16 August 2008

Rocky Run

rockyrun

Rocky Run was one of my favorite places. It was a place to have a beer with friends, a place to chat, and a place to eat a simple (but satisfying) meal. I am certainly not the first to blog about this (Columbia Talk, Howard County Maryland Blog). I first walked into Rock Run in 1996, and I kept coming back. Here are a few reasons why:

Quirky:

When you walked into Rocky Run, you knew this was not a national chain. It never took itself too seriously, and this was reflected in the d├ęcor. One of the few restaurants in Columbia that had its own brewery, there was a quirkyness about the place. The enormous hot sauce collection, the Elvis booth, the Beatles room, the Buffett room. The peanuts on the floor in the bar (great when fashionable, even better that they stuck with it when it fell out of fashion). The foreign language tapes on continuous loop in the bathrooms. The Rocky Cocktails (I confess, I had a Jamaican Bobsled just last week!) The endless trivia games.

The Food

Since it opened, Rocky Run’s menu has always been full of offerings. Standouts in my mind where the chicken wings, which always seemed larger than the wings served at other restaurants in town. Crab Pretzels on Fridays during lent. The salads (the cobb salad was a personal favorite), of course the burgers, and the impossibly large “loaded” baked potatoes. The Cuban pannini was a late, but welcomed arrival on the menu.

If people asked me about the food at Rocky Run, I would always respond “It’s the best comfort food in Columbia.” I think that said it all.

The Staff

Over the years, I have gotten to know many of the people behind the bar and waiting tables. It all started with Alex, who on that first day I walked into the bar, shook my hand, introduced himself and asked me what I would like to drink. I quickly came to know him and many others. The always bubbly Liz, Adam, who insisted on being called Fish. Mary Ellen, who was in training to become an EMT before she trashed her knee. The always nice Amy. Ruthie, who had issues, still managed to have a good time and smile.

During the late 1990’s Heidi and Sean tended bar on Friday nights, and they always managed to serve an impossibly large crowd. At that time, Margarita Maggies was still open, but not doing well, and people would park in the Maggies lot to go to Rocky Run. Heidi and Sean performed their craft well. They were fast, charming, and seemed to enjoy themselves.

As time passed, some interesting bartenders made their way through. Art was always fun with his libertarian views and his dislike of public displays of affection. Jeff was a master of many subjects. Henri, was just an all-around good guy; smart, witty, and a die-hard Wizards/Bullets fan.

There were a few that found love at Rocky Run. Caleb and Christy are still together and Tommy and Jenny were an item.

But, over the years, three stand out. Jason, who started as a busboy, became a waiter, host, bartender, bar manager, store manager, and I’m sure is still doing well. Jason, I have seen you grow so much over the last twelve years. I am honored to call you friend, and wish you well. Christy (as mentioned above), you have been part of my nights out for so long that I will miss you. Dave, you are a great man and I am sure good things will happen for you.

I know that I have missed so many (oh, I remember another, Wendy!) who wore the bright orange “Rocky Rookie” shirts on their first day, I will miss you too, as well as everyone in the kitchen.

The Smartest Patrons Ever Known

I am serious about this point. Since the day it opened, Rocky Run always ran the NTN/Buzztime trivia games; Half hour trivia contests that linked thousands of restaurants across the United States. Rocky Run attracted a clientele that was adept at these games (and for a long time, I was one of them) and often times Rocky Run would be ranked in the top 20 in the nation. Occasionally, a person would arrive at Rocky Run just based on seeing the restaurant on the trivia boards at other restaurants. During the late 1990’s, Rocky Run and Nottingham’s were engaged in a battle of trivia supremacy. Trivia players were courted. Scores were displayed; cell phone calls were exchanged after games.

What gave this rivalry depth was that at Nottingham’s, it was known that the trivia players typically shared answers. At Rocky Run, the unwritten rule was that you played your game. Shouting out answers was considered bad form. That is not to say that the trivia players were stoic and silent. After playing for a while, players got to know each other. Most were witty, some were outright funny, and all liked passing time together.

