30 September 2006

Saturday in the Park

I will be offline until Sunday evening. With HoCoMD blog doing good things, it looks like some of the HoCo Blogworld is taking a bit of a rest. Evan, Hayduke, and Hedgehog, keep em entertained!

It is my hope to get some content on Sunday and Monday. Here is a preview:

I have a traffic bug these days, so bear with me on the subject. A few thoughts and perspective on the CA Board of Directors (we only comment because we love!), and where (in my opinion) can you get the best burrito in town (hint, it's near Dobbin Road, and has its origin in Oakland Mills).

Anyway, have a great weekend, and help me out with the poll over there on the right.

28 September 2006

Make your vote count!

Over there on the right is a weekly poll I will start to feature. Most polls will be up for one week, but because I am new to this, the first poll will stay up until October 8, 2006. A new poll will then be posted and will stay up for a week. Please participate, and provide comments on format (font size, background color, etc)


27 September 2006

Pointers and Comment

I had a few quick thoughts on a variety of issues today. First off, double-props to HoCo Hayduke for his posts on Merriweather and Tot Lot litter patrol. Evan at HoCo Blog also briefly weighs in on the subject.

As a person that has experienced Columbia through the eyes of a young boy, through adulthood and now mid-life, I can say that I have seen probably every use and misuse (alternative use?) of tot lots. Yes, Hayduke goes over the top on the issue, but the cynicism represents a real yearning for engagement of idle youth. This story isn’t new to Columbia and I think it has gotten worse.

For example, as a teenager in 1982, I could meet friends or take a date to the movies in Town Center. After the movie, we could walk the lakefront, take a paddleboat ride, or have a coke and eat fried zucchini at outdoor Clyde’s with a view of the lake. Today, teens can still go the movies in Town Center. However, after the movie, kids have little choice of activities. The lakefront is not accessible from the movie theatre. There are no paddle boats. The closest restaurant to the movie theatre is the Cheesecake Factory (most likely reservations required). This is not a dig against the Cheesecake Factory, I understand they have good food. So after teens have gone to the movies, they have to use their own creativity for spending time. Unfortunately, some resort to alcohol and we wind up with the tot lot trash problem. This is only one scenario; there are many others.

What I’m trying to illustrate here is that there needs to be some programming of space to include teens. I’m sure during contract negotiations for the restaurant site adjacent to the movies, somebody must have thought, “Cheesecake Factory, now there’s a place that teens can enjoy as part of their night out at the movies,” or was another demographic the target patrons for such an establishment?

I am also intrigued the following passage:

The Howard County Police Department does not collect information about
playgrounds if they do not have a formal address, Howard County Police
Department spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn said.
Although the Columbia tot lots (playgrounds) do not have an official address, each playground has a special 3 alphanumeric designation that the county recognizes. This was set up such that if an emergency happened at a tot lot, a resident could call 911 and report the incident at tot lot OM2 and services could respond without having to go through the long description of “the tot lot is behind Stevens Forest Pool and at the end of Pamplona Drive and Bull Ring Lane.” So if the tot lot location is in the system, could it not be used to track information?

Equally disturbing are the comments of neighbors:
The playground at the corner of Gray Rock Drive and Fragile Sail Way is bordered
by a wooded area, and neighbors say teens loitering there at night are a
nuisance, the letter states.

I believe we should all be careful not to label people. Teens do not become a nuisance until the community ignores them enough to become a nuisance. For example, does the Dorsey’s Search Village Board have a teen rep position? Such a position would allow insight into teen/adolescent condition in Dorsey’s Search before problems arise.

In other news, the NASA Mars Rover Opportunity is about to close in on Victoria Crater . This will be a huge event for other-world exploration and geology (exo-geology?). Check in and check it out.

Circling back to Merriweather, the article in today’s Baltimore Examiner has a pretty misleading headline “Pavilion’s future in jeopardy” Since the Examiner started showing up on my driveway every morning (without my consent) I have certainly noticed the headline writer has a certain ability to get my attention. In my opinion, the headline contradicts what is actually written in the story. I understand the need to draw people in to the story, but the sensational headline may have misled those who did not have time to read the story.

26 September 2006

Governor Warfield Pkwy – Myth and Reality

Notice: Full Disclosure

The possible fate of Governor Warfield Parkway came up as an issue last spring when I ran for the Wilde Lake Columbia Council Representative position. Although the issue never came up at the candidates forum, and I was never asked
by any residents I talked to during the campaign season, fliers were circulated throughout Wilde Lake stating “If Phil Kirsch [my opponent] is not elected to the Columbia Council, there goes Governor Warfield Parkway.” In addition, I was confronted by two former Howard County Council members (that own property in Wilde Lake) about the issue. I do not believe the fate of Governor Warfield Parkway was the deciding issue in the election, but I wanted you, the reader, to have full awareness of my involvement in the issue. It is my intent that the majority of this post is fact based and will provide greater understanding. However, as this is a blog, the concluding paragraphs will delve into opinion.

As the discussion of downtown Columbia development has evolved, the fate of the Governor Warfield Parkway median strip has been a persistent concern. Some have voiced concern that as development progresses, the median strip will be paved over to accommodate increased traffic.


January 2006

The first concern that I heard about the Governor Warfield Parkway median strip was in January 2006. A Wilde Lake community activist attended a meeting regarding downtown development and asked if there were any plans to widen Governor Warfield Parkway. When told that there were no plans to widen the parkway, she came to the conclusion that the median strip was endangered because if the road was not widened, additional lanes must be placed in the median strip.

