28 January 2008

A Rhetorical Shotgun Blast

A recent post on the Hometown Columbia blog revealed an email circulating throughout the county. For the sake of discussion, the email is reproduced below:

As many of you know developers like GGP are gaining an
increasingly larger control over development in
Columbia, while Howard County Officials and the County
Council have turned a blind eye.
The County Planning Director and her staff have
recently approved several traffic studies that have
mistakes or are simply inaccurate. And even though
county planning staff admitted in internal documents
that the traffic study for the controversial Wegmans
big-box grocery store on Snowden River Pkwy had errors
in it, they refuse to demand a new study from the
 developer. It is no surprise that the county is
 siding with the developer, since it was GGP that
advocated for changing the zoning at this property.
Now GGP will wants us to accept and believe their
traffic studies for downtown Columbia when they won’t
even stand up and ensure that an accurate traffic
study is used on the Wegmans site. Regardless if you
support the proposed grocery store or not, we must all
demand that the county planning staff require honest 
traffic studies and accurate development plans. They
work for us, not GGP and other developers.
Please email or call - Barbara Nicklas and Gregory
Hamm at GGP and ask them to support accurate traffic
studies for downtown Columbia.
Barbara Nicklas - barbara.nicklas@ggp.com (410)
Gregory Hamm - Gregory.Hamm@ggp.com
Be sure to include County Executive Ken Ulman’s Chief
of Staff, Aaron Greenfield, so the County knows that
residents are getting tired of the County putting
developers first.
Aaron Greenfield - agreenfield@howardcountymd.gov
Please to forward this email to your friends and
neighbors who care about over development and the
growing traffic problem in Columbia. We have to speak
up or nothing will ever change.

From the first sentence, there is a demonstrated lack of history. When shareholders of the Rouse Company willingly voted to be acquired by General Growth Properties (GGP), the development of properties in Howard County also transferred. In the months preceding the sale to GGP, the Rouse Company was engaged in a proposal to develop downtown Columbia. As I see it, GGP has continued in the tradition of Columbia development that the Rouse Company started over 40 years ago.

The assertion that the county has turned a blind eye to Columbia development is equally void. Since the turn of the century, the county has been actively engaged in the development process. It was a County Councilperson that initiated the changes in downtown Columbia to encourage mixed use. The county chartered a committee to look at Merriweather Post Pavilion’s viability. The county funded and sponsored the Charrette. The county worked hard to keep big box stores out of downtown. The county brought forth legislation to limit building heights in downtown Columbia. Sounds to me like the county has been pretty involved.

In the second paragraph, there is a reference to “several” traffic studies. Could these be named? Why not stipulate the number of traffic studies that are known to have mistakes? Why hide behind vagaries? In addition, what is the character of these “mistakes” and inaccuracies?” Are these pagination errors? Number transposition errors? What are the specifics? Do these errors amount to real concern? Said a different way, are these errors (in these “several” traffic studies) large enough to change the level of service in the study area?

The last sentence in the second paragraph marks the departure point from reality.

It is no surprise that the county is
 siding with the developer, since it was GGP that
 advocated for changing the zoning at this property.

A little history lesson for the author of the email: It is written in the Howard County Zoning Regulations that the Rouse Company (or its successor) is the only party that can ask the county to change any zoning in the New Town District. Before being acquired by GGP, it became known that the Rouse Company would charge companies money to make the request for a change. In fact, the Rouse Company had created a plan in which it would sell “development units” to future developers if it had gotten the density in Columbia changed.

This left a bad taste in many people’s mouths (myself included). Recently, a task force of Columbians sought to review New Town Zoning and made several recommendations. The chair of this task force was (to the best of my knowledge) Owen Brown resident (and Owen Brown Village Board Chair) Andy Stack. I believe Andy’s participation on the task force was as a resident of Columbia and not in his capacity as OBVB Chair.

Regardless, Andy has been a community leader since (I believe) I was in high school (Hammond, Class of 1984), and this task force recommended that GGP be taken completely out of the New Town process. Now, given the public backlash against the development unit scheme, and the New Town Zoning Task Force recommendation to remove GGP from the process (Executive Summary, Recommendation 3). GGP appears to have taken the position that if someone is looking for a change in a Final Development Plan, they are willing to fulfill their obligation to initiate the process. There is no evidence that GGP receives any benefit from this process and there is no evidence to suggest that GGP played any significant role in bringing Wegmans to Columbia. There is evidence that Wegmans has been talking to the property owner, Science Fiction, for some time.

