31 December 2007

Compass Update

For those who have been peeking in over the holiday week and not seen much going on here, I apologize. This holiday season has seen the family on the road, followed by a stomach virus sequentially working its way through the entire family. The culmination has been my son breaking his leg on Sunday and his convalescence. I will be back on track here shortly, stop by soon.

Happy New Year

10 December 2007

Meetings, Terminology, and Precedent

Private, or Secret?

Public, or Membership?

These are some terms that, over the past month, have been used interchangeably to describe General Growth Properties (GGP) invitation to the CA Board of Directors and the Columbia Village Boards. The problem is that these words do indeed have different meanings and are by no means synonyms.

When news broke in early November that GGP had planned a series of private meetings to discuss preliminary plans for downtown, hand-wringing ensued and words were not used with great care. The first indication was an article written by June Arney of the Baltimore Sun (GGP is holding private meetings on Town Center) on November 14, 2007 (emphasis mine):

When the whole group [board of directors] meets, that constitutes a meeting of the board, which is covered by the Maryland Homeowners Association Act, Hekimian said. That act says that "all meetings of the homeowners association, including meetings of the board of directors or other governing body of the homeowners association or a committee of the homeowners association, shall be open to all members of the homeowners association or their agents." It spells out eight specific circumstances under which a meeting can be closed to the public. "I think the best thing for the village boards to do is to refuse to attend unless the public and the press is invited," Hekimian said. "Otherwise, they could very well be in violation of the Maryland Homeowners Association Act."

Note the use of the word members in the first quote and public in the second quote. The two are not necessarily coincident. The members of a Homeowners Association are defined in their Charter (aka Articles of Incorporation). The public is generally any interested party. It should also be noted that the members of the Columbia Association, as stated in their Charter, are the ten members of the CA Board of Directors.

Two weeks later, Alex Hekimian shows up in another June Arney article (Board asks General Growth to share downtown proposal at open forum) (emphasis mine):

Whether or not the private meetings are technically legal or not doesn't really matter, Hekimian said.

"It gives the appearance that GGP has something to hide and that they're doing some private lobbying," he said. "They're probably used to having secret meetings and getting by with that. A master plan is not an item for secret sessions."

Notice the interposition of private and secret. Private and secret are two distinct things. According to Merriam-Webster, private refers to “intended for or restricted to the use of a particular person, group, or class” whereas secret refers to “kept from knowledge or view.” The location of a private residence may be known, but is intended for the use of those who have access to such residence. A secret hideaway is also intended for use by those who have access, but the location is also not known. The wish of GGP to hold private meetings is known, but for now, the meetings are restricted to particular groups. If GGP desired to have secret meetings, the public knowledge of their meetings beyond those invited would negate the secrecy.

While Oakland Mills resident Alex Hekimian was being quoted in the Baltimore Sun, Kings Contrivance resident Phil Marcus was submitting letters to the editor. First in the November 16, 2007 Columbia Flier (emphasis mine):

There is a move stirring to have Columbia Association board members or staff speak privately with General Growth Properties Inc. about downtown development, and it's wrongheaded.

[S]ecret talks beget both mistrust on the part of those barred and a tendency to make proposals that even if acted on in public have the force of a railroad locomotive on a track. And the full details don't always come out: It is human to try to "sell" what you have agreed to propose. Secrecy rules prevent the public getting the full discussion.

And then in the December 2, 2007 Baltimore Sun:

Everyone likes to be let in on a secret, even if it's one that will eventually become public. If you get to be part of the in-group, you gain some loyalty to whoever let you in. The same for someone who lets you in on a secret planning meeting.

Now, I do not believe Mr. Hekimian or Mr. Marcus interposed the words with malice. I believe at best, it may have been a collective Freudian slip.

So how do we resolve this issue? I believe the Oakland Mills Village Board provides the best example. Back in 2002, when the Village Centers were sold to Kimco (and the Oakland Mills Village Center was without a supermarket), the following was reported in the March 14, 2002 Columbia Flier (Kimco: Oakland Mills needs a supermarket) (emphasis mine):

"Another supermarket would be the type of tenant to revitalize the center like none other," he added.

But, as [executive vice president of Kimco Realty Corp. Thomas A.] Caputo cautioned Oakland Mills village officials during a private meeting Feb. 20, luring a grocery store _ or another retail anchor _ is going "to take a long time." Of all Columbia's retail centers, Oakland Mills is "the most difficult to fill because it's most off the beaten path," he said.

Village officials say they realize change won't happen overnight. But they're optimistic that Kimco, the nation's largest owner of strip shopping centers, is serious about reviving the center.

The fact that Caputo met with village officials was a positive first step, village board chairman David Hatch said.

There we have it. A Village Board met in private with the “nation’s largest owner of strip shopping centers” to discuss plans. The Village Board Chair stated it was a “positive first step.” No one was sued. It appears that there was no untoward influence.

So how different is it if the 2nd largest owner of shopping centers wants to meet with CA and Village officials in private? I believe the best person to ask is Barbara Russell. In 2002 she was a non-voting member of the Oakland Mills Village Board and she is currently on the CA Board of directors, maybe she could give us some insight into this situation.

07 December 2007

Letter to the Editor takes shots, mostly misses

Long Reach resident Bridget Mugane has a letter to the editor in this week’s Columbia Flier. In her letter, Ms. Mugane “summarizes” the “Is Rouse Still Right” symposium featured in last week’s Flier. A quick review shows one positive comment, and six critical remarks. Further review reveals inaccurate generalities and information that is outright false. Ms. Mugane starts off well, but it goes downhill fast:

Columbia is still a great place to live and remains unusually racially tolerant.

The increased cost of housing may restrict it to the affluent, eliminating the social-class mix unless we have substantial affordable housing. People move here for the schools, not because of the social values.

I find this point to be troubling on many levels. Yes, when Columbia was new, there were many people who moved here based on its idea, and found jobs after making the commitment to move. Why this stream has run dry is the topic of a completely different post, but suffice it to say, is there anywhere else nearby that provides social and economic integration at a lower cost (both in terms of household purchased and HOA fees)? Today, I believe (and I don’t have any data on this) most move to Columbia based on employment. Given a job within the “commutershed” around Columbia, I believe schools are a strong second qualifier.

Granted, there may be a small contingent of the population that have heard about the Howard County Public School System, and came to the area based solely on educating their children, but this does not mean all that come and purchase homes in Columbia, on lien assessed property. There are alternatives, such as outparcels, and the nearby communities of Fulton, Ellicott City, Elkridge, Savage, and North Laurel that afford access to the same schools and (generally) lower HOA costs.

Secondly, isn’t racial tolerance a social value? Doesn’t her first bullet point contradict her second bullet point?

Third, if we assume Ms. Mugane’s statement regarding people only moving here for the schools is true, there is a much bigger question that should be asked. Where is everyone else moving? If Columbia wants to remain relevant, if Rouse is to “still matter,” people of all kinds must continue to move to this community. I think it is a fair assumption that at one time they did. What has changed? What have we done to turn off singles, young couples, and empty nesters?

Fourth, what data is the blanket statement “People move here for the schools, not because of the social values,” based upon? I have seen no studies published (and maybe I’m wrong) indicating that schools are the only reason for families to move to Columbia. I believe a general statement like that is really just spitting in the wind.

Lastly, with one Village in Columbia already stating that no more affordable housing is to be built within its borders (and the CA Board member from that Village advocates for moving the affordable housing into western Howard County), what kind of mixed message is this sending about our commitment to housing.

Teens say Columbia is boring. My thought: We need evening/weekend social activities and clubs. The Wild Times coffee shop/dance venue was an example. It did not get sufficient county/community support and vanished after one fracas in the parking lot.

As a former Columbia teen, I say yes, COLUMBIA IS BORING for many teens. I find Ms. Mugane’s suggestion about more activities for teens laudable, but her example is false. The Wilde Times Café opened as an agreement between CMI and Wilde Lake High School. It was seen as an effort to put to use a vacant space within the Wilde Lake Village Center that Columbia Management Incorporated (CMI), a subsidiary of the Rouse Corporation, was having difficulty leasing. Yes, after a “fracas,” the Wilde Times Café did close for a time, but it re-opened later the same year. For the remainder of time that it was in operation, things went pretty well. The Wilde Times Café did eventually close. This was when Kimco found a paying tenant to lease the space (Tokyo Café).

