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.