Moreover, the change sought at the Wegmans sight was not a change in zoning. The land is still zoned for industrial use. The change sought was to amend the FDP such that a permitted use on the industrial land site was to include a large grocery store. These are two distinctly separate actions.

This half-baked logic continues on to the next paragraph in which the email states that:

Now GGP will wants us to accept and believe their 
traffic studies for downtown Columbia when they won’t
even stand up and ensure that an accurate traffic
study is used on the Wegmans site.

Not to belabor the point, but a review of recent history helps to clarify the issue. GGP did a traffic study for downtown Columbia in 2005 (Wells & Associates). The county then commissioned a second traffic study in 2006 (Glatting Jackson), and then commissioned a third traffic study in 2007 (Sabra Wang). So GGP and the county have commissioned three different reports, from three different firms, in three successive years regarding traffic in downtown. I have no supporting evidence, but it may well be that downtown Columbia traffic has been the most studied traffic area in the State of Maryland over the last five years.

I would like to close by saying that for all the flaws, I admire the folks who are sending this email around. That being said, the vagaries, inconsistencies, and lack of knowledge of history greatly diminish the impact of this letter. When it comes to trying to effect change, a lucid, rational argument will carry the day. Banging drums only makes noise. It is my hope that those at the county realize the distinction. If you agree with me, please contact the county and please tell them to ignore the noise.


Jessie N said...

You rock, Bill!

Anonymous said...

there are a lot of swakers and few point makers.

Bill, thank you for being a pointmaker.

Anonymous said...

So you unabashedly accept everything GGP and Rouse and HRD ever did? Funny, when GGP took over HRD, certain politicians, community activists, and opponents to certain projects feverishly questioned their motives whether they could be trusted to keep the community's interest in the forefront. Not that you were necessarily one of those people, but most of the people now supporting the Town Center plan questioned it a few years ago and you are obviously a supporter of the current administration who was one of the loudest critics back then. I guess the political winds have shifted, huh?

B. Santos said...

Dear Gutless (aka Anon 20:30),

I like your comedy. Not only do you lurk as an unnamed, tolerated interloper in the conversation, but the time you used to craft your comment was wasted because it is completely without attribution. Certain politicians? Certain community activists? Certain projects? I do not believe any further response is appropriate until you can provide further clarity. Rather than bottom-feeding in vagaries, do some research and provide examples (and source them as best you can). I think once you start the hard work of trying to make a real difference in this community, you will find my name (among others) in many places. And please, find a name for yourself, Gutless. Until then, remember, I’m laughing with you, not at you.

Anonymous said...

You are truly pathetic. An anon commenter who agrees with you or applauds you receives your love, but an anon commmenter is called gutless by you. Not a very polite way to act as host of the blog. It didn't sound like the prior anon commenter attacked you, but you certainly attacked him/her.

What gives?

B. Santos said...

Anon 22:48,

Yes, I may have been a bit over the top, but let's all be honest. The previous, gutless, anonymous commentor posted without a name attribution, vaguely cited politicians, vaguely cited community activists, and vaguely cited projects.

That comment is just plain lazy. It really has nothing to do with agreement. Let's try to get back on topic. Did you say something about the misrepresentions brought upon by the Anti-Wegmans email?

Anonymous said...


I thought I might chime in on this lovely post. You want names? Ok. When the Crescent Property plan (the property behind Merriweather PP) was up for development, Ian Kennedy, Bridget Mugane, and about 20 other opponents of that plan railed against the traffic study conducted for that project - a study conducted by none other than Wells & Associates - if memory serves me.

Yet, both Ms. Mugane and Ian are unabashed supporters of the Town Center Plan - for which Wells and Associates did one of the studies??? I would certainly like someone to explain how this change in opinion of W&A came about? It really smacks of more political skullduggery than legitimacy.

And, as for flaws. Let's look at some of your statements:

"Since the turn of the century, the COunty has been actively involved in the development process." Actually, the Counuty has been involved in that process since the mid-1900's. And it wasn't just since 2000 (if that's the turn of the cuntury mark you were referring to) that the County became "active".

"It was County Councilperson that initiated changes in downtown Columbia to encourage mixed use."
What a load of manure. The FDP's for Town Center already allowed mized uses as evidenced my the EXISTING mix of uses located there. Please stop trying to heap praise and give credit to Ulman for things he had nothing to do with.

"The County worked hard to keep big box stores out of downtown." Well, if mixed use is so great, why on earth would the County work to prevent that? And, for the record, GGP removed "big box" stores from their Crescent Property proposal during one of the many hearings so once again you're are seriously distorting the record.