I am also wondering the level of support Ms. Mugane provided to the Wilde Times Café. Did she ever chaperone at the Café or provide any other means of support? I believe it is a little disingenuous to state that something was a good idea and then say that other people did not support it adequately.

Lastly, I think it would have been nice if Ms. Mugane had advanced the idea of actually talking to teens about what they would like to do. Creating activities for teens without their input is by no means a recipe for success.

These comments echo Lloyd Knowles' letter to the editor in the same issue: We need "destinations" in downtown. Existing attractions have been reduced: sailboat/paddleboat rentals and lessons at the lakefront (gone), Rusty Scupper, Bennigans and Columbia 3 movie house replaced by office buildings and housing; Columbia Exhibit Center closed; diminished Merriweather Post Pavilion performance schedule.

I will get to this one over the weekend.

By 2002 The Rouse Co. lost its commitment to Columbia. Example: did not lower rents in village centers they owned when village businesses began competing with big-box stores.

Once again, Ms. Mugane has succumbed to the “ready, fire, aim” philosophy. The Rouse Company announced in early February 2002 that the Village Centers would be sold to Kimco and the sale was completed in March 2002. The Rouse Company did not control the rents in the Village Centers in 2002. Moreover, the Rouse Company in the years preceding the sale of the Village Centers demonstrated a commitment to the Village Centers by extensively redeveloping the Joseph Square (now Harpers Choice) village center and the Oakland Mills Village Center. It should be noted that after the Oakland Mills Village Center was redeveloped, the Metro Food Market did vacate the center, but that cannot be put on the Rouse Company.

In addition, what competition from the big box stores engendered a decline of the Village Centers? As I recall, the big box stores that were in residence in 2002 were Toys ‘R’ Us, Staples, Dicks Sporting Goods, Target, JoAnnes Etc, CompUSA, Borders (Books), Best Buy, PetSmart, B.J.’s Warehouse, Bed, Bath and Beyond, Marshalls, Service Merchandise, and Home Depot. I could understand Cover to Cover in the OBVC seeing competition from Borders, but what other direct competition was there? The Village Centers have historically been daily needs kind of merchants (dry cleaners, video store, pharmacy, liquor store, pizza, bagels, banks, etc). Although I am not aware of any merchants that asked for rent relief in 2002, how would that justification go? “I need my rent reduced because Toys ‘R’ Us and PetSmart are cutting into my liquor store sales?” It really doesn’t sound plausible.

Rouse created features to encourage residents' interaction to build community: village centers, interfaith centers, group mailboxes. Due to the overall societal disengagement, this is no longer very effective. Neighbors no longer reach out to each other. What can be done?

Yes, what can be done? I have no answers, but I have clues. First, recognize that times have changed. Many of the “features” that Ms. Mugane lists were designed with a single bread winner at a job and a parent at home. With expanded opportunity for both genders and the high cost of housing, it has been my experience that this is no longer the case. Second, we need to be more innovative and not send letters to the editor that contain one positive thought and six negative thoughts. With that ratio, we are behind even before we get started. Third, we need to get our facts straight and stop relying on hearsay or remnant knowledge. We need to engage all generations in Columbia to achieve a shared vision, one that respects past efforts and also accepts and embraces new thinking and ideas.

06 December 2007

More Fish in the Pond

I was pleased to read about a new group in town, Responsible Growth for Columbia (and I would never truncate their lengthy title to Re-Grow Co. No, never). I first heard about them on Hayduke’s blog. I also recently found a group, known as Concerned Citizens of Columbia (Co-Cit-Co?).

Responsible Growth seems to have a broad platform, but is currently focusing on:

The proposed Wegmans, which is going to be 160,000 square feet with a restuarant, at the corner of McGaw Road and Snowden River Parkway. The County's Planning Commission voted recently to allow large scale grocery in Industrial Zones. Wegmans also completed a traffic study for this store and they state that their store, which is 3 times the size of a regular grocery store will have a small impact, which a traffic light will mitigate. WE CANNOT BELIEVE THAT! See our sections to see other issues with the traffic study and why this area should be kept for Industrial uses.

It appears that they have not yet uploaded the other issues with the traffic study or the reasons why the area should be kept for industrial uses. Two small problems with their work so far (really just constructive criticism): The County Planning Board (not the Planning Commission) voted. The Planning Board did not vote on all industrial zones, but only the 81-acre plot of land formerly known as the Sieling Industrial Center. This land area is roughly bounded by Oakland Mills Road to the South, Snowden River Parkway to the East, Dobbin Road to the West, and Route 175 (Rouse Parkway) to the North. The plot does not include Dobbin Center. Overall, a great start. I look forward to good things from Responsible Growth.

The Concerned Citizens of Columbia do not seem to be new (their posts date back to the summer, but it is still largely under construction. Like Responsible Growth, the Concerned have a tight focus: a proposed sediment forebay at the North end of Wilde Lake. Welcome to the Club.

03 December 2007

What a difference (almost) half a decade makes…

Yesterday, I read with great surprise a letter to the editor printed in the Baltimore Sun. The letter, authored by former Columbia Council Representative Phil Marcus, addressed the General Growth Properties invitation to the CA board of directors and the ten Columbia village boards. In his letter, Phil states:

Everyone likes to be let in on a secret, even if it's one that will eventually become public. If you get to be part of the in-group, you gain some loyalty to whoever let you in. The same for someone who lets you in on a secret planning meeting.

General Growth Properties Inc. has invited members of the ten Columbia village boards to a closed-door meeting on 13 December. They should decline to attend. The Columbia Association Board has already declined a similar invitation, and as far as I know, the County Council has not been invited. The village board members should avoid the temptation to lend loyalty to GGP, since they were elected by the village residents and other property owners.

I find this particularly interesting because when Phil was a Columbia Council Representative candidate (back in March 2003), he wrote this letter to the Columbia Flier (scroll to the bottom):

Accepting political aid does not mean being 'bought'

Recently Mr. Kirk Halpin, who represents Kings Contrivance on the Columbia Council, wrote to the Village newspaper, the Crown Prints. He asked people to run for village board or to succeed him on the council. Fine, so far.

It also contained this curious sentence, "In the past, there has been an issue with individual candidates pledging their support to an organization in exchange for promises of financial and campaign assistance." (It's a toned-down version of Mr. Halpin's piece in the same Crown Prints last fall, complaining about a mythical "ZIT party.")

Human beings get together and help each other, including in elections. Everyone knows that. Just because someone accepts political aid does not mean they are obligated. They would not get help unless they had views similar to those of their friends and will have those views after the election as well. Mr. Halpin, of course, fully understands that.

As a candidate to succeed Mr. Halpin as representative from Kings Contrivance, I should probably take offense at the idea that because I have political friends willing to help me I have been bought. The notion is too silly to take seriously.

Phil Marcus
Kings Contrivance

It seems that the intervening years has worn on Phil’s philosophy. It appears that in Phil’s world, an elected representative will be mystically bound to a “loyalty” by simply attending an information session, but political aid during a campaign, and its possible effects, is a “notion too silly to be taken seriously.”

I have always found Phil to be a thoughtful, intelligent person, but I am curious as to what has happened in the intervening years to place him on both sides of his argument.

29 November 2007

Columbia Flier - Bravo Zulu

The November 29, 2007 edition of the Columbia Flier is, in my opinion, the best edition of the paper in a very long time. To all the editorial staff and reporters, well done, and thank you.

Live, Work, Learn: Two-out-of-Three isn’t Bad, but it Could Be Better

I want to touch base on a Baltimore Sun article from Monday, November 26, 2007 (Home-buying program continues). This story tracks the evolution of the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development program that offers purchasing assistance for homebuyers that purchase homes near their place of work. The program was started as part of the Maryland Smart Growth policy:

The state began offering aid to home buyers based on where they work a decade ago under Gov. Parris N. Glendening. That program, simply dubbed Live Near Your Work, was part of the Smart Growth policy that Glendening crafted to guide Maryland's development. Under it, nearly 1,000 buyers got grants of up to $3,000 when buying homes in neighborhoods targeted for revitalization.

During the Ehrlich administration, the plan was given a new name (Live Near Your Work Plus) and changed the eligibility criteria:

[B]egun last year by the Ehrlich administration, that program drew fire from growth-management advocates because the state aid was available on any existing
home within 25 miles of the buyer's workplace.

The Ehrlich administration version offered qualifying buyers grants worth up to 3 percent of their mortgage to help cover closing costs.

