29 December 2006

Fear the Retrievers!

As that big campus down I-95 prepares to take on Purdue University in the football extravaganza known as the Champ Sports Bowl tonight, the little college that could, the University of Maryland Baltimore County, UMBC, the Honors University, Uncle Moe’s Baseball Camp, is poised to once again to reign as champions of a true sport, chess. Yes, once again UMBC (my alma mater) and its rival, the University of Texas at Dallas, are locked in battle for supremacy on “la mesa grande.”

Admittedly, press coverage of the Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship has been light. The event is reported today in the Washington Post Metro section, and reporter Alec MacGillis does a fine job of providing background and describing the action. I have only one question: Why was this story in the Metro section? I believe this should have been covered in the Sports section. Where is Michael Wilbon going on about how chess fans in this region aren’t as loyal as Northwestern fans (Northwestern, by the way, was shown the door early in the competition)? Where is Tony Kornheiser waxing poetically about the “curse of les chiens?” I believe this story is of sufficient magnitude that the heavyweights of the local sports scene weigh in on the competition. Hopefully, George Michael will pick up the story, or maybe we can get live coverage on MASN. In any case, I’ll be renting “Searching for Bobby Fischer” tonight.

Go Retrievers!

19 December 2006

If CA Board Members Type, Can We Hear it?

I have been struggling with a letter to the editor published in the December 14, 2006 Columbia Flier. It appears that CA Board members elected to bring greater openness to CA have been discussing CA issues via email. When a former board member raised concern about this practice, the response was to attack the person that brought the issue to light. The letter was authored by Barbara Russell and Phil Marcus and reads as follows:

Former board member's own history includes caucus

Recently, Mr. Jud Malone complained in these pages about a "secret meeting in a secret caucus" by five members of the Columbia Association's board of directors. Anyone who has served on any board or similar body knows that meeting in a caucus of less than a quorum is extremely common, whether by phone, e-mail or in person, to achieve a common view. So we wonder what the uproar is about.

We are all the more puzzled since Mr. Malone, during his term on the same board, as a member of a caucus of five members that discussed who should be elected board chair and other matters. That group also included Joshua Feldmark (who became chair), Wolfger Schneider and the undersigned.

What I find most troubling is that last spring we had a little thing called an election (and in the interest of full disclosure, I ran for office in that election, and lost). Reports in the local papers indicated the outcome of the elections (in the competitive races) was based on voters wanting more openness from the CA Board. Then newly elected CA Board member Phil Kirsch was quoted as saying, “I think the two victories send a clear message that (voters) are looking for
better communication and openness”

Fast forward to today, and we find that Mr. Kirsch, along with his freshman comrades Cindy Coyle and Gail Broida (in addition to Barbara Russell and Phil Marcus) appear to prefer debating, discussing, and deciding issues (aka “achieving a common view”) via email, away from the eyes and ears of the electorate.

As stated in Mr. Marcus’ and Ms. Russell’s letter, this has been done in the past. In fact, the issue of email has come up before the CA Board as it is currently constituted. In the July 18, 2006 Baltimore Examiner, an article by Laura Greenback (Columbia Association board debates e-mail use ), states:

However, at least one board member said the board uses e-mail as a forum for

“Why bother to fight in front of people when we can look
like we know what we are talking about, and be more comfortable with our
position, if we talk through e-mail?” Board Member Cindy Coyle said.

Now, I want to be cautious here. Many people get misquoted in the paper, but if this quote is accurate, I am very concerned. I am only one person in this town, but it is my opinion that people on the CA Board should know what they are talking about, and if they don’t know what they are talking about, we should know that, so we can vote them off the board. There should be no “look like we know what we are talking about.”

In an interesting side note, when I first read this article, I brought this concern about CA Board email (and phone) discussions to the Wilde Lake Village Board. The following is an excerpt from the August 7, 2006 Wilde Lake Village Board minutes (note: scroll down about 70% to find them).