"The County brought forth legislation to limit building height in Town Center." Sure, Mary Kay proposed it, but I don't recall Ulman supporting it. IN fact, didn't Ulman campaign that he would stop the tower from being built? What's the status on his progress with that anyway?

You are really a shameless propagandist for Ulman and his lousy administration. You attack everyone and anyone who dares to question his actions. PATHETIC!

B. Santos said...

PZ my brother!

Thanks for raising some interesting points. I would be happy to provide some clarification.

With respect to the traffic studies: I was trying to address the temporal problem with the email (i.e. "now GGP wants us to accept and believe...") not so much who was where on the study itself. My point was that traffic studies have been going on for years, not just "now."

Through the benefit of hindsight, I do find it interesting that the data collected by W&A and Sabra Wang are pretty darn close (a delta of approximately 3%). In this way, they kind of validate each other.

I am a little unclear as to which crescent proposal you are talking about. Is it the original Rouse 1600/close Merriweather proposal or the Lowes/Costco/big bookstore that was later proposed. Just a clarification. Regardless, let's both agree that the plans circulated post Charrette have been different from the pre-Charrette plans, and this difference may be enough to change people's opinion.

On the subject of "turn of the century," yes, I was referring to the year 2000 (although some purists say 2001 was the turn of the century, I have no dog in that hunt, and figure 2000 works for me). It was the turn of the century, no? Sorry for the confusion.

And yes, you are correct. The county has always been involved in development. I should have been more precise and stated downtown Columbia development. My bad.

With respect to mixed use, I think you need to do a little research. Check the FDP for the former site of the Columbia Cinema and Ridgely building. You will find the FDP was changed in 2000 to allow apartments in addition to the other permitted uses. And yes, press reports from the time indicate a County Council member did initiate the dialog that led to the change. I’m not giving credit to Ken Ulman, because it wasn’t him. Although we both have a passion for the subject, we should both try to not shoot ourselves in the foot.

Big box stores: Once again, big box is more associated with an auto-centric mode of development and, in my opinion, is counter to mixed use/smart growth principles. And I think, once again, we both have nothing to quibble about on this point. County opposition to big box led to GGP removing big box from the proposal. How about we both recognize both parts of that statement? I see no distortion. I’m in if you’re in.

On building height, I think you are wandering a little here. I stated that the County did introduce legislation to limit building height. You state that Mary Kay introduced legislation. Sounds like we are both saying the same thing. I believe this is the third time in a single comment that I wrote “county” and you responded by tying it to Ken. Is it possible that when I write “county” you somehow read “Ken,” because that is not my intent.

I don’t have Ken’s “people tree” speech. If you could provide it, I would appreciate the citation of where he states that he would stop the tower. I’m open to that.

In closing, no PZ, I am not a shill for Ken Ulman. I came across an email that was full of holes that trucks could drive through, and I pointed them out. It’s very simple, people are being deceived, and I wrote something about it. Would you equally accept the mantle of being the unabashed lackey and lapdog of the CoFoCoDo/ReGrowCo! BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything) CAVE(Coalition Against Virtually Everything) people?


Drive safe tonight, and don’t forget to tip your waiter/waitress (waitron?)…

Anonymous said...

What is the "Town Center plan" that everyone's talking about?

I thought GGP wasn't going to release the plan until later this spring.

Anonymous said...


I got a good laugh out your BANANA acronym. I had not heard that one before.

I assumed you meant Ken when you said "county" simply because he is the current CE - much to my dismay of course.

You're right - I have no personal claim that the traffic studies are flawed. However, I have never particularly liked traffic studies because they're only a snapshot of a given moment, and I do believe that they can, and sometimes are manipulated.

GGP did initially propose to "close" MPP but I think that was more jest than serious. They ultimately wanted to enclose it and make it a year-round venue, a proposal that was loudly objected to by Ulman and others, but yet, that's where the dialog on MPP is today. One day a poltician objects to something that the next day he supports. Confusing.

I thought you were little heavy handed on the criticism of the emailer. Not everyone can be as well written as Pulitzer - I know I'm not. I personally like to see healthty criticism of the County, even if the rationale is not always Harvard level thinking.

As for the big box issue - I think people made much too much about it then and still are today. The proposal listed that as one possible use for the land, but there was also 2 office buildings and some elderly housing.

There was also overblown hype that any development would cripple MPP because the parking lots would be gone. But, the new parking lots could have been used in a shared parking arrangement, just as is done now, and MPP could have gone on. My point is that certain participants in that dialogue were selectively dishonest in their basis for opposing the plan. But those same people now support a plan that does the same thing with MPP and the Crescent Property, and also adds three times more development to Town Center.

If I go anywhere tonight, it will be by way of canoe.