[B]ut growth-management advocates and legislators complained that the 25-mile commute allowed under the Ehrlich program undercut the spirit of the state's Smart Growth policy.

[E]hrlich administration officials defended their more expansive approach, arguing it was intended to help suburban and even rural buyers, and not just the Baltimore City residents, who got the lion's share of the aid under Glendening.
Under the current administration, the plan has a completely new name, and has been slightly changed in an effort to bring the program back toward Smart Growth policies:

Smart Keys for Employees is the latest name for the on-again, off-again purchasing assistance program offered in a variety of forms for much of the past 10 years by the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development.

Unveiled with little fanfare in April, the program offers qualifying home buyers grants of up to $5,000 to help pay settlement costs, if their new residence is within 10 miles of their workplace, or in the same county or municipality.

[T]o get the additional $5,000 grants under Smart Keys, the home being bought must be in a designated growth zone called a "priority funding area." For more information on that and other state housing assistance programs, go to www.morehouse4less.com.

In my opinion, this is probably the best iteration of the program. Although the home-work commuting distances could be exploited by some in the state (live in Arbutus, work in White Marsh?), by requiring the home to be in a priority funding area limits sprawl housing developments. This point may be confusing to some, including William Ariano Jr., deputy director of community development in the state housing department. He is quoted in the article as follows:

"It can be appreciable," Ariano said, "certainly [for] somebody that works in Dundalk, if they're buying a house up in Maryland Line."

Because of the priority funding area requirement, a person buying a house at the Maryland Line would not qualify. The Baltimore County priority funding areas are largely concentrated around the Baltimore Beltway I-795, I-83 and I-95. However, the opposite would be true, a person buying a home in Dundalk and working in Maryland Line would qualify.

Smart Keys for Education – A possible next step

I believe the state program does a good job of providing an incentive to live near work. What I would like to see the county do is provide an incentive for families to live near schools. Possibly provide grants of a few thousand dollars to help pay settlement costs for those families with school age children. Conditions on the grant money would be that the homebuyers would have to qualify for the Smart Keys for Employees program and the home purchase would have to be within one mile of a Howard County school.

Those who would receive the benefit would be people who live in Howard County, work in Howard County, and their children would have the ability to walk to school. This would reduce HCPSS transportation costs and possibly even limit or reduce childhood obesity rates.

I recognize in this time of chronic structural deficits at the state level, incentive programs are difficult to enact, but I believe (and I have no supporting research) this hypothetical program would have about the same impact as the recently enacted Howard County senior tax breaks.

28 November 2007

Mornings are Fun Again

Things around here have been getting kind of heavy. I thought I would go a little light here, and share why my commute is better. No, it’s still a long slog every morning, but I’m smiling more. The reason? The Bryant Park Project.

Now keep in mind, this is not your father’s NPR morning show. It still is in keeping with the NPR kind of radio. Longer format interviews and stories, typically 4:00 – 8:00 minutes, but there are differences.

Hosts Alison Stewart and Luke Burbank are lively and work well together. Alison Stewart comes most recently as the alternate host of MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann, and I swear I used to hear Luke Burbank host a mid-day radio show fifteen years ago when I lived on the Kitsap Peninsula (I suppose when he was…sixteen?).

Beyond their personalities, there are exchanges on the show that cause smiles. For instance, this morning I heard this exchange (paraphrasing here, but I think I’m pretty close) between Alison Stewart and Newscaster Rachel Martin:

Stewart: I’m looking forward to the CNN/You Tube debate tonight.
Martin: That’s because you are a political dork (laughter).

Weekly segments are worth the wait. For instance, Monday morning sports provide angles that you will not hear on Sportscenter. Including Sports guest commentator Bill Wolf talking about the unexepected rise of the Kansas and Missouri college football teams rankings. “That’s like if Kucinich was No. 2 and Gravel was No. 4.”

Another refreshing part of the show is small pieces dedicated to the silly stuff in life. One is called the Ramble, a segment dedicated to “stuff you really don’t need to know.” Another is “The Most,” a segment also known as “you decide, we report” (get it?). On “The Most,” the Bryant Park Project (BPP) staff narrate the most viewed and emailed stories from different news sources. It is where I first heard about this video (warning, funny!).

Lastly, there is a news mix that keeps the listener on their toes. The show can discuss Condoleezza Rice work in foreign policy, and move on to discuss the much-watched Battlestar Galactica movie on the SciFi channel last Saturday.

Here in the Baltimore/Washington DC area, the BPP can be heard on Sirius satellite radio from 7:00 AM – 9:00 AM. It can also be heard online after approximately 10:00 AM every morning. The show also supports a lively blog, podcasts, and RSS feeds.

So tune in, and smile.

26 November 2007

Money Well Spent? - Updated

Note: I have had a few conversations with folks who support the Compass, and there has been some concern that my math in the post below is not exact. Specifically, the cost associated with getting a letter to the County involved more than just a stamp. There are costs associated with composing, transcribing, reviewing, and of course, printing a letter. I believe that many of these costs also come into play when sending a letter as an advertisement. That aside, the concerns of my friends led me to post this update. So please, keepin mind that the numbers are not exact, but are best estimates.

Thank you dear readers.

After a series of hastily scheduled meetings, the Columbia Association has gone on a spending spree to directly advertise its stated position on the Howard County document "Downtown Columbia: A Community Vision." In the past five days, the Columbia Association has published the letter (in the form of an ad) in the Columbia Flier, the Baltimore Examiner, and the Baltimore Sun. Content aside, I’m wondering why the Columbia Association decided to spend thousands of dollars on publicizing a letter to the Howard County government. Let’s face it; the letter could have been mailed at a cost of 41 cents ($0.41). I checked the open ad rates at the Flier, Examiner, and Sun; the cost to run full page ads in each are (respectively), $2778, $1711, and $3150. That adds up to more than $7500, or approximately 18,000 times more than the cost of a stamp to convey their message.

What was the motivation? What was the justification? What benefit was derived? I encourage all to contact the Columbia Association Board of Directors for answers.

If anyone in the HoCo Blogosphere has an idea, all comments and insight are welcome.

20 November 2007

Columbia Town Center Info

General Growth Properties has activated their Columbia Town Center website. Not much functionality so far, but the site is back up, and would expect more to follow after the Howard County framework is updated.

Take a look, share a thought….

08 November 2007

When asking others for specifics, CA Board is short on specifics

Two articles today feature CA Board members focusing on who should pay rather than what is being paid for. In an article published this morning in the Baltimore Examiner, reporter Sara Michael (Downtown work costs questioned) indirectly quotes CA Board member, onetime blogger, and Bagel Bin Meeting Announcer Evan Coren (KC)

At the center of this question is the Columbia Association, and how much the
landowner and community organization is expected to contribute.
[O]ne concern
raised is that the Columbia Association stands to make millions of dollars from
the annual property assessment, and some residents say the board expects General
Growth to bear most of the costs.
“It brings money to CA and it brings
responsibility,” said former CA board member Jud Malone, adding that the board
has not been cooperating with the developer.
However, Coren contends the
costs of providing additional services could be more than the assessment will
bring in and the money should come from General Growth Properties.
It would be refreshing if Evan and his fellow board members would define what these possible “additional services” are. Clearly, the introduction of more residences and businesses in the downtown area will increase the revenue CA sees from its lien assessment. It is unclear what imagined “additional services” Evan is talking about.

Turning to the afternoon newspaper, the Columbia Flier published an article written by Andrai Blakely (CA Chairwoman wonders who will pay).

The chairwoman of the Columbia Association board of directors is concerned that
taxpayers might have to help pay for new roads and the maintenance of public
areas in a redeveloped downtown Columbia.
New residential and business
growth in Town Center would necessitate the construction of new infrastructure,
which in turn could lead to hikes in the county property tax rate and the annual
fees Columbia homeowners pay CA, to cover the cost of that construction, said
Barbara Russell, of Oakland Mills.
For that reason, she hopes that the a
30-year master plan to guide downtown's redevelopment that officials are
drafting contains specific information about who would pay for downtown's new
roads, water and sewer lines, and maintaining that infrastructure, Russell said
last week.

Here, Barbara is specific. Regrettably, her specific concerns show how little she knows about the process. The County is very specific on who pays for roads when development occurs. The developer does. As for water and sewer, I don’t know if Barbara knows this, but there already is water and sewer available in downtown Columbia. Planned (and funded) upgrades to the sewer lines will have sufficient capacity to allow for downtown development.