Mr. Santos was also concerned about CA conducting votes and discussions via email or by phone, since these discussions occur out of the public view. Mr. Santos suggested that the Village Board comment on this to CA. Ms. Pivar noted that there was an email discussion about opening the pools during a heat emergency; however, it was an open discussion and no vote was taken. The Board agreed that it is bad public process to vote or discuss policy via email or phone.

So apparently CA board “caucus discussion” emails can at times involve Village
Board members such as Ms. Pivar. Given that the emails have never been made public, I still don’t know what an “open” email discussion is.

Also of note in Examiner article is a passage attributed to Mr. Marcus:

Board member Phil Marcus said the group should post its discussions on a blog that is accessible to residents. “There should be such a forum, where speed and convenience is available,” Marcus said. He said the board is “not playing by the rules” when it uses e-mail to talk about issues such as selecting a consultant to form an energy cooperative.

I would be interested to hear how Mr. Marcus reconciles his “not playing by the rules” statement in July 2006 with his “a caucus of less than a quorum is extremely common, whether by phone, e-mail or in person” letter in December 2006. For the record, Mr. Marcus has a publicly accessible blog. When I last checked, he had not posted any emails regarding “caucus discussions.”

In closing, it is apparent that less than a majority of the CA Board has been discussing at least employment contracts, opening pools during heat emergencies and the selection process for consultants via email. Moreover, it is not known if any other topics were discussed or what other parties have been included in these email discussions (CA staff? Consultants? Village Board members?). It seems to me that the practice is neither open nor accessible, and the voters are not getting what they asked for. In fact, if these board members had told the voters in their respective villages that they believed in openness, but would relegate the discussion of issues to email among CA Board members to “achieve a common view,” I am not certain they would be serving as board members today.

18 December 2006

Words to Live by - From a New Developer

Just in case anyone was wondering if there are great developers out there, check out LJ Urban. This link is not just good business, it is a great way to look at life! Would someone please bring them here to help out with downtown!

17 December 2006

Citizen Participation and the Columbia Association

Between the tot lot at Lake Elkhorn, the granting of easements by the CA president, and the concerns raised about CA Board members use of titles, the CA Board has heard from many people this year. The CA Board Operations Committee is meeting on Tuesday, December 19, 2006 to discuss who can address the board (or committees) and when they can provide such input. Their agenda can be viewed here. Specifically, there are two links of interest provided within the agenda.

The first link of interest reveals the draft policy for defining who may speak during resident speakout. Here is the text:

Defining Who May Speak at Resident Speakout

  1. People owning, or living and/or working on property that pays the Annual Charge may speakout for up to three minutes on any subject at Board Meetings.
  2. Non­resident members of the Sport and Fitness Facilities as well as all non­ resident participants of all CA programs and services may speakout at Board Meetings for up to three minutes on agenda items that relate to their participation.
  3. Any other individuals that wish to speakout must get approval to speak from the Board Chair or Committee Chair prior to the Board or Committee meeting.
  4. Speakout at committee meetings will be limited to two minutes and limited to topics that are within the purview of that committee.

Secondly, when CA decided to go to the three committee meetings a month and one board meeting a month, it was portrayed as a chance for residents to have a greater voice. Because the committee is smaller than the board, Robert’s Rules for small boards would apply. Under the small board rules, the chair is given latitude to allow comments from the audience. The Board Operations Committee is now reviewing draft guidelines for board members (who are not members of the committee holding the meeting) and residents. Here is the text:

Guidelines for Board Member Participation at Board Committee Meetings of which they are not members

  1. The CA Board Committee structure is designed to divide and delegate the work of the Board to five different committees. The system is designed to work most effectively and efficient ly when the members of each committee, along with the Chief Staff Liaison to each committee, and the CEO work independently and then report their findings and recommendations to the full Board at Board Meetings for discussion or consent.
  2. Board Members attending committee meet ings of which they are not members are welcome but will not be seated at the committee table.
  3. When a Board Member, who is not a member of a cert ain committee, plans to attend a committee meet ing to share input, that Board member should contact the Committee Chairperson in advance to let him/her know they will be attending and that they would like to speak to a certain agenda item. It is also recommended that they summarize their input in writing to leave with the committee.
  4. When a Board Member, who is not a member of the committee, wishes to comment on an agenda item being discussed, that Board member should raise their hand and will be recognized by the Committee Chairperson and allowed to speak after all Committee Members have spoken on the agenda item.

