22 September 2008

The 5500

5500. Sometimes, it’s a hard number to comprehend. I do not believe I have 5500 of anything in my house. (Blades of grass? Perhaps). My son has about 150 Lincoln Logs. Given how they look when spread out on the family room floor, I would loathe the thought of 5500 logs.

On the other hand, 5500 can, at times be put into perspective. Anyone who possesses a valid drivers license has certainly lived more than 5500 days. 5500 seconds passes by in just over 90 minutes. Most people will put 5500 miles on their car odometer in about six months.

The point here is that the number 5500 can seen as both a large or small number. In the recent past, we have heard some make outlandish claims about the perceived impact of 5500 units. Four times the size of Wilde Lake (uh, incorrect), more residential units than Wilde Lake and Oakland Mills combined (er, not quite). The largest project in Howard County since the approval of Columbia. Well, I’m not so sure.

Of the examples I have provided above, the odometer example is most telling. The 5500 miles could be characterized as driving approximately 20% around the equator. Or it could be characterized as six month of normal driving in this area. Both are valid, but each paints a different picture. What I believe is crucial in the odometer analogy (and the proposed housing units) is that both are described in terms of a magnitude and a time.

Moreover, if a temporal aspect is placed into the examples stated above, the 5500 pales in comparison; given that Wilde Lake and Oakland Mills were both 95% completed within ten years, and that combined both Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake are slightly more residential units than the proposed 5500. As stated, the 5500 time line is 30 years. So downtown development will create less units than Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake combined, and the proposed development will occur at a pace three times slower than that of Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake.

With respect to the largest project, this theory is on fairly shaky ground. Census data reveals that over 90% (92.43%) of the 92,818 housing units built in Howard County were built after 1960. So let’s compare. In the last 48 years, 85,790 housing units were built in Howard County (of which approximately 30,000 units are in Columbia). GGP proposes building 5500 units over the next 30 years.

Breaking this down by decade:

The entire downtown development proposal could have easily been accomplished during the 1960’s. Three downtowns could have been accommodated during the 1970’s, four downtowns in the 1990’s and five downtowns in the 1980’s.

Another way of looking at historical development in Howard County is by housing permits issued. I have charted data obtained from the Baltimore Metropolitan Council of Governments (Economic Outlook 2006) below:

To provide context, here are the terms of office of each of the Howard County Executives.

1969-1973 Omar J. Jones
1974-1978 Edward L. Cochran
1978-1986 J. Hugh Nichols
1986-1990 Elizabeth Bobo
1990-1998 Charles I. Ecker
1998-2006 James N. Robey

Certainly, each administration, since the creation of the Howard County Executive, issued enough permits during his/her tenure to allow for a downtown Columbia to be built.

In conclusion, 5500 as a number can appear to be very large. However, given its application over time, 5500 is not as big a number as some may perceive. Given the prolific construction of over 80,000 units in the last forty years, 5500 units in the next thirty is small by comparison. Moreover, each past administration has seen fit to approve housing permits well beyond the scale of the proposed downtown development.