So Moron, Phlegm, Farkle, Redgirl, Karl, and all the many people who got the trivia bug, I will find a place to play, and I hope to see you on the board too. I will miss you all.

Beyond the trivia, the folks at the bar were generally well versed in the topics of the day. You could always have a good conversation about national or local news. Just smart, wonderful people.

Where do we go from here?

I was at Rocky Run just last Friday. A friend of mine had just accepted an offer for a new job, and we went out to celebrate. We had dinner, discussed the job, what’s new in our families (my son wears a Size 1 shoe, and he starts kindergarten this month), sports, and the local politics scene. We had arrived at 6 o’clock, and the bar was busy. When we left at 9:30, the place was nearly empty. Christy, Dave and Jason were there. We said hello and things seemed all right.

I guess all we have are memories now. I can still see Joe and Ellis sitting at the end of the bar. Bobby holding court at one of the short tables. Don and Deanna discussing their latest travel plans. Bill and the trivia faithful playing trivia and chatting up each other. Jason and Terry stopping by for dinner. Some stranger saying out loud “Oh, I LOVE this song,” and me saying to myself “I love this song too.”

Yesterday I stopped by to take the picture to accompany this post. The owner came out and said hello. We talked for a short while and then I just had to ask: What happened? He told me that business had really dropped off drastically in the last four months. I thanked him and inquired how the staff were doing. He had told me that more than a few had already found jobs. I was relieved to hear that. I just smiled and thanked him again. He smiled back and thanked me, then quietly went inside. I took a minute and sat on the bench outside. As I sat there, four cars pulled up, and each asked the same question: What happened? I told each what I had heard, and they all, hesitantly, walked back to their cars, muttering “This is awful…This was my favorite place…”

I don’t know where or when my friends and I will get together for happy hour, but when we do, we will loudly toast the memory of a place that enriched our lives (better said, provided an atmosphere that allowed us to enrich each others lives).

I hope we can find a place that will have that same feel; that will give us a Second Chance.

09 August 2008

Symphony Woods History

I have been thinking about Symphony Woods lately. Actually, I have been thinking about Symphony Woods A LOT lately. Currently, General Growth Properties has suggested placing a Small Cities Institute, the Columbia Association Headquarters, and a Library on the site. As can be noted in the Letters to the Editor on the Explore Howard website, some are none too pleased about this proposal.

Here in Columbia, nearly everything was something else before it became something. I have heard and read many people (including CA) refer to the “natural” setting in Symphony Woods. I say not so. Before being purchased in the mid 1960’s, the land that is most of town center was owned by a man named Isadore Gudelsky. An account of Mr. Gudelsky can be found in the book Creating a New City, edited by Robert Tennenbaum. The following passage appears in the Chapter Land Acquisition: The Realtor’s Perspective and written by the realtor employed by Rouse, Robert Moxley.

The Gudelsky family was in the sand and gravel business (known as Contee) as well as the concrete and asphalt business. They owned thousands of acres of land between Baltimore and Washington, which they mined for the aggregate existing thereon.

They always bought land, but never sold any. They would, however, develop commercial buildings on it once the sand and gravel had been removed. Isadore Gudelsky was the administrator, so to speak, of all the family businesses while his brother, Homer, was in charge of operations. Another brother, Henry was in the concrete block business. Most of the Guldelsky land was titled in the family name or Contee or Percon, but it was all generally referred to as Contee property.

One of the parcels Contee owned was located on U.S. 29 in the very center of the targeted 15,000 acres being purchased by the Howard Research and Development Corporation (HRD), as the successor to CRD. Further, it was the planned location of the town center of the new city. Of course, Isadore Gudelsky was aware of the buying spree being conducted in Howard County, but he did not know for what purpose or by whom.