Guidelines for Participation by Residents, Sport and Fitness Members, and Non­Resident Participants of all CA Programs and Services at CA Board Committee Meetings

  1. In accordance with CA’s policy on resident speakout at Board committee meetings, Residents, Sport and Fitness Facilit y Members, and Non­Resident participants of all CA programs and services are welcome to share their input relative to specific items on a committee’s meeting agenda. Any other individuals wishing to speak regarding specific agenda items must obtain approval in advance from the committee’s chairperson.
  2. All input from the above individuals will be confined to the “Resident Speakout” portion of the committee’s agenda, and input is limited to agenda items.
  3. All those “speaking out” may speak up to three minutes on each agenda item they wish to address (e.g. if someone wishes to address three different agenda items, they may speak up to three minutes on each, a total of nine minutes).
  4. All those “speaking out” are encouraged to summarize their comments in writing.

I must emphasize that these policies and guidelines are drafts (and I am not really sure how CA differentiates between a guideline and a policy), and are subject to change. However, keep in mind that if the Board Operations Committee members do not hear from people on Tuesday, and the drafted policies and guidelines are passed to the board, the ability of people to contribute to the Columbia Association discussion will most likely be diminished.

The End of Co Fo Co Do

Last week I was approached by a gentleman for whom I have high regard. I do not know if he would want me to publish his name in this format, so I will refer to him as “Guilford Downs.” Anyway, Guilford told me that he was not pleased with my referring to the Coalition for Columbia’s Downtown as Co Fo Co Do. I believe the word he used was “juvenile.” I replied that the nickname was not meant to be taken as a derogatory term, just merely a truncation.

In addition, I believe Coalition member Alan Klein had (in his own, wry way) expressed displeasure with the nickname. He had remarked that Coalition for Columbia’s Downtown is a mouthful. I also contend that it is not that easy to type.

After much thought and reflection, I have seen their point. I personally will no longer refer to the Coalition for Columbia’s Downtown as Co Fo Co Do on this blog. Guilford and Alan, thank you for the valuable feedback.

11 December 2006

Alternate View of the Charrette

Since mid-October, the Co Fo Co Do noise machine has been pushing their agenda, and I think it is time to start discussing alternative points of view. To be certain, their message discipline must be admired. I think we can all at least stumble through their mantra…Ken Ulman endorsed a similar plan…values from the first day of the Charrette…14 floor limit (with mandatory 20% green space allotment)…1600 residential units…etc.

Having read the Co Fo Co Do Executive Summary, the overall impression I get is that if downtown Columbia development were like a wish list for purchasing a car, Co Fo Co Do seems to want a car that gets the gas mileage of a Toyota Prius, the performance of a Dodge Magnum (with the SRT-6.1L Hemi engine), the people carrying capacity of a school bus, and the load hauling capacity of a Ford F-150 truck. This would of course be the ideal vehicle, but it does not exist.

Today, I would like to focus on the Charrette. Since the Charrette ended, there have been (for the most part) two groups talking about the Charrette: candidates for Howard County elected office (some won, some lost), and the folks at Co Fo Co Do.