Now, if I were completely cynical, I would think that Barbara Russell is raising the specter of increased taxes and increased lien assessments to instill fear in the population, but Barbara has never seemed to be that way.

I suppose Barbara is confusing this type of development with her plan to expand the water and sewer service area farther west. Her plan would certainly be orders of magnitude more expensive (at least in terms of infrastructure support) than any development downtown. So I suppose her concern about infrastructure costs and taxes are good reasons to not pursue her plan and to instead support the downtown plan. Later on in the Columbia Flier article, Barbara does venture into the void of vagaries:

She [Barbara Russell] pointed out that CA owns substantial property downtown and
is responsible for providing recreational services to Columbia, adding that the
association might not be able to afford providing new services without hiking
the annual fee it charges property owners.

Once again, just “recreational services,” not anything specific. What specific service is so expensive that CA Board members cannot even say its name?

And why is CA Board member Gail Broida (TC) silent on this issue? Granted we could have a day-long discussion about the CA Board being responsible for all of Columbia versus just representing individual villages. However, the Village residents elect the Columbia Council Representatives (which in turn become CA Board members).

I believe that if some CA Board members (hypothetically) singled out neighborhoods, such as Thunder Hill or Longfellow, and said that CA would not support any amenities in these areas, the CA Board members that represent those neighborhoods would vehemently defend them. In this case, Gail appears to be content with letting the future lien assessments to be taken from Town Center residents and applied to any other part of the community except downtown.

Maybe she could join Evan Coren and Barbara Russell, take those liens when they come in, and build an outdoor ice rink (scroll way down).

[t]here was not majority support for a new outdoor skating rink in Oakland Mills, however Ms. Russell and Mr. Coren stated another rink was warranted. According to CA, the current rink loses $450,000/year.

02 November 2007

My Remarks to the CA Board of Directors – 01NOV07

Last night the CA Board of Directors provided a venue for residents to comment on development in Downtown Columbia. Below are my prepared remarks. Keep in mind that at the podium, I did not strictly adhere to the prepared text, but I think I got my point across.

Good evening, my name if Bill Santos, a resident of Wilde Lake and a 30-year resident of Columbia and Howard County. I am here to say that I support the Howard County framework document, the traffic study, and the proposed county process.

One particular item I wish to address tonight is the issue of traffic. In the last two weeks, CA Board member Evan Coren has twice stated that the reduction of level of service for our downtown road system from level D to E will adversely impact the quality of life of Columbians and others that visit the downtown area. During the Saturday, October 20, 2007 meeting between the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning and the combined CA Board and Village Boards, Mr. Coren went as far to state that increased waits at traffic lights in downtown Columbia is counter to James Rouse’s vision. I stand here tonight in opposition to this line of thinking.

I believe downtown Columbia should not be primarily viewed through a windshield. Downtown, the lakefront, the mall, and Symphony woods should be experienced on two feet. Currently, downtown Columbia is configured for automobile dominance. As development occurs in downtown, I want to see the role of the automobile diminished and the downtown area become a walkable, pedestrian friendly environment. If this means that car travel in downtown becomes slower and less convenient, so be it.

As a group, Howard Countains are addicted to cars. Data from the Baltimore Metropolitan Council of Governments show that although Howard County is 1/3 the population of Baltimore City, we drive more miles per year than Baltimore. Moreover, Howard County has the highest annual vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per registered vehicle in the entire Baltimore region.

In a self deprecating analogy (I am a little bit north of 250 lbs), future traffic problems in Howard County is a bit like me going to the movies and asking for wider seat. I would imagine the manager would tell me that he would rather see me “push away from the table a little bit sooner” and “take a lap” before he would redesign the theatre. In the same way, our driving habits are horrible, and we need to change our behavior; not just change the roads.

It is my hope that in the future, downtown Columbia will be safe for pedestrians. When my 4-year old son is grown and has kids of his own, I want him to be able to take his kids downtown, and allow them to walk through downtown without fear of being run over in a mall parking lot.

24 October 2007

Corporate Boulevard, Now Under New Management

View Larger Map

A report filed yesterday afternoon on the Globe Street real estate website indicates that GGP has handed over the management of the buildings along Little Patuxent Parkway to NAI KLNB. From the article:

The class A portfolio, called Columbia Town Center portfolio, is based in this submarket and has a 25% vacancy rate--or 250,000 sf of space available to lease. Asking rates for the portfolio range from $24 per sf, full service up to $27.50 per sf, full service.

[T]he buildings are 10400, 10420, 10440, 10480, 10490 and 10500 Little Patuxent Pkwy and 11000 Broken Land Pkwy. They are situated just off MD Route 175. Existing tenants include Miles & Stockbridge; Ferris, Baker, Watts; BusinesSuites; and American Express. These buildings were part of General Growth’s $12.6-billion acquisition of the Rouse Co. in 2004. Since then, the company handled the leasing internally, Fritz says. “This is the first time this portfolio has been outsourced since its acquisition.” Most of General Growth’s offices are leased and managed by third parties, he adds.

23 October 2007

The People of Maryland are at odds with the CA Board Chair

Two stories in last week’s Baltimore Sun demonstrate how out of touch CA Board Chairwoman Barbara Russell is with residents in the State of Maryland. To be fair, Chair Russell’s heart is in the right place.

In an October 14, 2007 article published in the Baltimore Sun (Village says it's tired of subsidized housing) Barbara Russell is quoted as follows:

Russell is advocating what until now has been political heresy in Howard: allowing public water and sewer lines west of the current boundary to permit more townhouses and apartments to be built farther west. The ban on public utilities in the western county was meant to preserve farmland, she said, but instead of doing that, it has merely allowed hundreds of large homes on 3-acre lots.

"I think we should look at where else in the county we can develop housing of any kind," she said.

It is important to know that the last time Barbara Russell spoke about this publicly was while she was campaigning and just prior to her extended vacation in the Hawaiian Islands (I often wonder how many votes she would have gotten if she was upfront with the residents of Oakland Mills and disclosed that she would miss two months of service while on vacation).

On October 18, 2007, the Baltimore Sun published an article that featured a poll conducted by the 1000 Friends of Maryland (Sprawl too much, too fast, poll finds). The poll shows that Marylanders are concerned about the pace of growth in the Freestate:

Overall, respondents said they consider traffic, housing costs, loss of farmland and poorly planned growth as some of the most serious problems facing Maryland.
Traffic ranked near the top of respondents' concerns, with 66 percent calling it an "extremely" or "very serious" problem.

More voters rated traffic as a "very serious" problem than said the same for public education, the cost of health insurance, or taxes. Fifty-six percent rated loss of farmland and poorly planned growth and development as "extremely" or "very serious" problems.

Now, inspection of the survey results shows the remarks of Barbara Russell are in close agreement with those responding to the survey. All parties are concerned about the pace, quality, and effects of growth. It is Russell’s proposed solutions that are at odds.

While Russell would like to see the water and sewer service expanded into the rural western part of Howard County (to allow for construction of townhouses and apartment complexes), 80% of respondents to the 1000 Friends survey stated that the loss of farmland was at least a “somewhat serious” concern.

Moreover, because there are not many jobs or basic shopping needs in the west, nearly all residents of the Russell townhouses and apartments would need a car to meet basic daily needs. This would increase the traffic on the roads. Conversely, 89% of survey respondents felt that traffic congestion is at least a “somewhat serious” problem. It is also important to note that Howard County’s population, with approximately 1/3 the population of Baltimore, logs more vehicle miles on the road annually than the population of Charm City.

Lastly, diverting projects to the west will not, in the long run, solve the problems that face the county today. A westward expansion would just extend a low intensity use of land. Traffic will not abate and the low density settlements will preclude any investment in mass transit. Nothing in the eastern section of the county will change, and because of additional development in the west, the amount of impervious surface will increase, thereby increasing the detrimental effects of stormwater runoff in the Patuxent Watershed. This is in effect poor planning. 83% of survey respondents indicated that poorly planned growth and development was a problem in Maryland.

In closing, page 5 of the poll summary document indicates the amount of support for possible policies to mitigate the problems associated with growth. One policy, the “steering of new development to towns and cities rather than outlying suburbs” received 72% support by respondents.

It is my hope that Chairperson Russell will rethink her position.