March 2006

The issue of Governor Warfield Parkway came up again as part of the Wilde Lake Columbia Council Representative Elections, as stated above.

June 2006

In June 2006, the Glatting-Jackson (PDF file) traffic study was made public. Contained in the report was some interesting data with respect to Governor Warfield Parkway. The piece of data which caused the most stir was the assertion that the Governor Warfield Parkway/Little Patuxent Parkway intersection has no additional capacity for future development. What was not widely reported is on page 4 of the traffic study. It states that if the entire Charrette Master Plan were constructed, traffic flow at all the other intersections on Governor Warfield Parkway would be in compliance with the current Howard County traffic standards. That is not to say traffic at these intersections would remain constant, it would certainly increase; but the traffic levels experienced would not exceed the Howard County threshold of “level of service” (LOS) ‘D.’

A second piece of Governor Warfield Parkway data from the report is a bit more subtle. The Glatting-Jackson report is based on a traffic survey and report commissioned by General Growth Properties (GGP), and is located on their downtown Columbia website. This report, prepared by Wells & Associates (August 12, 2005), provides this interesting piece of information regarding Governor Warfield Parkway:
Little Patuxent Parkway and Governor Warfield Parkway in the Town Center are classified by Howard County as a constrained road facility due to their “unique urban setting”, in accordance with Howard County Council Resolution 21, dated January 6, 1992, adopted February 3, 1992. Capacity-enhancing improvements should be provided only to the extent that they will not negatively affect the physical or right-of-way characteristics, pedestrian movements, and other considerations not related to traffic movement that have caused these roadways to be designated as constrained facilities. No roadway improvements would, therefore, be appropriate at the intersections of Little Patuxent Parkway with Governor Warfield Parkway North and Broken Land Parkway.

The constraint placed on Governor Warfield Parkway and Little Patuxent Parkway is mentioned no fewer than five times in the Wells & Associates report, and the above citation is listed as a conclusion to the report (page 25).

August 2006

During the Kahler Hall County Executive/District 4 Candidates Forum, a question asked by the Harper’s Choice Village Board stated “Would you support designating Governor Warfield Parkway as a scenic road?” All candidates at the forum supported the idea.

Good Intentions, Bad Idea

So, does it make good sense to make Governor Warfield Parkway a scenic road? Regrettably, the answer is no. The intention is honorable, but the execution is problematic and the result could lead to the exact opposite of what is intended. Let’s jump into specifics.

The process for designating a scenic road can be found in the Howard County Code. (Title 16, Subtitle 14)

Governor Warfield Parkway does not meet the definition of a scenic road. Section 16.1402(a) of the Howard County Code lists the following criteria as the definition of a scenic road:
Sec. 16.1402. Characteristics of scenic roads.

(a) Definition. Scenic roads are public roads in the county which have one or more of the following characteristics:

  1. Pass through an area of outstanding natural environmental features providing views of scenic elements such as forests, steep topography, and stream or river valleys;
  2. Provide outstanding views of rural, agricultural landscapes including scenic elements such as panoramic or distant views, cropland, pastures, fields, streams, ponds, hedgerows, stone or wooden fences, farm buildings and farmsteads;
  3. Follow historic road alignments and provide views of historic resources; or
  4. A large proportion of the road provides frontage for properties that are in a historic district or subject to perpetual or long-term agricultural, environmental or historic easements.

Unless the median strip on Governor Warfield Parkway can meet the legal definition of ‘forest,’ the criteria cannot be applied. For reference, Merriam-Webster defines a forest as follows:
  • a dense growth of trees and underbrush covering a large tract [of land]

The median strip on Governor Warfield Parkway is certainly not dense, even with leaves on the trees and bushes, it is quite easy to see through the trees to the other side. Moreover, the area of land is (by my estimation) less than an acre in area.

The scenic road criteria are important because Howard County Code, Section 16.1403(b) states that in order for a road to be designated as a scenic road, it must meet one of the four criteria of the definition in Section 16.1402(a).
Sec. 16.1403. Scenic roads inventory.

(b) Road Must Meet Definition. The county council may include a road or road segment in the scenic roads inventory if it finds that the road has one or more of the characteristics listed in section 16.1402(a) above.

A scenic road designation is intended to protect the view from the road, not the road itself. As stated in Section 16.1404(c), “Scenic roads are subject to the requirements of the adequate public facilities ordinance (title 16, subtitle 11),” and “To limit alterations to an intersection involving a scenic road under the provisions of the adequate public facilities ordinance, such an intersection may be designated a “constrained road facility” [emphasis mine] by the county council in accordance with sections 16.1101(f)(4) and 16.1110(e) of this Code”

Therefore, to protect a road (as opposed to the scenic view) from further development, the Howard County Code states that the road should be designated a constrained road facility. In the case of Governor Warfield Parkway, it was designated “constrained” almost 15 years ago. Therefore, this 1992 resolution should be publicized and enforced.


I chose to highlight the Governor Warfield Parkway situation for one reason: Concerned residents that perform leaps in logic without the necessary research of the facts can cause a situation to get out of hand. We are now at a point where the Howard County Council may consider introducing legislation to designate a road “scenic” even though the road does not meet the definition of scenic. Moreover, had anyone (including myself) done the research, we would have all come to the conclusion that as a constrained road, Governor Warfield Parkway was not in danger. Instead, we have wasted time, energy, passion, and other resources fanning the flames of fiction, when we could have better applied these resources to doing good.

