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.