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.


Lakeside bandit said...

Great post.

Jessie Newburn said...

Say it like you see it, Bill. Great post.

hecker said...

Re activities for teens, I'm not a teen myself (to say the least!), but it seems like the folks at Cyberden off Dobbin Road have been trying like the dickens to attract the local teens and twenty-somethings: PC and console gamign center, coffee and dessert shop, dance club with all-ages nights, and so on. And all done by private investors (more of which they're seeking), without any county or CA subsidies as far as I can tell.

Anonymous said...

It is a shame when any village in Columbia is opposed to affordable housing.

It is doubly troubling when many in opposition start off with "I moved here in 1970something for the Rouse vision, now, we have too many working people who, although many make more than I do, did not get here in 1970something and should not be allowed to move here unless they are rich. Go Rouse!"

On antoher note, why don't we reopen the Wilde Times Café in Oakland Mills (where the Teen Center is) next to the Food Lion or in the new Meridian Square building until tenents get there? It would be a start, as would some great "teen-friendly" amenities at Blandair Park.

For the record, teens in every town hang out and say things are boring. Let's try to hear more from them about what they want instead of us trying to remember what teens liked 40 years ago.

Tom said...

Destinations that are profitable in America don't close. The listed destinations closed because they became dated followed by lack of attendance and finally lack the profits to sustain themselves.

BS - I appreciated your responses to Bridget's letter. But, the best blogs stay on topic and stay away from personal inferences. I say this all the time. There are over 100,000 people living in Columbia, but less than 1% care enough about Columbia to speak out or even vote.
This 1% tends to be very well educated. Of course we all don't agree on all issues. But, we all want a "better place to live". So let's be civil with each other.

Lakeside Bandit said...

Tom, I am not sure what you are getting at, but the writer of the letter is the president of a citizen’s organization, in fact one that claims to speak for all Howard County citizens. She wrote the letter as an individual, but as president of an activist organization, she should expect more direct criticism than the average citizen. I think the host’s refutation of the letter was civil and appropriate.

Anonymous said...

Reading that post felt like watching an accident in slow motion. I agree with Tom. Your critique of her letter painfully strayed from solely addressing the issues:
- to questioning her personal support of the Wilde Times Cafe, to labeling her statement of the Cafe's history and community support (while it wasn't as thorough as yours) as disingenuous,
- to calling her to account for not conversing with teens about Columbia's amenities (are you sure she hasn't?) or forwarding the idea to do so (again, she was summarizing the Flier),
- to your apparently misinterpreting the statement about the Rouse Co.'s level of support for village centers (I understood "By 2002" to mean during the time prior to and leading up to the 2002 sale) and using that apparent misinterpretation to then use the "ready, fire, aim" quip and later redundantly mention getting facts straight/not rely on hearsay or remnant knowledge,
- to yet again tossing a jab at someone on the CA Board - in this case Barbara Russell (apparently for the position shared by some in OM and elsewhere that affordable housing should be more equitably located throughout Columbia, not a lot more in some villages and a lot less in others), you claiming such a position forwards a mixed message on housing

You questioned what direct competition did Big Boxes pose to village center businesses. Besides competition for disposable income, consumers' time available to shop, and diverting shopping traffic in general, a few examples of more direct competition posed would include (remember the reference was "By 2002", not just "during 2002") the OM Hardware Store facing competition from the larger Hechinger's in Dobbin Center, any of the village centers' restaurants and banks trying to compete with the banks and larger chain restaurants strategically placed just across the parking lots from the Big Boxes, Feet First competing with the much, much larger Dick's and DSW, Blockbuster and other VC's video rental stores (that sold as well as rented movies and games) competing with BestBuy, and the village's groceries and other food-related stores competing with BJ's bulk prices.

And, while not in village centers per se, the outparcel west's Metzler's and the outparcel east's Grandfather's competing with HomeDepot's garden center is a similar example.

If her summary of the Flier was inaccurate, by all means, please improve upon it. If it was accurate, then either point your criticism at the Flier if their coverage of these issues was inaccurate or at the public at large if you disagree with the, paraphrasing as you put it, 'positive and negative thoughts' accurately reported.