Another account of the land owned by Gudelsky can be found in the book Columbia and the New Cities, by Gurney Breckenfeld (1972):

“At last,” says Jack Jones, “we came to the Big Bear, Isidore Gudelsky. He wanted $5 million for his 1000 acres. By this time it was obvious that a big land assembly was going on, and he was a shrewd bargainer.” Moxley saw Gudelsky several times, usually in his auto, in a restaurant, or a drugstore. On Jones’s instructions, Moxley offered $1,750,000 in a property swap. Gudelsky allowed that maybe he’d take $4 million. “Finally,” says Jones, “I told Moxley that this deal had to be done.” It was an understatement. Unbeknown to him, Gudelsky held the key Columbia land: the town center, symphony hall, glade, lake site, and shopping district.


Based on these sources, it appears that the land that was used for Lake Kittamaquandi, the mall, and Symphony Woods was used as a surface mine prior to the purchase by Jim Rouse. Given the state of sand a gravel mines (full disclosure, in college I worked for a contractor at the site of the last remnants of the Contee empire, Laurel Sand and Gravel, off Van Dusen Road in Laurel, MD. I performed soil compaction tests to ensure the land was buildable for the future town of Konterra), there are very few trees or vegetation present. It’s mostly, sand and gravel.

My point here is that people who assume the current state of Symphony Woods as a natural setting is somewhat misplaced. Like much of Columbia, I believe, based on the sources above, that the grading and plant life in Symphony Woods may be an entirely man-made artifact. Some may argue that allowing much of the land to lay fallow for four decades has effectively returned the land to a natural state, but this is most likely not its history.

Moreover, although the Symphony Woods parcel appears large to human eyes, both on the ground and viewed on a map, it is a relatively small parcel in terms of an ecosystem. Because of this, the site must be actively managed to ensure a viable space.

06 August 2008

Explore Howard Editorial Board Should Sit Down on Standing

This weeks editorial on the Explore Howard website focuses on the standing issue associated with the Downtown Columbia Plaza Tower mess. Taken in total, the editorial goes to great lengths to remove large parts of the issue and arrive at its conclusion:

The merits of his argument aside…

However legally sound it might've been…

Leaving aside the notion …

Moreover, the editorial creates a narrative separate from that actual record, and this narrative is (in my opinion) damaging to the future discussion of any development in Howard County.

Let’s start with the 3rd paragraph of the editorial:

However legally sound it might've been, a previous ruling by county Hearing Examiner Thomas Carbo, which the courts have now taken up, defied common sense. It held that the Plaza Residences would not "specially aggrieve" Broida and other Columbia residents seeking to prevent the project's construction, and that therefore the plaintiffs lacked the necessary legal standing to fight it through judicial or quasi-judicial channels.


That first sentence is particularly troubling. In the best of worlds, we would like all decisions rendered to be both legally sound and to make common sense. When the two are not coincident, it is important to review the case specifics. I believe this is where the editors have fallen down.

Referring back to the Hearing Examiner’s decision, it explains in detail the process and evidence presented. As stated in the decision:

Generally, the appellant must provide proof of aggrievement by showing that the impact of the decision on his property is different from the impact upon the general public. It is sufficient if the facts constituting aggrievement appear in the petition for appeal either by express allegation or by necessary implication.4 An exception to this rule applies if the appellant is an adjoining, confronting, or nearby property owner. In this case, the appellant is deemed, primae facie, to be specially damaged and therefore a person aggrieved. Bryniarsky, 230 A.2d at 294. In other words, an appellant is presumed to be aggrieved if he merely shows that he owns property “nearby.” What is “nearby” depends on the circumstances of the case, but it has been held that one who “owns any property located within sight or sound of the subject property is aggrieved.” Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission v. Rockville, 269 Md. 240, 305 A.2d 122, 127 (1973). Intervening topography or roadways, however, may support a finding that a complainant is not aggrieved. DuBay v. Crane, 240 Md. 180, 213 A.2d 487 (1965).