20 October 2007

Micro Multi-Modal

I have been thinking about the recently released downtown Columbia traffic study, and specifically how to mitigate increased traffic. My focus has been on little things; things that can be done for a moderate cost, in a short term time frame, and would provide at least the promise of a reduction in traffic.

That being said, I believe the volume of people coming into and out of downtown will continue to increase. The key here is to move some from cars to other means of transportation. One way that I believe we can get more cars out of downtown is to install bicycle racks (or even possibly bicycle lockers) adjacent to every bus shelter in the county. This would extend the effective range of people that could easily access bus shelters and the Howard Transit bus routes. Even using my tired old Diamond Back mountain bike, I can reduce a half-hour walk to under ten minutes. If a bus line is within ten minutes of any residence, the convenience of the bus system becomes greater. The greater the convenience, the more potential riders.

This is just one small project that can increase mass transportation use. The cost is relatively small and the program can be implemented fairly quickly. Taking these small steps now will help us transition from being the most car dependent locality (see Total Annual Vehicle Miles) in Maryland to a community that provides a variety of means of travel in the County.

Maryland United

Do you remember that concept model of downtown Columbia? The one from the late 1960’s that showed what downtown Columbia could look like? Do you remember the sports stadium tucked away in the upper left corner? Well, we now have a possibility to realize that dream.

According to an October 17, 2007 article in the Washington Post (Md. Comes Courting in D.C. United's Stadium Search), Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, the Maryland Stadium Authority, and the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development have all had talks with DC United management about bringing the team to Maryland. These talks all took place within the last year.

What would be a better home for the United than Columbia, Maryland? According to Sports Illustrated magazine, Howard County is Maryland's Sportstown. The Covenant Park soccer complex and the annual Memorial Day soccer tournament certainly add to the groundswell of support the MLS team could expect to receive if it were to come to a 2104X zip code.

Moreover, MLS is no stranger to a suburban setting. Carson, CA (population 93,000) is the home of both the LA Galaxy and the Desportes Chivas US teams. The MLS Colorado rapids play their matches at Dick’s Sporting Goods park, located in Commerce City, CO (population 39,000). And if you want to stretch it, MLS team Real Salt Lake plays in Salt Lake City (population 181,000), which has a geographic footprint (109 sq miles) that is larger than eastern Howard County (82 sq. miles, population 200,000).

So why not Maryland United? We have a demonstrated love for the game, an award winning sports heritage, and the demographics that are consistent with many of the homes of current MLS teams. I believe it is certainly worth having the United and the Maryland Stadium Authority take a look and at least do a study.

10 October 2007

Sound Familiar?


Bad news: Unless the experts are wrong, Howard County suburbs will continue to sprawl beyond the horizon.

The threat of global warming pales next to the allure of a backyard sliver of green. Two-hour commutes are tough, but it's even tougher to persuade an older suburb to allow dense new housing downtown.


Most of the above words are not mine. They are the words of San Francisco Chronicle columnist John King. He writes a column entitled “Place” that appears in the Tuesday Chronicle. If you replace the words “Howard County” with “California,” the quote becomes his. They are taken from his Tuesday, October 9, 2007 piece, “California suburbs will continue to sprawl.”

John King recalls a recent debate at the annual conference of the California chapter of the American Planning Association. At this conference, six planners debated the ability to implement smart growth in front of an audience of 150. I encourage all to read the column, but here are some tidbits:

The debate occurred last week in San Jose during the annual conference of the
California chapter of the American Planning Association. And it truly was a
debate; the two teams jabbed within a tight time frame over the topic:
"Resolved, that California is ready for complex urban development."

[F]or those of you who don't read planning journals for fun, "complex urban development" is a new synonym for "smart growth." The premise is that we need to steer new growth into older areas, mix in mass transit and not be afraid to stack a few floors of housing on top of shops and small offices.

[W]e have no other choice, and we are ready," argued Al Zelinka of RBF Consulting in Irvine. He talked of how Orange County has downtown housing and condo towers taking root. "Green" buildings now are touted by developers and demanded by governments. "We're at the tipping point. ... Suburbanization will continue, but the wave will be in urbanization."

[I]t's spectacular delusional hubris to think that good sense will prevail," proclaimed developer John Anderson of Chico. "People feel entitled to their fantasy."

[B]ut the real world is a local political stew where the loudest voices are the ones who want the status quo preserved at all cost. Statewide planning regulations, meanwhile, look great in press releases but often are disconnected from daily life.

Which puts me on the side of the cons: The small victories for more livable regions seem to be no match for the larger forces that want things the way they are. I sure hope we're wrong.


30 September 2007


The title of this blog post came to me last night as my family was grocery shopping. My son and I were at one end of the store, and we caught site of my wife halfway towards the other end. Being four, my son was proud to be pushing the shopping cart (with a little guidance from his dad) through the store. When he saw my wife, he took off with the shopping cart and started shouting “mommy, espera!” It took hearing it a second time for it to register, but yes, my son was shouting in Spanish for his mom to wait for us. It brought a HUGE smile to my face.

With that thought logged fresh in my mind this morning, I began the review of the local papers. Susan DeFord writes in the Washington Post Metro section (Council Member Tables Legislation in Push to Compromise):

The Howard County Council member who sought height restrictions for a controversial high-rise project in Columbia said she'll table her legislation in the hopes of forging a compromise.
The announcement from Mary Kay Sigaty (D-West Columbia) came after a closed Friday session attended by county leaders, community activists and representatives of the developer that plans to build the Plaza Residences, a 22-story condominium tower that would rise 275 feet along Little Patuxent Parkway.

[A]fter Friday's discussion, Sigaty said that "people wanted to come back to the table and keep talking. I was always in support of a compromise.
"I will be tabling my legislation for a month to allow the conversation to continue," she said.
Details of Friday's meeting, according to participants and those following the matter, dealt with lowering the height of the tower and possibly offering additional incentives, such as money for affordable housing.

Over at the Baltimore Sun (Talks on tower advance), reporter June Arney writes today:

The sponsor of legislation intended to block construction of a 23-story tower in downtown Columbia plans to ask the County Council to table her bills for 30 days in hopes that a compromise can be reached, after a lengthy, closed-door meeting of interested parties.
"There was agreement in the room that it had been a productive day and we needed to talk some more," Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty said after Friday's meeting. Sigaty represents the district where the 160-unit Plaza Residences is being built and is the sponsor of the two bills.
Another meeting of all parties is planned for Friday, she said.

[C]ouncilwoman Courtney Watson, who did not attend the meeting, said Friday that she had reservations about delaying a decision.
"I would be opposed to tabling it without some reassurance that there was a serious effort on the part of the parties to reach a compromise," she said. Watson said she planned to talk with people over the weekend to determine how close a compromise might be.
Among the key players not at the table Friday were four plaintiffs who had filed a court action trying to stop the project. But their attorney was able to attend the latter part of the meeting.
In a letter sent to Ulman, E. Alexander Adams, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said he could not be at the meeting because of a court commitment and that he had recommended his clients not attend without counsel.
"My clients, as always, have been receptive to a resolution that addresses this problem of the illegal land use classification, while being cognizant of the overall community interest in the long overdue re-zoning of Town Center," Adams wrote in his letter. "There are important issues in this case and important processes critical to the future of New Town realizing its rightful integral place in this County's social, cultural, community and economic mosaic."

I have to say, I believe Mr. Adams statement “My clients, as always, have been receptive to a resolution that addresses this problem of the illegal land use classification…” missed the point. The zoning amendments before the County Council deal specifically with building height, not the construction of apartments. The legislation makes no distinction between residential (i.e. apartments) or commercial buildings. In fact, it has been stated that the arbitrary limit of 150 feet is derived from a commercial building that contains no apartments. If Mr. Adams is at the table to discuss a compromise, he should be focused on the issue of building height.

So it appears with respect to zoning amendments restricting building heights in downtown, we will all have to wait. Espera. But there is something more to this wonderful Spanish verb, esperar. The verb not only means “to wait,” but it equally means “to hope for.” Through one of those idiomatic quirks, both meanings of Espera can be applied to our current situation.

Hasta Noviembre!

29 September 2007

On First Blush

As the days of this abnormally dry (but otherwise pleasant) September have ticked away, the back of my mind has been politely reminding me that the County had promised to release to the public a downtown Columbia traffic study and draft master plan. That promise became a reality yesterday. The draft master plan, traffic study, a comment/feedback form and a calendar of events can all be viewed here.

