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?


Hayduke said...


Great post. The tradeoff/wish-list-contradictions issue is something I've struggled with for a while. What's the best way to make the overarching point, which is: We can't have it all. Yes, we can ask a lot of GGP, but the more we ask of them, the more they ask of us. Yes, they stand to make a lot of money, but they also stand to spend (and risk) a lot. In short, where's the balance.

For the past month or so, I've tossed around the idea of creating a Town Center formula, an interactive, Excel-based tool that allows you to adjust certain factors (density, commercial square feet, building heights, etc) to see what level of public good you could expect from your development scenerio. Obviously, I haven't gotten very far with this idea -- and I'm not even sure it is possible to get very far -- but even just attempting to create such a tool, I think, would help us visualize these tricky relationships.

Anonymous said...

Great Post! Well put.


wordbones said...


Nice post.

I believe a certain backlash is building against the Co Fo Do Co's and the Barbara Russells. The Fair Play Columbia group(www.fairplaycolumbia.org) is yet another indicator that people are finding their voice in the town center debate.


Howard said...


I am saddened to say this post is blatantly false. This really isn’t up to your standard. You claim this increased density will make possible mass transit, but there is no provision in the plan to do so or who pays for it. You claim that the plan creates more green space, but I challenge you to say where this new green space is? You claim that the plan will result in more public statues and art, but there is no provisions in the plan to do so or who maintains such amenities. In reality you are falling into the trap of listening to the grand declarations, rather than actually reading the details. Stop imagining into the plan things that are not there and actually read it.

After you read the plan, you also need to seriously look at current market conditions. The nature of the profits to be made off of building downtown Columbia (or really any residential construction in Howard County) considering our location between Baltimore and Washington, our superb school system, etc. means that developers will build anything we say they can build. It is entirely up to the county residents through our elected officials to set these terms. The developers have already used up their residential unit allotment for Columbia, so they cannot build the only thing that is selling right now (office space for example is not selling). The notion that some seem to be pushing that we have to limit our terms to some randomly sized set of items that then is a zero sum forcing different desired to compete against each other is not only false on the face of it, even worse it plays into the developers hands by dividing the community and making different desires compete. Anyone who plays this game is undermining both their own self interest, but more importantly the communities self interest. If you disagree with this you have to prove to me that developers in this market would say they will not build. There just is to much money to be made for them not to build. That means we, the community, through our elected officials set these terms. And for the record, the Coalition for Columbia’s Downtown has consistently said they support the developers making a big profit. Where they draw the line is they say that the developers cannot push their costs onto the tax-payers (including lien-payers) of Howard County and Columbia and that the developers who with a stroke of a zoning change without a single foundation being laid will make an immense profit of at least $1 billion will need to contribute back to the community by building according to the terms that the community decides are in its interests and reflect the values of mixed income housing, preservation of green-space, and planning adequately so that infrastructure meets the communities needs.

And please don’t get me started on how wrong you are on the scale of density we need for mass transit. Go drive down Connecticut Ave in DC and count building heights around metro stations and tell me we need the scale of density you are claiming. The truth is that the traffic consultant said that we could not build even approaching the scale of density in the plan without mass transit unless we change the standards to accept failing intersections worth than Rockville.

Bill, I really wish you had studied this plan as much as I have and sat through all those Focus Group meetings because I honestly think you would be as concerned as I am about the complete disconnect between the grand declarations and the substance of what the plan actually says and does. Watch out for being sold a bill of goods and start checking the details.

This is Evan by the way. Blogger is being funky and only letting me post via my google account.

wordbones said...

"the only thing that is selling right now (office space for example is not selling)"

You are dead wrong on this point. Prices for office buildings reached record highs in 2006 in Columbia.

There are approximately 500,000 square feet of office space projects in various stages of development in Columbia, with at least half of those projects already moving dirt. All indications are that this number will only increase in 2007.

As far as developers giving back to the community, take a look at the sponsors for any community activities (festivals, fund raisers etc.) and you will see that the development community as whole gives more than than other business sector (technology, finance, health) in the county.