The presumption of standing for adjoining, confronting, or nearby property owners may be rebutted, however, by the opposing party. If the opposing party presents evidence that the appellant is not in fact aggrieved, the burden shifts back to the appellant to present facts to show that he is specially aggrieved by the decision. Bryniarsky, 230 A.2d at 294.

Therefore, standing can, and was, challenged by the opposing party, and then the appellants (Knowles, Stolley, Meskin, Broida) had the opportunity to provide supporting evidence and testimony to refute the rebuttal.

With respect to Mr. Broida:

The Appellants contend that Mr. Broida is specially aggrieved because the proposed building will peculiarly block his view and sunlight, increase noise, increase traffic, reduce parking, and reduce the value of his residence.


Renaissance Centro Columbia (part of WCI Communities) rebutted Mr. Broida’s claim to standing and Mr. Broida presented evidence to challenge the rebuttal.

With respect to traffic and parking, Mr. Broida asserted that the proposed development will exacerbate an already hazardous situation. He claims that traffic is heavy now on Little Patuxent Parkway and Wincopin Circle, and that parking in the town center is hard to find on weekends. He asserted, without supporting evidence, that the proposed building does not provide sufficient parking. Much of the testimony presented by the Appellants on this point amounted only to unsupported opinions and general conclusions that the development will cause traffic and parking problems. Maryland courts instruct that the unsupported conclusions or fears of witnesses to the effect that a proposed use of property will or will not result in harm amount to nothing more than vague and general expressions of opinion which are lacking in probative value. Anderson v. Sawyer, 23 Md. App. 612, 329 A.2d 716 (1974). Because the Appellants’ testimony in this case was unsupported by any evidence that the anticipated harmful effects are likely to occur, I must afford it little weight.

Contrary to Mr. Broida’s assertions, the record indicates that both the proposed building and the Lakeside condominium building provide ample parking for all residents in parking garages within the respective buildings. The plans for the project provide 58 additional parking spaces off-site for patrons of the retail space, and Mr. Gutschick provided a parking analysis that shows that the area will have more than the required parking spaces for all uses (Appellee’s Exhibit 16). The residents’ entrance to the building will be from Little Patuxent Parkway, diverting this traffic away from Mr. Broida’s property. Road improvements and a traffic light are proposed along Wincopin Circle. In short, the preponderance of evidence presented suggests that the proposed development will have minimal adverse impact on traffic and parking for residents of the area.

With respect to noise, Mr. Broida again speculated that the proposed project will create additional noise that will affect him personally. The Appellants provided no basis or support for this assertion. Renaissance, however, presented evidence that deliveries and trash collection will take place within the proposed building, limiting the amount of noise they generate. As previously stated, residents will access the building from the west side, away from the Lakeside building. Indeed, the building itself will act as a noise barrier to traffic on Little Patuxent Parkway, potentially improving the noise conditions for Mr. Broida. Again, the preponderance of the evidence indicates Mr. Broida will not be specially damaged by the project with respect to noise.

Mr. Broida also asserts that the proposed building will block the pleasant view he currently enjoys from his living room and bedroom and will reduce the amount of sunlight coming through his windows in the late afternoons. There is little dispute that the erection of the proposed building will have this effect, and that the impact is peculiar to Mr. Broida and his neighbors on the west side of the Lakeside condominium. The mere loss of view and sunlight is not enough, however, to establish aggrievement.

[N]o such testimony or evidence was presented by the Appellants in this case. In fact, the record indicates that Mr. Broida had no reasonable expectation of preserving his view or light when he originally purchased his condominium unit in 2005. At that time, having been previously aware of two separate proposals to build high-rise building on or near the Property, he (twice) signed a purchase contract containing a provision in which he agreed that his right to a view was not guaranteed and that there may be improvements built on adjacent properties that might interfere with his present vista. Cleary, at the time of his purchase, the view from his unit was not a significant part of the value that Mr. Broida ascribed to his property. It is unlikely, therefore, that he can claim a diminution of value as result of the loss of that view.