The past two presidential administrations have conditioned me to be a bit sour and cynical of press releases that occur on Fridays. It seems at the Federal level, a Friday dump is tantamount to releasing information that does not get covered extensively in the press. Happily, my cynicism dissolved after downloading and reading the five part draft master plan. Moreover, coverage has been pretty quick. Both Hayduke and Columbia Council Representative Evan Coren have already put up blog posts on the subject, and the Baltimore Sun Howard section has a story in today’s paper.

From a broad prospective, the draft master plan looks great. The inclusion of artwork by Bob Tennenbaum, original renderings from early Columbia promotional material, and current day photographs are pleasing to the eye.

With respect to content, I have only had a chance for a quick read through, but a few things stand out:

The document lays out a three step process. The first step of this process is the release of the Draft Master Plan. From page 4 of the Draft Master Plan:

As part of the first step, the Department of Planning and Zoning offers this thematic document, which serves two purposes: (1) to describe a vision for Downtown Columbia, highlighting the themes that have emerged through public dialogue over the course of the past two years and (2) to establish a framework that will provide guidance for General Growth Properties (GGP), the major property owner in Downtown, as they prepare a downtown development master plan for public review and approval.

The second step will be the General Growth Properties plan.

The third step will be codifying the master plan through a legislative process. The legislative process is intended to involve two pieces of legislation: an amendment to the Howard County General Plan (GP) and amendments to the Howard County Zoning Regulations (ZRA). As stated in the Draft Master Plan Appendix:

The County Administration is proposing to utilize these two amendment processes, GP and ZRA, as the recommended approach for Downtown, because they are legislative processes. Legislative processes afford the public the maximum opportunity to interact with their elected officials. The other processes that could be utilized such as amendment to the Preliminary Development Plan or a rezoning case would be a quasi-judicial process, requiring that elected officials cannot speak with the public or anyone else about the case. With this [GP and ZRA amendment] legislative approach, elected officials are free to meet with the public and to discuss the amendments as much as they may find helpful.

The Draft Master Plan does expand on the framework in which General Growth Properties is to hang their master plan on. The framework focuses on five themes, three vision-based and two process-based:

This framework is organized around five themes that emerged from the extensive input by the public during the charrette, the Downtown Columbia Focus Group meetings and from independent groups and individual citizens who have contributed to the planning process. These groups include Howard County Citizens’ Association, Columbia Association, Town Center village board, Wilde Lake village board, Oakland Mills village board, Harper’s Choice village board, the Coalition for Columbia’s Downtown (CCD), Bring Back the Vision, Howard County Tomorrow and others.

Just a quick note here. I think it would have been appropriate to list the blogs in Howard County (as a general category) as a source of input. Although rarely unanimous, the blogs have been a source of research, opinion, and discussion related to downtown.

The themes are organized around two broad categories: Vision and Process. The first three serve as extensions of Jim Rouse’s original goals for Columbia – a reaffirmation of the community’s founding principles and shared values. The last two - the Process themes - outline a planning and development process necessary to achieving the vision for Downtown Columbia.

Making a Special Place [page 6]

Downtown Columbia will be a diverse, mixed-use, livable, physically distinctive and human-scaled place with a range of hous-ing choices and recreational, civic and cultural amenities.

Moving and Connecting People [page 6]

Downtown Columbia will enhance multimodal connectivity through a variety of safe, convenient and innovative transportation alternatives.

Sustaining the Environment [page 7]

Downtown Columbia’s natural resources will be protected and enhanced; a network of public spaces will provide places for individual contemplation and social gathering.

Balancing and Phasing Growth [page 7]

The development of Downtown Columbia will be served by public facilities provided in a timely manner.

Involving Everyone [page 8]

The community will be actively engaged in decisions concerning the evolution of Downtown.

The balance of the draft expands on these five themes.

Traffic Study

Once again, only a first impression, but there is a lot to digest here. The traffic study is well written, and goes to some length to explain the terms involved. The traffic study breaks up traffic improvements into near term (present to 2014) and long term traffic flow (2014-2037). In the near term, few traffic modifications are recommended to kep traffic flowing and adding development. Beyond 2014, three scenarios are considered: no development, with a 1% yearly increase in traffic flow (based conservatively on traffic data collected over the last few years), a low development increase, and the projected development that was presented in the initial draft development plan. In all three cases, intersections downtown are predicted to fail.

One point that the slow growth/no growth contingent may latch onto is the middle growth scenario will produce 40% less traffic than the full growth scenario. However, as the report shows, both development scenarios would result in about the same amount of failing intersections. This indicates that there is not a statistically significant correlation between development and traffic. There are many recommendations, but we will save them for another post.

Looking at the calendar, the following draft master plan events are scheduled:

10OCT07 - Downtown Focus Group Meeting 4-6 pm
Oakland Mills, Other Barn
(they’re getting the band back together! And, as typical, during normal working hours to keep us work-a-day people away)

11OCT07 – Traffic Study Report 7-9 pm
Harpers Choice, Kahler Hall

20OCT07 – CA and Village Boards 10-12 noon
Howard Building

20OCT07 – DPZ Open House 1-3 pm
Howard Building

25OCT07 – DPZ Open House 7-9 pm
Wilde Lake High School

30OCT07 – Public Forum 7-9 pm
Oakland Mills High School

23 September 2007

The Tower of Babble

Well its been one Plaza-riffic week! I will save my impression of the whole thing until the end, but first, lets take a look at how the two days of testimony was reported. Dave Wissing at the Hedgehog Report was first out the gate with some great impressions of Monday night. The Baltimore Sun led off with a report by Larry Carson on September 19, 2007 (Tower fans, critics heard). Mr. Carson’s leadoff paragraph pretty much set the stage:

Like practiced players in a long-running drama, scores of people trying to block or defend a proposed 23-story condominium tower in Columbia descended on a Howard County Council public hearing Monday night for what turned out to be two days of testimony about two bills that could derail the project.

The report in the Baltimore Sun was followed by articles published in the Washington Post, Baltimore Examiner and Columbia Flier on September 20, 2007. Both the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun quoted testimony from CoFoCoDo’s Alan Klein.

The Washington Post reported:

Community activist Alan Klein said he wouldn't respond to comments from "special interests," but, his voice rising, he called to task each of the five council members.
"The council candidates announced their support for height limits. You said so publicly," he said, reciting statements attributed to members during their election campaigns. "You know why you should pass these bills."

And the Baltimore Sun:

But Alan Klein of the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown, a group trying to block the tower, which they see as large building that will dwarf the rest of Town Center, said his group has "almost 400 supporters" who "have no vested interest in the decision other than the quality of life."
He urged the council members to "protect the human scale of Columbia" and not "bow to special interests." He quoted each council member expressing doubt or opposition to the tower's height during last year's election campaigns.

In my opinion, I thought Alan’s testimony was particularly damaging to his cause. I was in the audience, sitting about fifty feet from Alan when he gave his testimony, and I was shocked. As stated by both the Sun and the Post, Alan did provide quotes from each of the council members and read them back to them. It seemed that with each quote, Alan’s voice got louder and more shrill. Alan’s verbal escalation peaked as he stated that many of the Council were in fact members of CoFoCoDo and quoted from their white paper regarding building height. After which, and I’m paraphrasing here, it appeared he commanded the council to adhere to the CoFoCoDo white paper and pass the building height bills. The room got noticeably quiet after Alan completed his testimony.

I suppose a lesson learned here is that if you are a supporter of CoFoCoDo, keep in mind your signing on may be viewed more as an oath, rather than an affirmation of their broad recommendations.

From the side opposing the legislation, Attorney Richard Talkin was widely quoted:

From the Baltimore Examiner:

“There is a rift in the community, and it’s getting wider. We need to resolve this case,” said Richard Talkin, attorney representing the developer of the Plaza Residences, WCI Communities Inc. “We have been willing to compromise.”

From the Columbia Flier:

Richard Talkin, an attorney representing Florida-based WCI Communities Inc., the developer of the planned 22-story condominium on Wincopin Circle, said the company is willing to compromise on the building's height and make other concessions to speed the project along.

[T]here is a rift in the community (over the project) and it's getting wider as the case goes on ... we have to move forward together," Talkin told the County Council at a Sept. 18 hearing on a pair of zoning amendments introduced by Council member Mary Kay Sigaty, a Columbia Democrat.

In contrast to Alan Klein, Mr. Talkin appeared calm both during his testimony and during a short Q&A with Council members.