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

20 September 2006


I am probably not going to make any new friends tonight, but in my opinion, it has come time to speak out. The source of my angst is an article that appeared in the Baltimore Sun Howard section. The article recounted the Howard County Council meeting of September 18, 2006.

One of the items discussed at the County Council meeting was the Merdon tax cut plan for senior residents over 70 years old. I really have no problem with the tax cut per se, but the rhetoric has gotten to the point that red flags should be waving.

With respect to tax cuts the following passage appears in the article:

Others argued that keeping longtime residents at home would help the school system and reduce the bill's cost by delaying younger families with children from buying the homes.
Outrage. Pure Outrage. In this county that saw the birth of Columbia and a subsequent welcoming of all no matter economic, racial, social or religious status, people are openly expressing a desire to prohibit (at least temporarily) young people from moving into the county. Heaven forbid that these young people breed and have children. It appears that some find that an even greater offense. Discrimination and ageism are ugly faces, even if they have grandchildren.

Where are my good friends that evoke the name of James Rouse when building heights are discussed? Would James Rouse have an opinion on raising a family in Howard County? Would he find building height a prominent point of discussion but be mute on the subject of ageism?

I bit my cheeks as long as I could when we started changing our environment to better suit seniors over others. I turned my head when people started talking about seniors being a benefit when compared to other citizens because they used less government services. Now that people are openly looking to discriminate against youth, I can’t stand for it any longer.

So pursue your tax cut, take what you can, but remember, it is my generation (and those generations that follow) that will be serving you food at restaurants, running the power plants to keep the lights on, attending to your health needs, and patrolling your streets. Keep in mind that without a place to live (because families with children are delayed from buying homes), the “full freight” tax base in this county may start to diminish, and when that happens we can all look to Pennsylvania.

By U.S. Census data, Pennsylvania is one of the “oldest” states in the country. That is, it has one of the highest median ages. Research (here and here) has shown that one of the causes for this is the demise of the mining and steel industries. When those industries collapsed, almost an entire generation left the area to find work to support families. Some areas of Pennsylvania are actively writing letters to high school graduates from the region, asking them to come back and revitalize their towns.

Depending on the zeal at which this “families last” rhetoric continues, Columbia and Ellicott City will become service class and creative class Allentowns. And the sad thing is that the cause will not be the economic conditions of industries, it will be by choice.

Now at the age of 40, I cannot realistically hang my hat on the mantle of youth any longer. I believe I am here for the long haul. I suppose if this vitriol continues and the citizens embrace the idea that families with children should be held at bay, I can only oppose the idea as long as I have strength.

At that point I will probably become much like the mysterious Once-ler, living in the part of town where the grickle-grass grows.


19 September 2006

Green Infrastructure

Just a quick shout out for my fellow blogger Hayduke. He will be at the Howard County Tomorrow meeting tonight at the Lakeside Coffee Shop. He will be discussing green infrastructure and I am sure it will be both entertaining and informative. Please stop by, have a cup ‘o joe, and enjoy.

18 September 2006

...With a Little Help from Their Friends

In my inaugural post here I mentioned that occasionally I would speak to the issue of Columbia Association Governance. As with all boards (both for profit and non profit), the rules under which the board conducts itself must be periodically reviewed and updated. The Columbia Association looked at its governance process in 2000 and in a more limited scope in 2004.

Since then, the Columbia Association Board of Directors has reorganized into a small group of committees and meets only once a month as the full Board of Directors.

It is clearly too early to tell if this will bring about greater efficiency, more public input, or greater accountability to the lien holders of Columbia; however, my initial impression is that it may have some merit.
Back in June of this year, I proposed to the Columbia Association Board of Directors that they allow for a yearly peer review of board operations. I did not think of this on my own. I was googling the word “Citizenship” (and that is the subject for a whole other post) and about the seventh result on the first page was the General Electric Company governance website. Being curious, I clicked on the link and started to read the governance procedures of one of the largest corporations on the Earth. Most of their stuff is boilerplate responsibility of stockholders and such, and then I came across item number 9, which states:
9. Self-Evaluation
 As described more fully in the key practices of the nominating and corporate governance committee, the board and each of the committees will perform an annual self-evaluation. Each November, each director will provide to an independent governance expert his or her assessment of the effectiveness of the board and its committees, as well as director performance and board dynamics. The individual assessments will be organized and summarized by this independent governance expert for discussion with the board and the committees in December.

It seemed to me that this would be an effective tool for the Columbia Association Board of Directors to incorporate into their own governance structure. Granted, there are few similarities between GE and CA, so some adjustments must be made. Rather than a “governance expert,” I would suggest that the CA Board members would submit their assessment of board effectiveness, dynamics, and director (and executive staff) performance to a convened panel of the Columbia Village Board Chairs. These folks are leaders within their own Villages and have a good understanding of board governance issues.

The committee of Village Board Chairs could then interview each CA Board member and submit a report detailing the results. The focus of the report would be, in effect, to hold a mirror up to the CA Board of Directors. Of course, after the report is submitted to the board, it should be made public to allow the residents of Columbia a chance to see how the board is doing.
I would also assume the report would make recommendations based on their interviews and would also perform some tracking of past reports to identify best practices and chronic problems. The end result would be a board that had better information about how it is doing, and could continually improve.

