly must be a top priority in our planning process, and we must decrease dependence on cars by providing convenient and reliable mass transit. The master plan must include transportation that circulates regularly throughout the downtown area as well as a site for a hub for the County’s bus system and plans for future connections to regional transit systems.
 I want to see a downtown that is cutting-edge with innovative ideas in every area from free wi-fi to a new fire station featuring workforce housing for fire fighters and others above the station.
 Downtown Columbia must be developed at a reasonable density. The number 5,500 which is so frequently — and usually inaccurately — cited was a number the County’s consultants recommended as an estimate of the maximum number of units the market could support. When I first heard that number, I thought it was ludicrous, and I still feel that way. The traffic study confirmed what so many of us believed intuitively—that the full scope of possible development suggested by our consultants during the charrette would simply be much too much for our roads to handle. I do not know what the final number of residential units will be, but it will certainly be much closer to the 1,600 units requested three years ago.
 And finally, downtown Columbia must be developed at reasonable heights. The community’s voice has been loud and clear that a 22 story building has no place in our Town Center. As County Executive, I will introduce a height limit for New Town Zoning to prohibit any building over 14 stories.

Under my administration, the Department of Planning and Zoning will be heading in a new direction. I believe our experience over the past year with the downtown planning process points clearly to the need for a different approach, but that need is not limited to Columbia. Throughout the County, communities must be able to work with DPZ rather than feel they must fight against it.

I hope you share my vision, and I look forward to working with you as your next County Executive to make that vision a reality.

Ken Ulman


Posted by Rebecca Johnson

B. Santos said...


Thank you for taking time to read and comment on this blog. I am puzzled by your reference to elected officials in response to my post. Could you please elaborate as to why you felt the need to elevate these members above the other 200 or so that have given permission to have their names associated with the Co Fo Co Do?

Getting back to the original intent of the post, what do you think? I thought preserving local character was a big part of the post and the originating news articles. I also believe that Co Fo Co Do is very much for preserving local character in downtown Columbia.

I believe adding a little bit of building height in exchange for local business was a great idea. In an effort to preserve a local business presence downtown, could you live with a building that was 180 feet Vs. 150 feet? Is local business part of the Columbia vision? Can you articulate an alternate means to keep building height low and still maintain affordable lease terms for local business, or have we reached the point at which we must sacrifice one for the other?

Hayduke said...

Bill, great post.

If we do have to sacrifice one for the other, I can't imagine anyone who truly loves Columbia saying low buildings are more important than locally-owned businesses. I'm sure there's a balance, but finding balance is hard when one deals in absolutes.

B. Santos said...


I agree, building height AND local businesses are BOTH important. Clarendon sought to include both with the (my phrase for it) height-for-locals tradeoff. I am concerned that a hard cap on building height removes this option. I am open to other options, but I do not know of any. I am all for balancing needs, but we all need to discuss how to do it and find the tradeoffs.