JD Smith said...

Re: the Prius, Dodge, Ford, bus (Pr Do Fo Bu?):

The truth is, there is enough technology and ingenuity to create such a vehicle right now. It hasn't been done, because there is no incentive to do it, and maybe because no one has the vision. Too much money is being made with things being the way they are. That-and the "it hasn't been done, therefore it can't be done"-mindset many of us (myself included) carry keeps it from happening.

Alan Klein said...

Well, Bi Sa makes some interesting points.

I can’t disagree with his overall impression of the “wish list”. This is exactly what visioning is supposed to produce. That said, it is incumbent on those who say that the wish list can’t be achieved to prove that it cannot. It is not incumbent on the community to prove that its wishes can be achieved.

The values and vision that the Coalition for Columbia’s Downtown (It is a mouthful, isn’t it? That’s why we call ourselves CCD or “the Coalition”.) come from those expressed by the 300+ folks who met on the first day of the Charrette, as well as those of Jim Rouse; indeed, the two sets of values and vision are highly compatible, as they are compatible with what Mr. Ulman offered before the election.

Anyway, from a negotiating standpoint, it makes much more sense to ask for what you are suggesting we are asking for than to ask for a Pinto. Clearly, tradeoffs will have to happen. CCD stands in a place of always being ready, on principle, to compromise, but never to compromise on principles. For us, the core principles are Jim Rouse’s: for Columbia to respect the land, be a complete city, be a place for people, and make a profit for those who take the risk to do development.

Alan Klein said...

WoBo says, "As far as developers giving back to the community, take a look at the sponsors for any community activities (festivals, fund raisers etc.) and you will see that the development community as whole gives more than than other business sector (technology, finance, health) in the county."

If paying for a booth at a festival is one's idea of the level that developers need to give back to the community for the mega-bucks they earn, then we have serious differences in our expectations!

Hayduke said...

If you disagree with this you have to prove to me that developers in this market would say they will not build. There just is to much money to be made for them not to build.

If the choices GGP is given are 1600 units of residential with overly-onerous restrictions and demands or commerical space it is already entitled to (absent any changes to New Town Zoning), I would say that they'd probably choose the latter. Remember, the PB366 case -- the one calling for commercial, big-boxish development on the Crescent -- is still open. And I would say its a good bet tat if GGP doesn't buy into the master plan, they would challenge it in court. Whether they would win, I can't say for sure, but it certainly seems like they'd have a reasonable chance.

In a more abstract sense, what your saying troubles me. You've taken the position that we -- the citizens -- have the sole right to dictate exactly what development in TC looks like, that GGP is merely means to our own ends. Not only does this perpetuate divisivness when we should seek cooperation but it also presents the false scenerio that we have a limitless ability to require proffers. It's not a zero sum situation, but we do need to recognize the inherent trade offs in Town Center development and prioritize accordingly.

I completely agree that the costs imposed by new development should not be bourne by the existing community. Keep in mind, however, that as these costs add up, profit goes down.

(Cross posted at Evan's blog and mine.)

B. Santos said...


Bi Sa. I get it. I love it. Well done.

Bi Sa

Hayduke said...

That said, it is incumbent on those who say that the wish list can’t be achieved to prove that it cannot. It is not incumbent on the community to prove that its wishes can be achieved.

With a little more than 1,000 existing units and a proposal supported by CCD to limit additional to 1,600, we're looking at just north of 2,600 units on the 570 or so acres of Town Center. That's a density of about 4.6 units per acre. In order for transit to be viable, most agree that you need at least 7 units per acre (here's a simple google search that turns up some references).

So, where would you compromise? Would you rather see no mass transit (or horribly ineffective mass transit akin to what we have now) or more than 1,600 units?

Also, a principle of Columbia is housing should be available for all who work here. And in case you haven't seen it, a recent report just indicated that we are short on affordable housing to the tune of 20,000 units. Yet, instead of allowing more density and creating more housing for more people, you're group wants to drastically limit the total number of families and county workers who can live here.

