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?