The Nile of Columbia

As the debate about redeveloping Columbia continues to churn, I believe there are some changes taking shape that are of cataclysmic, plate-tectonic proportions, and it has nothing to do with downtown. At the epicenter of this change is Tamar Drive. I believe this road is the longest residential street in Columbia, making it our Nile River. Upon this street, you will find the greatest application of the “new” Columbia street signs. These signs are not the same “fat rectangle” variety that is seen on most Columbia street corners; they are skinny rectangles mounted on metal poles and rob the street (and by extension, Columbia) of one of its most identifiable symbols. Howard County officials have stated that the new street signs provide better visibility and are essential for senior citizens navigating our street system. It seems to me that seniors during the last century navigated Columbian streets without much help.

What this reminds me of is the horizontal, flat-faced traffic lights that we used to have at the corner of South Entrance Road and Little Patuxent Parkway. The quirkiness of those lights kind of added a charm to Columbia. I believe they were removed because of concerns that color-blind individuals would become confused by the traffic lights and cause accidents. They are long gone, but every time I travel somewhere else and see the exact same traffic lights (most notably at the Houston Intercontinental Airport), I think to myself, “Why did we let this go?”

The systematic replacement of street signs may not be enough to raise the ire of a population craving to stay true to the “Rouse Vision,” but more recent developments along Tamar drive should (but to date have not) bring every Columbia Pioneer out. An item in the Long Reach Village Board Newsletter (http://www.longreach.org/newsletter.html) reports that the Howard County Board of Education and the St. John’s Baptist Church of Columbia are in the process of swapping parcels of land. The 10 acre parcel of land the church is interested in is in Locust Park, adjacent to Jim and Patty Rouse Parkway. The church has expressed interest in building on the site.

To be clear, let me state that I believe more places of worship in Columbia to be essential to our cultural and spiritual diversity. However, since this community was founded, it has always been the expressed ideal that we as a community would practice our religious faith in an interfaith manner. The construction of a religious facility with the intent of excluding other religions is a radical change from the founding principles of this community.

I understand that the interfaith concept is evolving. The older interfaith centers consist of a single building with participating faiths sharing space, and the newer interfaith centers are more of an “interfaith campus,” in that each faith has its own building on a collective site.

Is it possible that the single faith use of property is evidence that the original interfaith idea has run its course, just like the “fat rectangle blue street signs?” It is my hope that those who rail against downtown traffic and invoke Jim Rouse when talking about parkway median strips and street construction adjacent to existing sculpture would at least be willing to stand up and debate the issue. This is Columbian vision straight out of the work group that started the whole New Town experiment. Is the interfaith concept dead?

Limited Vision?

Much has been made recently about building height in downtown Columbia. The Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning has recently recommended that the downtown building height limit be restricted to 14 stories. A recent question of the week in the Baltimore Sun produced many responses and a variety of viewpoints. In my opinion, limiting downtown building height conscripts this town to a diminished vision of what could be. That being said, the 23-story Plaza condo building, currently being challenged in court, does not make sense.

Let’s first discuss the pros and cons of limiting building height. A smaller building will generate (comparatively) less traffic and allow more natural light to reach the street. I think everyone on earth (including me) is for less traffic and more natural light. But what is the tradeoff? Two articles in the Washington Post (here and here) provide insight into what a height restriction in the Nation’s Capital has cost. In summary, the costs are: mediocre architectural design, increased sprawl in the surrounding suburbs, less affordable housing, lowered vibrancy and diminished retail opportunities within the city.

Some within our community (including a few seeking election to the County Council) have cited Washington D.C., Paris, and London as examples. I believe this argument is false. Let us look beyond the romance and power of these cities and remember that all three are Capitals of their respective nations. In this unique status, large tax funds are utilized to construct parks, monuments, and other public good entities. Without this funding base (and the associated tourist dollars that follow), the monuments would never be constructed, and these cities would certainly succumb to pressures for taller buildings. It is interesting to note that these pressures are already afoot in Paris, France.
Paris is an interesting study with respect to height limitations. With the building height restrictions, gentrification has virtually taken over the city. There is very little affordable housing. In fact much of the workforce jobs in Paris are held by people that live in affordable housing skyscrapers in the suburbs.

Caution: although I have tried to search for a discussion of the large buildings in the Parisian suburbs described only in terms of planning, most information on the subject has been tied to the riots in these areas over the past year. It is not my intention to link the riots to the building height issue, but current literature available lumps the two issues together.
In response to the lack of affordable housing, Paris’ mayor has introduced legislation to increase the height limits in some sections of the city to alleviate this housing imbalance.

Instead of arbitrarily capping building height, I believe building height should be regulated. 12 to 14 stories should be a limit, but not an absolute limit. If a developer wanted to build beyond a 12-story height, there should be increasing qualifications as the height limit increases. One interesting idea that I have been advocating for almost a year comes from Ann Arbor, Michigan (pages 23-24). They too are redeveloping their downtown area, and have proposed that if a building is intended to be greater than 10 stories, all floors above the 4th floor should be set back 20 feet and all floors above the 10th floor should be set back an additional 20 feet. This configuration provides for a slender building profile and increases the amount of light at the street level. In addition, as the building is set back, the effect at the street level is less pronounced; there is not a wall of windows and brick extending to the sky. In addition to the setbacks, there are also additional criteria that must be met on a floor-by-floor level. That is, if the building employs green building technology, an additional floor (above the 10-story threshold) is allotted. If a larger than minimum affordable housing component is included in the building design more floors are made available. What you get in the end is the possibility of a taller building, but if the building is taller, the project must give back to the community (in the form of increased affordable housing, energy saving technology, etc).

