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.


PZGURU said...

B. Santos - let me get this straight. You say that Evan Coren is the face of sprawl because he supported "big box" retail on the Crescent Property, and partly because he opposed the WCI tower.

First, let me correct a BIG misconception about the Crescent Property Plan proposed several years ago. There was not a specific site plan proposing only big box retail on that property. The plan was a Sketch Plan, that merely proposed a list of allowed uses that COULD be developed on that property. Yes, there was talk of a Best Buy. But, there was also talk of a book store, office buildings, and senior housing.

Now, even if the proposal was for only big box - so what? How does that constitute sprawl? In fact, it is the opposite of sprawl. If Best Buy wasn't built there, then people in Town Center or the nearby villages would have to DRIVE out to Snowden River Parkway to get to Best Buy. So, wouldn't big box retail have REDUCED vehicle distance, which would reduce emissions, and so on? What am I missing here? Could it be political wrangling?

Furthermore, there is a difference between the two types of developments as far as traffic and APFO testing and mitigation goes.

Big box retail would have capitalized largely on vehicles already traveling in the area. The NET increase in volume would be slight. COmpare that with building 5,000 new housing units (only part of which would be in the WCI tower) which would be a huge increase in traffic volume because every unit would equate to NEW vehicle trips that did not exist before. The impacts on the road system would be huge.

Technically speaking, yes - Wegmans could propose a bus service to mitigate traffic impacts, but I don't know if the County would/could accept such a proposal for the main reason that ridership is not guaranteed (such is also the flaw in those who propose mas transit to offset additional traffic in Town Center if the 5,000 units are built). Just like putting in sidewalks doesn't guarantee that people will walk instead of driving.

I think Evan is actually one of the few people out there who understands this difference and I think he has the right direction on it.

You should re-think your criticism of him and I'll hope that you have good thoughts and good karma.

B. Santos said...


As a point of clarification, I do not think I ever mentioned the crescent property. In fact, I don't think Evan supported big box on the crescent property. In fact, I think you are the first person that in any way has defended big box in the crescent.

Evan has clearly stated on his blog that the addition of roads sets his bar for responsible development. This, coupled with his idea to bring big box retail to each village center, and place it on top of a grocery store seems to confirm his high ceilings and industrial lighting.

Big box stores typically feature lots of parking thereby dimishing pedestrians (humans) and emphasizing the dominance of the automobile. Spreading big box thorughout Columbia, as Evan suggests, further increases the VMT of the community. It is these features, emphasizing the building of roads, reinforcing the dominance of the automobile, increasing VMT is what are the results of sprawl development.

I find it odd that you would put forth the Wegmans as attracting local traffic, in that the local papers have quoted Wegmans as saying that between 50-80 percent of thier customers come from a radius of more than 5-miles.

Hmm, sounds like people driving from afar to me.

So let's you and I agree that Wegmans will increase the carbon footprint of Columbia and Howard County. Why not take some small measures to help reduce this footprint?

I will agree the addition of a bus stop and the donation of two buses does not directly translate into increased ridership, but not having a bus stop guarantees that all patrons will arrive by car.

Another thing we can both agree on is the addition of two turning lanes on McGaw road will be filled with cars in no time. PZ, we are running out of room to lay asphalt, and need to start investing in other modes of transportation.

I am not asking for Wegmans to construct a monorail (monorail!), just provide another means to arrive. Maybe this community will get it, ridership will increase, and we will all be surprised. The best thing to do is to try, and not just applaud a company for doing what it was supposed to do by regulation.

pzguru said...

I like your monorail idea. Have you been watching Simpsons re-runs? The monorail episode is a classic.

I agree - having a bus at least provides the opportunity for ridership. I just hate seeing empty buses (or 95% empty buses) driving around - because at that level, there is probably no benefit.

I do think big box at the Crescent property would have been good (not all big box mind you but a few stores). I'm not sure they would be a good fit at the village centers. Is Evan just angling for general retail at the village centers - which would work - or true big box?

As for Wegmans traffic, I don't consider 5 miles to be beyond local traffic. To me, if people are travelling 15-20 miles, that's traffic above and beyond already existing local traffic. Besides, there's little chance that people will ride a bus to a big box store, or even Wegmans, because who's going to try to lug 60" TV onto a bus or 6 bags of groceries? That alone is a huge limiting factor to who would/will ride mass transit to those types of destinations. It's one thing to take mass transit to Camden Yards (for example), but when you're lugging around lots of merchandise - very unlikely.

I agree also that road imps are limited in their benefits. When Route 100 opened it was supposed to alleviate congestion (on other roads I suppose) but it is congested itself. What the net benefit is I don't know.

If you ever figure out to solve the sprawl factor, you'll be a rich man. It's almost impossible because so much about solving it involves human behavior and that's hard to "control".

Tom said...

By the end of this monthe there will be plenty to analyse about the potential for sprawl in Columbia as the County and GGP lay out their plans for the future. So be patient on this issue for 20 more days.

Anonymous said...

Big boxes, outlying groceries, curbing sprawl, and public transit - where to dive in??

The face of sprawl can be found in a mirror. We encourage it, we indulge in it, we ignore causes for it that for which proven and economical solutions exist, and we subsidize it (a lot) - all to an extent that can reasonably be described as needless. So, solving sprawl isn't "almost impossible", it's just multi-faceted, each cause having an elementary remedy.

Tom said...

Also remember couty governments all "need" commercial grwoth to feed their tax base so their "programs can grow. HoCo is no different. So there is always a bias to approve a new project. Our leaders just need to do it wisely.

Anonymous said...

There's that claim of "need" again. County governments don't need growth to fund existing programs. Nor must county governments resort to commercial growth to fund increased costs of existing programs or offering additional programs, having multiple other means to do such as:
- receiving increased property tax revenues resulting from appreciated property values,
- receiving increased income tax revenues by nurturing a more educated, more highly-skilled workforce,
- receiving increased business tax revenues by nurturing businesses that provide higher-value products,
- shifting funds from no-longer-needed programs to ones that are,
- finding cost savings in existing programs and using the savings,
- pursuing additional grant funding from state and federal sources,
- and making changes in program investments that will have compounding societal returns that lessen demand for and cost of other county services.

Also, a bias to approve a new project doesn't always exist. Some projects, either because of obvious community opposition or because of obvious detriment to the County, haven't enjoyed such slanted approval consideration.

Our representatives may find the most wisdom in sustainability, not just plain-old vanilla growth. Growth can be pursued not in the traditional sense, but in the quality sense, pursuing the betterment of community, environment, workforce, business, and government.