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?