Sidebar: It is interesting to note that over the summer a group opposing to the building height scheme in Ann Arbor sought to limit building height to 4-stories. Check out the following link to a list serve discussing the issue. It is probably important to note that both Ann Arbor, Michigan and Boulder, Colorado are approximately the same size as Columbia, Maryland.
Building (no pun intended) on the Ann Arbor height regulation mentioned above, another component could include transportation demand management. This is employed extensively in the city of Victoria, BC, and could be employed here. (and by the way, take a while to explore the link, there is a lot of there, there) Victoria has performed studies and determined that if certain features are incorporated into building design, the traffic impact that the building has on the surrounding area can be reduced. Some of these ideas are grand in scale, such as including a bus station into the building. Some of the ideas are quite small, but have some impact, such as providing lockers and showers for business tenants to increase bicycle ridership. Each idea is assigned a coefficient as to how much it would reduce traffic. This could be incorporated into tall building design in Columbia such that if the building is greater than 12-stories, the building must have design features incorporated such that the traffic impact is mitigated by some percent for each additional floor. In closing, I believe that an arbitrary height restriction in downtown Columbia will result in less traffic than originally proposed and will let more light into downtown, but at a cost of less affordable housing, decreased vibrancy, and more sprawl, it is not a good deal. I believe that regulating height will provide downtown with the ability to evolve over time and will in the end give back to the community. It will prevent structures such as the Plaza from being built and also allow for the growth necessary to make downtown Columbia a destination place for downtown residents, residents of Columbia, and people throughout the region.

13 September 2006

Chord Play

One of the problems I have found with the downtown Columbia issue is the fact that the project lacks resonance. As an engineer, I tend to learn towards the technical definition of resonance; that is, when the driving frequency of a system matches the natural frequency of the system, an increase in amplitude is achieved. Resonance can be destructive, such as the famous Tacoma Narrow Bridge destruction or it can be pleasant, like the note emitted when running your finger around the lip of a crystal glass with water in it (think Michael Douglas in “The War of the Roses” or Sandra Bullock in “Miss Congeniality”).

With respect to Columbia, one the things this town had in the 1970’s (and arguably the 1980’s) was resonance. This makes quite a bit of sense in that those who first moved here, those that first bought homes in the Next American City, self-selected to live here. Said in my pragmatic engineering terms, the natural frequency of the pioneers (generally (and, I must admit, poorly) defined in this analogy as “sense of place” or “enjoyment of surroundings”) matched the driving frequency (development) of Columbia.

People that have moved here in the last 20 years appear to have a different natural frequency. I believe this is in part because (as stated in the Baltimore Metropolitan Council Regional Economic Indicators 2006):

“The remarkable household growth in Howard County is attributed to a number of attractions. The public school system is regarded as one of the best in the state. State and interstate roadway facilities are well planned and in excellent condition. New housing, though expensive, is diverse and available. A variety of upscale retail and commercial activity centers are conveniently accessible. The county is a short drive from the major employment centers that drive the Washington-Baltimore-Northern Virginia Combined Statistical Area (CSA).”

CAUTON: A quick aside:

That is not to say pioneers are better or worse than newcomers (or vice-versa), it is just to state that the two groups are different. Now, back to the story…

So the question remains: “How do you make a system resonate if it has multiple natural frequencies?” More specifically, “What is the appropriate driving frequency (development)?” From an engineering standpoint, it is possible, but it involves differential calculus. However, a more practical solution exists: Going back to my crystal glass analogy, if we take to glasses of water with two different natural frequencies, we can adjust the water level such that when each glass resonates, the notes emitted combine to form a chord. So with respect to downtown development, let’s stop looking for the right note, and find the right chord.

Kumbaya anyone?

08 September 2006

I must confess, I could use some rest.

I was going to post something that I am upset about in Long Reach, but I just can't do it. I am sure I will get to it soon enough, but in reviewing my rather lenghy (sorry about that folks) post from last night, I just can't be negative tonight. I wanted to be a little sunshiny. I will close with a link to one of my favorite essays about Columbia. It was written by Michael Chabon for Architectural Digest magazine in 2001. It really speaks to what being a pioneer-child was like in the late '60's and early '70's. It is absolutely what I experienced. I hope some of you that have been around a while remember the map with blue lines.

Have a great night everybody...

07 September 2006

The Beginning of the End

Last Tuesday, the Wilde Lake Village Board meeting was attended by an estimated 40-50 people. Those in attendance expressed views and concerns related to the Giant closing in the Wilde Lake Village Center. I believe the Wilde Lake Village Board moderated the discussion well, listened, and asked good follow-up questions.

In my opinion, it appeared that two themes emerged from the evening:
  1. a short term solution must be found for those who live in Wilde Lake and do not have cars. Some suggestions included scheduled bus service from Wilde Lake to either Harper's Choice or Dorseys Search, an arrangement with a food delivery service like Peapod for the community, or a co-op willing to fulfill a short term (approximately 18 month) lease.
  2. Find a grocery store that will locate in the Giant space. There was some difference of opinion as to what size the grocery store should be, but most expressed a desire for specifically a grocery store.

For me, the entire discussion boils down to a balance between two things: historical preservation and reconfiguration. What follows below is my thoughts on the issue.


Before any true discussion of the Wilde Lake Village Center can occur, it is important that all concerned parties understand that the property that most casual observers would consider as the village center is actually owned by more than one entity. The major property owner on the Wilde Lake Village Center site is Kimco. They own the Shoppes at Lynx Lane (from Produce Galore to David’s Natural Foods, including the Great Clips, UPS Store, and Hunan Family), the Grocery store pad (site of the former Giant Food), and the shops on the West end of the Wilde Lake Village Green (Melting Pot, Bagel Bin, Feet First, Today’s Catch, etc…). The Crown gas station and KFC are individually owned by separate entities. Columbia Association owns the property to the South and East (the Family Services Center, Slayton House, the Wilde Lake Village Green, Columbia Swim Center, and Wilde Lake Tennis Courts).