It's a matter of priorities. You can say you want it all, but at some point the bill comes due. Rather than ignoring the fact that -- at some point -- we're going to have to acquiesce on some of our demands, we should be up front about the costs, benefits and trade offs of this situation. It makes for better, more informed dialogue.

(Sorry if there are spelling/grammar issues. I have no time to proofread.)

wordbones said...


"If paying for a booth at a festival is one's idea of the level that developers need to give back to the community for the mega-bucks they earn, then we have serious differences in our expectations!"

You should not trivialize this point. The level of support for this community from the developers is far greater than a "booth at a festival." Just one recent example: This year, Earl Arminger of Orchard Development made a $2 million dollar gift to The Columbia Foundation. That's no small potatoes!

And that is just one developer. The development communities record of giving stands on its own. Ask any of our community organizations and you will find that out.

And public art?


Name one piece of public art in Columbia that wasn't commissioned by a developer.

Alan Klein said...


I certainly accept the notion that trade-offs will have to be made...down the road. Just ask Tim Sosinski, our resident expert on horse trading. However, one doesn't begin a trade by acceding to the other person's numbers and conclusions. If GGP is willing, as Tim has suggested, to open its books and let us truly have an open, collaborative process, I am all for it!

Alan Klein said...


I was not the one who trivialized the developer contribution to the community issue. It was you who referred to festivals and fund raisers. If you had led with a two million dollar contribution to CF, on whose board my mother used to serve, I would not have had the response I did.

Anonymous said...

Ok, time for a little deeper analysis of transit's affordability. Hayduke's quoting multiple sources saying 7 residences per acre is the break even point for being able to support mass transit. Many assumptions go into that 7 residences per acre number. I believe a much lower number of residences per acre can support some forms of mass transit.

The break even point depends on:
1. cost to construct (which depends on type of mass transit),
2. cost to operate (which depends on type of mass transit),
3. percent of commuters who choose to use mass transit (which depends on
- how bad auto traffic gets,
- how much gas costs,
- how conscientious we become about the environment,
- how convenient it is,
- how safe it is,
- how accessible it is,
- how affordable it is, the last four attributes depending on the type of mass transit.

There's nine assumptions right there.

Looking at many of the sources linked for that seven homes per acre breakeven density figure, they reference "Pedestrian- and Transit-Friendly Design", 1999, Reid Ewing, published by APA. It says "The old rule of thumb is that seven units per
acre are required to support basic bus service." Old rule of thumb? That hardly sounds authoritative. Where's the supporting data?

Somewhat telling are some of that document's footnotes, citing rather old publications such as "H.S. Levinson and F.H. Wynn, Effects of Density on
Urban Transportation Requirements, Highway Research Record 2, 1963". Economics of transportation have certainly changed since then.

Give me mass transit transportation that:
- is more convenient than a car,
- costs less to use for commuting than a car,
- travels faster than a car,
- doesn't make me wait for it,
- doesn't make me wait at every intermediate stop, traveling nonstop to my individual destination,
- is close enough that I'll walk to a station,
- doesn't cost an arm and a leg to build, allowing breakeven deployment even in non-high density areas,
- doesn't cost an arm and a leg to operate,
- runs around the clock, not just during parts of the day,
- is quiet,
- is clean,
- saves energy,
- pollutes less than cars,
- doesn't require swaths of land to be cleared and fenced off,
- allows me to relax while I ride,
- is safe to walk to,
- is safer than a car to ride,
- provides the same privacy as a car.

With such a system, you'll see a higher percentage of commuters opting for that system instead of cars and you'll see lower costs to build and operate. That will yield a system that should easily break even for less than 7 residences per acre.

So, I believe it could be possible for Columbia (currently 2 residences per acre for the entire Columbia) to afford such a system even without any additional residential density increase in Town Center.

As far as transportation goes, the 'PrDoFoBu' is possible. And we better hurry up or else Santa can kiss his workshop goodbye.

Revisit your assumptions on being able to achieve the Coalition's other goals. PrDoFoBu is possible for those, too. Keep in mind only 1/3 of 1% of Columbia's population attended the Charette. Innovative solutions can be found.