Both the Baltimore Examiner and the Columbia Flier touched on the issue of a possible compromise. I think all parties involved would like to see some compromise worked out rather than continuing with the high stakes rhetoric. However, as I see it, hope on this front is somewhat bleak. It appears that WCI is willing to talk about at least changing the building height as part of a compromise, and may even be willing to do other things. However, they are committed to building on the site in downtown. In some respects, I can’t blame them for holding to their particular site. They received Planning Board approval for their site plan and also received building permits for that particular site. They played by all the rules and met all the requirements. Now they are talking about compromising even further. They may want to drop the height to 150 feet, but they are at least talking about some reduction in height.

On the other side, State Delegate Liz Bobo believes the first step in compromise is to build no building at all. The honorable former County Executive believes WCI should be compensated, and no building erected. Depending on who you are, this might appear to be a buyout or a property taking.

From my point of view, I believe that a buyout of WCI is a non-starter. By analogy, my neighbor and I have been talking about how to reduce our carbon footprints. One of the topics we have discussed is our vehicles. We both recognize that there are more fuel efficient vehicles on the market, and we are each considering purchasing one in the future. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that my neighbor decides that to reduce his carbon footprint, he decides to buy a motorcycle. I talk to my neighbor and say that the motorcycle will be loud and disruptive in the neighborhood. He states that the motorcycle is on order and offers to not start the motorcycle early in the morning, or drive at low throttle to minimize the noise (ostensibly the WCI position). I reply to him that I believe the motorcycle dealership should buy the motorcycle from him (after all, the dealership can afford to do that, right?), and he explore another, fuel efficient means of getting around town.

Does that make sense?

My Two Cents

With regard to the building height legislation, I am in opposition to both bills. Generally stated, Council Bill 64 is the one that applies building height legislation to those projects under appeal. I believe that the County would be in legal jeopardy if this bill is passed. Primarily because, as stated in the May 2007 Howard Business Monthly (Planning Board Hearing on Plaza Residences Tower Sparks Debate),

Two zoning regulation amendments targeting a controversial 23-story mixed-use high-rise approved for Columbia Town Center sparked a large turnout and lively debate at the Howard County Planning Board's late April hearing.
County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty (D-Dist. 4), who introduced the amendments, said she did so to respond to significant community concern about height limits triggered by the board's approval of The Plaza Residences at Columbia Town Center, a 275-foot-tall tower planned by Florida developer WCI Communities. The project would include ground level retail shops and 160 luxury condominiums.
"As the planning process went forward there was a real concern [in the community] that other buildings might slip in during the planning process," Sigaty told the board. "There was concern that this building would set a precedent that would be a negative precedent. ... In addition, though, there is also a very strong desire for real change in downtown."
According to a review of county regulations, Sigaty said, all districts have height limits except for New Town and those with MXT zoning. "I feel it is in the community's best interest for us to introduce an interim height limit of 150 feet [in New Town]," she said, noting that the limit reflects the height of the Merrill Lynch building, the county's tallest.
Her intent, Sigaty added, is to "calm fears about what could happen ... and hopefully engage people in the appropriate conversation necessary to help create a vibrant, exciting downtown."

So Councilperson Sigaty’s own words clearly place the zoning amendments (now Council Bills) as a response to one project. In addition, both the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning and the Howard County Planning Board have recommended against the retroactive nature of CB 64. So to enact legislation against a single project and willfully ignore both the recommendations of DPZ and the Planning Board puts the Council, and the County, in a bad position.

With respect to CB 63, which sets a 150 foot height limit in New Town I have two concerns with this bill. First, passing this bill elevates (pardon the pun) 150 feet above any other height to be considered in the future. As the discussion and debate about downtown Columbia evolves, if 150 feet is passed by the County Council, someone will most likely defend the 150 feet by stating that the Council must have passed it for some reason. Passage of CB 63 sets an arbitrary standard. Moreover, by passing a height limit now, limits further creativity as we discuss downtown. In my opinion, what should be held constant at the outset is the amount of developable square footage in downtown. From that constant value, a robust discussion of traffic volumes, building heights, and density can occur. To the County’s credit, this is precisely what they have done since the charrette.


As we move into the final week before these bills are decided, there need to be some solutions offered. I only have a few, but would welcome any that are pinging around the blogosphere.

The first suggestion I have is to add the word “arbitrary” to CB 63. Clearly, most people believe that this height limit was not arrived at by any empirical, historical, or even sentimental means. It is in fact an arbitrary limit, so why not say so in the bill?

Secondly, I have heard some say “since CB 63 is temporary, what would it hurt to pass it?” Well, if this is true, that no harm will come from passing a temporary building height, why not limit the height to ten (10) feet? I mean, it’s only temporary, so what could it hurt? Right?

18 September 2007

Red Rocks!

Columbia blogger Red Writes weighs in on the Wegmans coming to Columbia. It's time well spent so check it out. I put my two cents in. Also take the time to read other posts, Red provides a great first-person perspective on the happenings in the area.

Go Red!

14 September 2007

To-MAY-to, to-MAH-to?

It looks to me that the Plaza Tower and Wegmans are becoming a planning and zoning Scylla and Charybdis visited upon our fine community. The opposition mounted (mostly by labor unions) to the Wegmans is starting to sound awful similar to the path blazed by the friends of the community Knowles/Broida/Meskin/Stolley.

At the heart of both opposition movements is text amendment changes to Final Development Plans (FDPs). In fact, in each case, the FDP change dealt with adding a permitted use. In the case of the Plaza Tower, apartments were permitted on a site zoned for Employment Center/Commercial. In the case of Wegmans, a grocery store (generally considered a commercial use) was permitted on a site zoned as industrial.

It is also of note that both parties have stated the Planning Board decisions are in opposition to the original intent of Columbia, with CoFoCoDo-ists pouring over early pictures of Columbia promotional concept models to count building floors and Wegmans opposers stating that the proposed huge grocery store would threaten the Village Centers as they are currently configured.

Knowles/Broida/Meskin/Stolley appealed to the Board of Appeals, and the Wegmans opposition currently intends to follow the same course. As these cases wind through the appeals and courts, it will certainly be interesting. It may even be possible that both cases could be before the Maryland Court of Special Appeals by this time next year.

And if this zoning situation detaches from reality and falls into the realm of the unbelievable, the Wegmans opposition could put pressure on elected officials to introduce zoning amendments to prohibit construction of a grocery store greater than 60,000 square feet (including those grocery stores undergoing judicial review) until a master plan is developed for the Sieling Industrial Park.

That kind of thing couldn’t happen, could it?

10 September 2007

I found another one

Another Oakland Mills Village Center sign. It is located on Thunder Hill Road, south of Twin Knolls Road. Check it out.

View Larger Map

06 September 2007

The Face of Sprawl

Let us all take a moment and think good thoughts for CA Board member Evan Coren (KC). Evan needs some good thoughts. He needs some good karma. He is in a bad place right now. In his latest post on his blog. Evan states:

Wednesday night at the Kings Contrivance Village Board meeting I saw a
presentation by Wegman's. The Wegman's proposal includes Wegman's paying for
significant road improvements in that area where they are planning on building
at the corner of Snowden River Parkway and McGaw Road. If more developers
demonstrated this willingness to mitigate the traffic problems they create we
would not be having such a problem with downtown Columbia redevelopment.

Evan also provides a link to an earlier post he wrote in which he advocates for placing :”big box” stores (such as Best Buy) in the village centers (and by the way, check out Mike Drakos' comment on the linked post. It is lengthy, but well written. I could not say it any better).

I suppose it is clear now, Evan is in love with big box stores. He advocates shopping at such centers, and now he terms the Wegmans construction responsible because they will build more roads; further enforcing the dominance of the automobile over the pedestrian. Evan Coren is the face of sprawl.

Moreover, it appears that Evan boils development down to a single issue: traffic. I have to wonder, if WCI put a turn lane in front of the Plaza Tower, could we expect Evan to whole-heartedly endorse the building? It is hard to say.

What Evan may not realize is that Wegmans had to provide traffic mitigation measures. The traffic generated for the store will clearly change the level of service (and by that I mean traffic volume) on McGaw Road. The County requires developers to provide traffic mitigation if their development will cause a change in level of service to the road. Another point Evan may not realize is that in downtown Columbia the intersections are designated as “constrained road facilities.” This means that if development causes a change in level of service, the intersections cannot be modified because of their “unique urban character.” (Now clearly, if the downtown intersections get to the point that they fail, the State of Maryland will require mitigation.) So Evan is triumphing something that Wegmans was required to do by law and denigrating other development that is required by law to do nothing.