As far as I understand the situation, the Giant Food grocery store has remained in Wilde Lake for so long because the terms of their lease were based on the original lease signed back in the 1960’s. The lease has had multiple renewals/extensions written into the original lease. The building as it stands is the smallest Giant Food store in the entire company’s (Ahold) lease holdings (not only the smallest store in the Giant Food chain, but also smaller than any Martins, Stop and Shop, Bi-Lo and other stores held by the food company). Although it is small, the store maintained a profit. The final option of the lease was to expire in October 2007.

Kimco, the property owner, lists the square footage of the Giant Food site as 23,716 square feet. This is less than ½ the size that most grocery stores require before they will sign a lease. Expansion of the existing building has proven problematic because current zoning requires parking spaces to be added to the property if the building is expanded and all currently available space for surface parking has been used.

Lastly, external pressure, primarily from the potential of a Wegmans in Howard County, has many grocery stores apprehensive about new ventures in the area.


In the search for a new grocer tenant at the Wilde Lake Village Center it is imperative that the community understand the boundaries within which future decisions are made. The Wilde Lake Village Center is the first village center constructed in Columbia. The buildings on the Wilde Lake Village Center site are some of the oldest buildings in Columbia. It is these characteristics that make the village center a highly visible candidate for historical designation and preservation.

Conversely, the Wilde Lake Village Center is an active commercial center that meets the daily needs of both local and regional residents. In today’s world, there are few privately owned historical sites that can meet the original intent of the site and maintain its historical integrity. In order to remain a competitive commercial center, change must occur based on the following:

  1. The grocery store site within the Wilde Lake Village Center is less than ½ the square footage than any current supermarket site.
  2. Any additional commercial square footage on the Wilde Lake Village Center site requires more parking to be placed on the site due to zoning regulations.
  3. There is no more surface parking space available on the Wilde Lake Village Center site. If additional square footage is added, one (or any combination) of the following must occur:
a. Howard County must provide a variance for the parking restrictions.
b. Some other building on the site must be razed to allow for more surface parking.
c. A parking garage must be built.
d. Underground parking must be built.

Moving Forward

So as we move forward, a balance must be reached between historical preservation and revitalization. In order to strike this balance, a few initial steps must be taken. The first step must be a top-to-bottom assessment of the entire property. The Wilde Lake Village Center is Columbia’s first Village Center. It is for this reason that the Village Center should be assessed for its historical value. It is vital that we as a community come to agreement on what aspects (architectural, cultural, social) should be preserved. This assessment must be communicated to Kimco and Howard County officials such that those elements which are defined as historical are maintained.

After defining what structures or features must be preserved, it must be understood that all other aspects of the property may undergo reconstruction to better suit the needs of a potential anchor grocery store. This may include additions to existing buildings, demolition and reconstruction of some structures, the loss or relocation (either temporary or permanent) of some commercial tenants, and the possibility of structured or underground parking. Although these changes will be disruptive, it is important to realize that if the goal is to have a grocery store in the Wilde Lake Village Center, some of the above will have to occur.

Better Together – Keeping Us All on the Same Page

As Columbia, the Wilde Lake community, the Howard County Government, and Kimco move forward on this issue, it is important that all parties work together to resolve the grocery store issue. There is a lot of goodwill and fondness for the village center on all sides, but at some point there must be an accommodation for both the practical and the desired. The installation of a new grocer cannot be accomplished in one step. As decisions are made, some feathers will be ruffled and advocates of some of the finer points may have to swallow some pride in order to achieve the goal of a grocery store in the Wilde Lake Village Center with the center’s historic aspects preserved. It is crucial to recognize that at this early stage, all stakeholders appear to be on the same page.

Based on public conversations with Kimco, their representatives have been working diligently to secure a lease for the Giant Food space for quite some time. Many vendors (both grocery store chains and other potential clients) have toured the site. As of today, no potential client has made a commitment to the space.


Based on what we know at this juncture, the following scenarios are provided to provoke thought. They are a result of brainstorming and are at best trial balloons. In addition, there should be more ideas that are not in this paper.

Scenario One – Strict Preservation

In this scenario, it is assumed that the entire Wilde Lake Village Center has been deemed architecturally and culturally historic. Its dimensions, facades, and basic architecture are to be preserved. Building expansion is not considered an option. It is also assumed that Kimco has agreed and endorses this outlook. Because the buildings are not expanded, most likely a typical grocery store chain will not lease the space. The upside is there is no need for additional parking space.

Possibility A – Cooperative Endeavor

Because a typical grocery store will not occupy the space, alternatives to a grocery store are explored. Cooperative enterprises are sought out to lease and provide food items.

Pro: Those without a car can still meet basic needs at the village center. No parking improvements are required.

Con: Although a cooperative may work out in the end, initial hunch is that a cooperative may not generate as much foot traffic as a grocery store and smaller businesses may suffer as a result.

Obstacles: Number of viable coops in the region is unknown. A coop’s ability to meet lease agreement is unknown. Although grocery store and existing merchants tend to compliment one another, coop may feel competition from existing merchants may be too much.