Co Fo Co Do states in their Executive Summary:

On Saturday, October 15, 2005, a group of over 300 community members participated in the first day of a week-long Charrette process to discuss their needs, hopes, and dreams for the completion of Columbia’s Downtown. Their initial excitement and optimism were tempered, however, when it became clear that much of the citizens’ input was dismissed or ignored by County officials. Attention was instead steered into a plan many saw as pre-determined by the Charrette organizers. Participants who were without ties to the development community began to drop out. Not surprisingly, the plan that eventually emerged differed significantly from that envisioned by the original 300+ citizens on October 15th.

I find this description problematic on many levels. Yes, on a warm October afternoon, more than 300 people gathered at Wilde Lake High School. Many ideas were put forward, and a schedule for three more meetings was clearly communicated.

What I believe happened after that initial meeting differs dramatically from the Co Fo Co Do version. Rather than a conspiracy of pre-determined outcomes, I believe the folks running the Charrette looked at what people wanted, and tried their best to incorporate everything. The final plans showed increased density, but also more green space, and more public sculpture and art. Most of the problems with the Charrette outcome was in the conflicts between desires. An example would be that (in my opinion) most groups expressed a desire for more mass transit. One does not have to look very hard to determine that for mass transit (and funding for mass transit from the state and federal governments), medium to high density residency is required, and that is what subsequent Charrette plan reflected. Low density development does not allow for mass transit.

Said another way, you can’t tow a boat with a Prius, you are going to need a truck. It is my hope that Co Fo Co Do can come forward with an alternate funding program such that mass transit can be part of downtown Columbia. Otherwise, I would hope that they would reconsider their downtown density position; or in a worst case scenario, embrace low density as a priority and renounce mass transit.

As for citizens dropping out because of disenchantment, I would like to know where Co Fo Co Do found that data. I was at all four meetings, and I can say with certainty that the second meeting (which I like to call “open mike” night) was filled with people speaking out against the plan, including a passion-filled Barbara Russell (a Co Fo Co Do member) stating that amenities should be put in before other construction begins. During the third meeting (“break up in small groups” night), I was in a group with at least three people that became members of Co Fo Co Do. It seems to me that there were plenty people from all sides at all of the meetings.

I also wanted to address the idea put forth by Co Fo Co Do that people became disenchanted and dropped out, and that the voices of those that dropped out should have their idea reconsidered. I could be wrong here, but it seems to me that Co Fo Co Do is coming pretty close to saying that people that contributed less should have their voices heard more. To test the validity of this, let’s turn the argument on its head: if there were a group of people (and I am not sure there is) that were for the Bethesdification of Columbia, should the process be stopped to incorporate their views?

In closing, I do not think the Charrette was perfect. It laid out a framework to incorporate a lot of conflicting ideas. It laid out a means to increase density such that mass transit would be possible. It increased the amount of green space in downtown. It advocated for more public statues and art. For all the admirable work, it still had problems. So maybe we need to start discussing the tradeoffs. Do you want Metro coming to downtown, or do you want to drive out of the city (and possibly out of the county) for mass transit?

07 December 2006

Urban Wow

Earlier this evening, I had the chance to check out some blogs in other areas that deal with urban planning, walkable communities, and downtown development. I urge all to check these out.

Living Urban Sac - A blog that looks at downtown Sacramento development. Very good stuff.

Living First - A great article from Vancouver (I believe the first Columbia Association president, John Slayton (Slayton House!) was from Vancouver) that talks about urban living and in my opinion, is in line with Columbia, though on a smaller scale. It is also of note that Vancouver has been designated one of the World's most livable cities.

LJ Urban - A developer (yes, a developer) with a fresh approach.

Now, to be clear, I do not want Columbia to be Sacramento or Vancouver, I want it to be Columbia. But as we struggle with downtown issues, here are two cities that have struggled and (based on your point of view) succeeded with providing a vibrant downtown experience for their citizens.

Check 'em out. Let me know what you think.