What I would like to see Wegmans do is go a little above and beyond what is required (and yes, I may sound a little CoFoCoDo-ish in saying this). I think we can all agree that putting Wegmans next to Snowden River Parkway will increase traffic which will result in more greenhouse gases emitted and more pollution. I say why not try to mitigate not only the traffic, but the environmental externality as well. Could we ask Wegmans to build a bus stop at their store (thereby allowing access without the use of a car) and to donate two new hybrid buses to the County (further reducing the carbon footprint). Lastly, have the Wegmans building constructed and certified to at least LEED silver standards (the bus stop construction will go a long way to achieve this goal). It is my hope that this is a modest proposal, and could be used to minimize the effects of Wegmans on the region.

04 September 2007

Baltimore Examiner Declares War on Columbia, Maryland

No, not really; but given the Examiner’s proclivity for misleading headlines, why not join the party? What we have today is poorly constructed editorial from the Baltimore Examiner. It’s headline “Columbia Association milks homeowners” seems to only tangentially enter into the body of their piece. Ostensibly, the topic of the editorial is the recently released salary data for the top positions at the Columbia Association.

“If only government employees were paid as handsomely as Columbia Association
officers. Heck, if mere residents all could make as much, what a happy place
Columbia would be.”

This lead-off sentence promises much to come, but little follows. Yes, if only government employees were paid as much as Columbia Association (CA) officers. But CA is not a government, so why make the comparison? Even more troubling is the second statement, trying to relate senior management salary to all Columbia residents. If all Columbia residents were senior officers of corporations, then yes, there would be a valid comparison, but as we all know, not everyone in Columbia is the President of a Corporation, a CFO, etc…Lord knows I am not. (and by-the-way, I find Columbia, day-in and day-out a pretty happy place to be, regardless of salary.)

Rather than lobbing ill constructed arguments, such as:

"As The Examiner reported last week, five of the seven top officers at the homeowner’s association earned more than $100,000 in fiscal 2007; President
Maggie Brown earned $207,973 with her bonus.

The average adult in Columbia makes about $41,000 a year, according to 2006 Mapinfo/AnySite Demographics. "

The Examiner staff should have done some research (it is, from what I am told, a newspaper) to find out what other executives that live in Columbia make. This would give an apples to apples comparison. Or maybe they could look into what executives at other non-profit organizations, with revenues in the $25M-$50M range make. Or what the salaries of executives at other quasi-governmental organizations make (WSSC comes to mind). Otherwise, to state the average adult makes $41K seems to imply that the President of a corporation should make $41K. Bad idea.

The editorial does mention one salary:

As members of a quasi-governmental group, homeowners have a right to think
salaries would align with those of Howard County government employees.

But they don’t. The chief administrative officer in the county makes $154,000 a

I also find it interesting that the Examiner editorial staff seems to go out of their way to demonstrate how relatively “poor” Columbians are, when just five days ago they were trumpeting the comparative wealth of the State of Maryland and Howard County.

Now, I agree that homeowners “have a right to think salaries would align with those of Howard County government employees,” but how about some supporting evidence? What other organization locks their senior staff's salary to government pay? Anyone? How far should this mimicking of governmental parity go? The Howard County government does see its way to pay council members on the order of $50K/yr. Should CA start paying the board of directors above the average Howard County salary (as sourced by the Examiner editorial board) for their services?

The Examiner then goes on to detail Howard County property taxes and the CA lien/assessment:

"As Howard County residents, Columbia homeowners pay $1.01 in property taxes for every $100 of assessed value. On top of that they must also pay a base “fee” to
the Columbia Association.

That tax is $0.68 per $100 of assessed value on half of the property or about $1,579 on a home valued at $464,294, the average selling price of a home in Howard County in July. If you want more than CA’s basic services you pay more.

With that kind of fee only the wealthy can afford to live in Columbia. "

I find this particularly interesting. The Examiner states that the average annual salary in Columbia is $41K, then states the average home is valued at $464,294, and then comes to the conclusion that the CA fee is the reason folks cannot afford to live in Columbia. Let me first say, if a home costs ten times your salary, it is not the CA fee that is going to stop you from making your payments.

This type of argument also hides another reality. Given the data of a selling price of $464,294 in July 2007 seems to imply that most people are paying a lien (and a property tax) on an assessed value of more than $450K. This is not so. As we know in Howard County, the amount of your assessment can only increase by a small percentage each year. So if a homeowner purchased a home 5, 10, 20 or 40 years ago, the value can only increase incrementally year to year. A few years ago, CA implemented a similar regimen (with some involvement from the Maryland General Assembly)

So the home that now sells for $464,294 today may have sold for $190K - $200K a few years ago. That means that people are not paying the $1579 stated in the editorial, they are paying less. It is only the people that purchased in July 2007 that would be paying that rate.

The Examiner editorial then adds:

CA spokesman Steve Sattler said the association uses consultants to determine
salaries. Who cares. Common sense says the pay scale is out of whack with both
equivalent jobs and community values.

I find this conclusion especially dangerous. "Who cares?" I believe a lot of people care. That in fact would be one of the reasons to write an editorial as such. Moreover, boiling down an argument to “common sense” is just another way of saying there is no supporting, credible evidence to support their argument.

As for equivalent jobs, once again, only one job title was cited, that of a government position. CA is not a government, it is a private corporation. Comparables of other private corporations, both for profit and non-profit should be used. The salaries of other large homeowner associations should be used. The salaries of other quasi-governmental organizations (such as WSSC or the NYNJPA) should be used. And, if any can be found, any other organization of similar size that voluntarily uses a local government pay scale should be used. The Examiner provides none of this data.

As far as community values, this comes from a media organization with women in bikinis adorned with “I survived roe v. wade” and "Imagine No Liberals" t-shirts on their website.

The Examiner editorial closes with the following two paragraphs:

"Columbia homeowners should demand pay cuts from Columbia Association officers.
They must also demand that the group post employee salaries and its budget online in an easily accessible portion of the Web site to allow for better oversight of the association.

Transparency is a key way to ensure those charged with supervising Columbia reflect the priorities – and incomes – of the homeowners paying their salaries. "

Interesting. Without making a case that a quasi-governmental organization should be paid at a local government scale, the Examiner puts forth that the population of Columbia should demand paycuts of the executives. It appears that this suggestion separates performance from pay and is an invitation to chaos. Moreover, demanding pay cuts from CA officers demonstrates a lack of understanding of the Columbia Association by the Baltimore Examiner. The CA Board decides the compensation for the CA President directly. Indirectly, the CA Board decides staff compensation by approving the operations budget. The CA President determines senior staff compensation directly. If anyone is to be implicated, the CA Board should be the stating place. Keep in mind, the CA Board recently approved an increase in the CA President’s salary. After awarding the CA President a $7,000 pay increase this year, CA Board member Gail Broida (TC) was quoted in the Columbia Flier saying:

"I feel that Mrs. Brown will do her absolute best under her current contract to
lead the organization forward and the board working with Mrs. Brown will be
successful in advancing our policies," she said.

After the Alliance for a Better Columbia released CA salary data, the following CA Board members were quoted in the local media:

The whole salary issue has always been very difficult," Russell said, because the association is much larger and responsible for more than the typical homeowners' association. It's neither a private, profit-making company nor a full-fledged government. – Barbara Russell (OM)

I feel like the executives are paid a reasonable fee,” she said, adding they don’t receive benefits comparable to government employees. – Cynthia Coyle (HC)

I would also encourage the Examiner to post its local and corporate officer’s salaries and compensation, and their budget, on their website. It certainly would be transparent.

In closing, let us all agree that more research needs to be done. The CA Board is about to embark on its third salary compensation study since 1999. When this data becomes available, we will all be able to see what the market bears for the executive staff. To tie staff pay to local government pay without any substantive argument is foolish. Topics such as executive pay and compensation are a serious subjects and should not be exposed to the whims of “what feels right.”

Taking a long view, reducing pay based without justification will create morale problems and will provide yet another signal to the most talented out there to stay away from Columbia. As the search for a new CA President begins, some of the most talented available will take the time to review the previous year of half the CA Board asking for the CA President to be dismissed. Following that up with unsubstantiated pay reductions will only drive highly qualified candidates farther away.