Possibility B – Put ‘em All under One Roof

Although no current merchant in the Wilde Lake Village Center has expressed interest in the following scenario, the following remains a possibility. Allow Produce Galore, David’s Natural Foods, and Today’s Catch to locate within the space left vacant by Giant Foods. These three stores under one roof could approximate the shopping needs of most patrons daily or weekly shopping. This scenario would also open up significant new space for smaller businesses to compliment the Wilde Lake Village Center shopping experience. Possibilities are endless, but some popular suggestions include a new pub or bakery.

Pro: This may be the closest thing to Rouse’s vision that Columbia has seen in quite some time. No parking improvements are required. New stores could create new interest and draw new patrons.

Con: Although many feel it is a great idea, it is still experimental. Individual merchants may seek short term leases to protect against things going wrong.

Obstacles: Current merchants ability to relocate and work together is an unknown. Reworking the leases may be a legalistic nightmare. Shared items, such as shopping carts, baskets, bags, checkout (or separate checkouts?) could be problematic.

Possibility C – Better Living Through Chemistry

Lease the Giant Food space to a drugstore. Many CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aids are approaching the size of the current Giant Food space.

Pro: Would in a limited sense compliment existing merchants. Local residents could shop at drug store, Produce Galore, and Davids to meet basic food needs. This is the only possibility within this scenario that allows residents access to OTC cold medications and shampoo, soap and other staples. No parking improvements are required.

Con: Is least likely approximates the grocery store experience. Initial hunch is that a drug store may not generate as much foot traffic as a grocery store and smaller businesses may suffer as a result.

Obstacles: Possible neighborhood opposition.

Scenario Two – Strong Preservation/Expansion

In this scenario, it is assumed that the Shops at Lynx Lane and the Wilde Lake Village Center courtyard shops have been deemed architecturally and culturally historic However, it has been determined that the Giant Food Location should be expanded to meet the requirements of a potential grocery store tenant. It is also assumed that Kimco and the tenant have worked out the details of who pays for the cost of expanding the building. The possibilities that follow will discuss possibilities for parking options.

Possibility A – Lobby Lobby Lobby

Have Kimco ask for a zoning variance for the property.

Pro: No parking improvements are required.

Con: Variance may fall short of total spaces required for improvement.

Obstacles: The majority of shoppers at Wilde Lake Village Center are in one councilmatic district. Other County Council members, sitting as the Zoning Board would have to vote in favor. This may or may not be a significant obstacle.

Possibility B – Lose Some Business

Purchase either the KFC property or the Crown gas station property (or both). Remove buildings and provide additional parking on those lots.

Pro: May meet the parking needs for an expanded store.

Con: Loss of business is not good for either the property owner or the community. In particular, the loss of the gas station would require patrons to drive elsewhere.

Obstacles: Additional parking may not be enough. A zoning variance may be required in addition to the purchased land. Kimco would have to determine the funds to purchase the land.

Possibility C – Really High Volley

Enlist the Columbia Association to build a parking garage (2-3 floors) on the site of the Wilde Lake Tennis Club and place the club on the top level of the parking garage.

Pro: Innovative use of space for both recreation and suits needs of village center.

Con: Parking garage would need to have specific architectural character to avoid dominating the pedestrian’s sightlines. Garage may be perceived as too far away from shops to be used often.

Obstacles: Structured parking is expensive to build. Some shared funding arrangement would be necessary to construct a garage. Some maintenance agreements would have to be reached concerning lighting, snow removal, etc…There may be significant resident opposition.

Scenario 3 – Moderate Preservation/Reconfiguration

In this scenario, it is assumed that the Wilde Lake Village Center courtyard shops have been deemed architecturally and culturally historic, but the Shops at Lynx Lane buildings and the Giant Food space are not historic. It has been determined that these buildings should be demolished to allow the shopping center to be reconfigured. In all cases, it is assumed that the Giant Food space is demolished such that the courtyard is opened to the parking lot. It is also assumed that Kimco and the tenant have worked out the details of who pays for the cost of constructing the new buildings.

Possibility A – Rearrange the Deck Chairs

Construct a new building between the gas station and Giant to house Produce Galore and David’s Natural Foods. Relocate Great Clips and UPS Store to the courtyard, and build a new grocery store upon the site of the shops at Lynx Lane.

Pro: New locations for existing merchants gives new energy. Configuration allows for the center to be “framed” by tennis courts, grocery store, Produce Galore/David’s, and the courtyard shops.

Con: Parking would have to be added, either structural or underground. Grocery store close to Cross Fox condos may create noise problem when trucks make deliveries to the grocery store.

Obstacles: Structured parking is expensive to build. Some shared funding arrangement would be necessary to construct a garage. There may be significant resident opposition.

Possibility B – Stack the Deck

Maintain Produce Galore and Davids in current location, build a grocery store above Davids and Produce Galore.

Pro: Compact design allows for more parking. Stacked retail allows for shoppers to park and shop on same level for single use shopping.

Con: Davids and Produce Galore may appear to be “hidden” under the parking deck. Parking deck may be imposing structure and face opposition from residents. Cost of parking deck construction is expensive.

Obstacles: Public opposition.

As I said, this is just possiblities, I do not advocate for a single one, but it does represent some ideas that are worthy of thought.

01 September 2006


As the new kid on the block (nkotb), I just wanted to say a quick hello to my fellow bloggers in Howard County. At this time, there are already five blogs that I am aware of sharing the Columbia/Ellicott City/Howard County experience. So what can I bring to the table that is unique? Well, I am not sure. I have a long tenure here in Columbia and plan to draw on my personal experiences here. I am also a Columbia fan (Rouseketeer?) and have read plenty of books and articles on this town.