03 December 2006

Holiday Preparations

Since Metzler’s Nursery closed in Columbia, my family has been drifting with respect to where to buy a Christmas tree. For the last two years, we have been buying a tree at the Long Reach Village Center. I have found their selection to be quite good and got to talking to the folks selling the trees. They have been selling trees there for 18 years. So, in your opinion, and if you are so inclined, where are the best Christmas trees sold in the Columbia area?

01 December 2006

Visual Preference

Thumbing through the Washington Post this morning, I came across Steven Pearlstein’s business column, “Suburban Soul.” The column compares and contrasts Tysons Corner and Reston Town Center. Obviously, there is plenty to like and dislike about both areas.


Walking around Reston, you can't help but marvel at how well it's been done: The quality and variety of the architecture, the careful attention to creating public spaces and inviting streetscapes, the clever ways in which cars and roadways are integrated into the project, the density that's been achieved without sacrificing human scale.
And yet you can't shake the feeling that this is really a Potemkin village.

It's just too neat, too homogenized. The stores are all outlets of national chains. There are no churches, no schools, no liquor stores, no bums or graffiti. Reston Town Center lacks what architect and urban planner Alan Ward, who was involved in the center's planning, calls the "messy vitality of older towns and cities that grew over time like natural phenomena."

This is not a criticism so much as a statement of the obvious.

After all, what else would you expect from a "downtown" created out of nothing in less than 20 years?

Tysons Corner:

Suddenly, the suburban experience epitomized by Tysons had fallen out of favor -- not just with urban snobs who never liked office parks and enclosed malls but even with high-priced consultants and government contracting executives who, only years before, had boasted of the star chef at the Ritz-Carlton, the number of dot-com millionaires who could be found lunching at the Palm and the new Hermes store in Fairfax Square. At conferences and community meetings, Tysons was Exhibit A for everything that was wrong with the suburbs -- a traffic nightmare, aesthetically and environmentally offensive, a mistake to be rectified, a problem to be solved.


You can't help but feel, as you drive from Reston down the Dulles Toll Road and turn onto lovely Route 7 in Tysons Corner, that you've arrived at a place that is bigger, more dynamic, more real. Sure, Tysons is one traffic jam after another -- but when was the last time you tried to get across Midtown Manhattan? It's ugly, but so are some of the hippest neighborhoods in San Francisco. Like people in Chicago, people in Tysons don't amble or poke along -- they've got things to do.

And everywhere there is variety, ordered chaos and an urban-like intensity that puts you on edge.

In the end, Mr. Pearlstein wraps up with:

My point is that when talking about creating an "urban" experience in the suburbs or the exurbs, there is more to it than road grids, streetscapes and walkability. By those criteria, Tysons will never become a city in the way we think of Baltimore or Boston, even with a subway line running through it. To think otherwise is fantasy.

But that doesn't mean Tysons can't have the density and variety and energy normally associated with cities, or that its next incarnation can't include attractive and inviting neighborhoods that do a better job of mixing housing, retail space, offices and public amenities.

The challenge will be to find a way for people to get from one of these neighborhoods to another without a car. Some sort of circulator bus or trolley seems inevitable.

And, just as importantly, Fairfax County will have to become more aggressive in securing choice parcels of land in Tysons for public uses -- schools, parks, theaters, museums, churches. Landowners, developers and private-property vigilantes will howl, and the cost will be high. But these will represent better uses of public money (or money extracted from developers) than spending hundreds of millions of dollars to put the Metro underground.

Tysons vs. Reston? In the long run, there's no reason both can't succeed. But for the
real urban experience, I'll put my money on Tysons.

I believe that neither city is directly attributable to Columbia. That is, what was done in either case does not have a direct influence on what changes come to downtown Columbia. But there are some lessons to be learned here.

I strongly encourage comment on this article, but not so much on what was written. If you pick up the print edition of the Washington Post, there are two photos on page 1 of the Business section: one of Tysons Corner and one of Reston Town Center (I cannot find the Reston Town Center photos on the Washington Post website). Take a look at these two photos, and tell me which you think is a friendly, vibrant downtown.