One perspective I bring is that I am a year older than Columbia. If Columbia were a person, it would be (like me) on the leading edge of Generation X. I believe there are some interesting parallels to be explored from this point of view.

Much like I have followed the Baby Boom generation (and you are all great people), Columbia followed what has been termed the “inner suburbs.” These are communities founded just after World War II (and not-so-coincidentally where most of the Baby Boomers grew up.) Much has been written about the inner suburbs and their transformations from bedroom community to “edge” city to urban core suburbs (think Silver Spring, MD). It seems that as the younger community, we never fit well within the descriptions of these communities.

On the other side of the age continuum, my generation is to be succeeded by what is termed Generation Y. These people are just beginning to become adults and demographers and sociologists are starting to try to define them, although I have not been able to comprehend the definition fully. The analogy for Columbia would the New Urban communities (think Kentlands, MD). New Urban communities are definitely different than the inner suburbs and Columbia, but the description of the New Urban communities sounds an awful lot like Columbia.

In summation, this grand (as in wide-sweeping, not regal) analogy, what I bring is an analogous component to the discussion. If I were to show up to an all-night rave, I believe most in the Baby Boom generation would ask “Why would you go to one of those things?” Whereas most of the young people who attend those types of events would say “What is a 40-year old doing here?” In the same vein, if Columbia were to try to directly mimic the Kenlands, Seaside, FL, or Mashpee Commons, MA; most would ask similar questions.

As far as topics and content, I know that I will try to focus on the Columbia Village Boards and the CA Board of Directors. Another focus will be Howard County and the greater issues in our area. I also intend to go a little deeper than the day to day. I do not think this will occur daily, or even weekly, but a broad discussion on Columbia Governance, or good citizenship will be part of the output here, at least on an occasional basis.

Columbia Compass - Explained

Columbia Compass – Explained

It would seem that in the world of logos and “emblematics” that a visual image should be at once recognizable and easy to interpret. However, there are times when an explanation needs to be provided. Two examples I can think of are the United States Presidential Seal (What’s up with the arrows and olive branches? I think we all know the answer, but we probably needed an explanation before we got it.) and the “33” on the back of each Rolling Rock beer bottle (it is the number of words on the back of the bottle). So maybe some discussion is a good idea.

I created the Columbia Compass because I believe we, as Columbians, may have become somewhat “lost” in our New Town social experiment. We need to navigate back onto the path that James Rouse had marked 40 years ago, and one of the best tools for navigation is a compass.

The compass I have designed is not exactly like a traditional magnetic compass. At the center of the compass is the People Tree, the icon of our community. The compass directions have been replaced by four compass points which I believe are the principles upon which Columbians live. These compass points are as follows: Diversity, Community, Environment and Discovery.


When people speak of Columbia, one of the first words that often comes up is diversity. We are fortunate to live in a community of great racial, ethnic, religious, economic, social, and age diversity. Without diversity, and the intermixing of different peoples through all ten Villages, Columbia would not be a special place.


The word community is another word that frequently comes up in the discussion of Columbia. Columbia is a “planned community.” Because Columbia is not a municipality, it is often referred to in terms of a ‘community’ (e.g. “Columbia is the largest community in Howard County.”), as if calling it a town or city would violate some rule of etiquette.

For the purpose of the compass, community speaks to two things:

1) given the detail of planning put into Columbia, community refers to the built environment. The villages and neighborhoods, the street (and interrelated) path system, and the “organic” (as opposed to natural) amenities such as the green space and lakes.

2) The practice of community. Community is often used to describe many different places, but I believe in Columbia community is practiced. Communities are not just neighborhoods, or Villages, community is the gathering of people for purpose. Within this built environment, Columbians participate within the community at levels that are not seen in most communities. It is my belief that this participation is initially born of necessity. Most new residents in our community need help (as we did when we first arrived) navigating through daily life in this town. As the new arrivals master the daily rhythms, they learn more about other residents and this in turn fosters shared interests. As these shared interests grow, greater participation is achieved. As participation increases, the scope increases to the point at which this once shared interest has become a community interest.


One of the founding principles upon which Columbia was founded was a respect for nature. In this vein, Columbia was designed with open space as a key component. To be clear, some of the open space in Columbia is parking lots, elementary schools, and golf courses; not exactly what an environmentalist would call kind applications to the environment, but on balance, there is substantial green space in Columbia. Over the years, Columbians have taken environmentalism to heart and expanded on the original “respect nature” theme. Many have raised recycling in their homes to almost a religious act.. Although our past is not perfect, we strive to become evermore environmentally sensitive.


One of the things that Columbia shares with few other places in the world is how the resident population interacts with the built environment. I have been told that one of the principals that worked on Columbia, Mort Hoppenfeld had written a paper that said that the Columbian built environment was created on the ideas of discovery and surprise. When I heard this, it instantly clicked in my head what he was talking about. It seems in this town, sometimes while driving, but most often on foot or bicycle, we are in a continual state of discovery. Most amenities in Columbia are not right next to the road, they need to be “discovered” in order to be used. Every time I have ever trekked out onto a path in Columbia, it was never a given what lie ahead. It had to be “discovered.”

One of the related experiences with discovery is the experience of learning. It seems to me that when discovering things, that which is discovered is learned, and this experiential learning becomes ingrained in each Columbian’s life outlook. I would also go so far as to say (in my lay opinion) that the experiential learning that occurs lays the groundwork for cognitive and higher learning. I think this may be the most important aspect of Columbia; because continual learning over a lifetime enriches the community at every level.

Please join me in embracing these principles as we move through this time of change in the city we all love.