My reading of the Maryland cases indicates that the Appellants must additionally show some economic impact resulting from the adverse condition–namely, a diminution of the value of the appellant’s property. See e.g., Committee for Responsible Development on 25th Street v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, 137 Md. App. at 87 (“He presented no evidence that the pharmacy and its parking lot would cause his property to devaluate”); DuBay v. Crane, 213 A.2d at 490 (“And, which is more important, none of the appellants were able to show that the value of their respective property would be adversely affected”); Wilkinson v. Atkinson, 242 Md. at 234 (“There was no specific testimony as to any adverse effect upon the value of the Siegelhome.”). In Toomey v. Gomeringer, 235 Md. 456, 460 (1964), the Court found protestants to have standing where they presented evidence “that the value of their residential properties would be depreciated by the proposed reclassification .... There was in addition testimony by an experienced real estate broker and developer that, in his opinion, the reclassification of the property in question, at least if followed by the development and use of the property as planned by the applicants' contract purchaser, would eat into the existing residential community and would depreciate and depress the area.

Moreover, Renaissance provided ample contravening evidence that the proposed development would not devalue the nearby residences. Ronald Lipman, a real estate appraiser and consultant, testified that the building would present a slender and attractive design that would be well separated (170 feet) from the Broida unit (see Appellee’s Exhibit 9). The look and use of the development would be compatible to Lakeside and the other developments in the area. Most importantly, the proposed residential units will be larger and more expensive than the adjacent Lakeside units, which fact tends to cause the less expensive units to appreciate in value. Thus, Mr. Lipman offered, the proposed development could actually have a positive effect on Mr. Broida’s property value.


So to review, the Appellants indicated the Plaza Tower would specially aggrieve Mr. Broida because it would “block his view and sunlight, increase noise, increase traffic, reduce parking, and reduce the value of his residence.” The evidence submitted by each party is as follows:

Block View and Sunlight:

NOTE: View and Sunlight are not considered when determining standing.

Broida – Mr. Broida stated that his view and sunlight would be blocked.

Renaissance – Mr. Broida signed a waiver to views and sunlight (twice) when he purchased his home.

Increased Noise:

Broida – Stated his opinion that there would be increased noise from the Plaza Tower.

Renaissance - Presented evidence that deliveries and trash collection will take place within the proposed building, limiting the amount of noise they generate. Also stated that the Plaza Tower would shield and reduce noise generated from Little Patuxent Parkway.

Increased Traffic:

Broida – Stated his opinion that there would be more traffic that would particularly affect him.

Renaissance – Presented plans for a driveway located away from Mr. Broida’s residence and plans to improve Wincopin Circle to mitigate any other traffic.

Parking:

Broida - Stated his opinion that parking would be problematic.

Renaissance – Presented plans to indicate parking would not be a problem.

Reduce Value of Residence:

Broida – Presented no evidence or testimony.

Renaissance – Presented testimony by a real estate appraiser and consultant.

In short, the Hearing Examiner found that Mr. Broida did not have standing because he presented no evidence of being specially aggrieved to support his claim. He did not come prepared. In the words of the Hearing Examiner:

Mr. Broida lives in the “Lakeside” condominium development located directly across the street to the east side of the Property. His residence is indubitably within “sight and sound” of the proposed development. Renaissance does not contest, however, that Mr. Broida lives within sufficient proximity to the Property to qualify for the presumption of special aggrievement. Nonetheless, I find that Renaissance presented sufficient evidence to rebut the presumption by showing that Mr. Broida is not specially aggrieved. The Appellants failed to meet their countervailing burden.


I suppose now would be a good time to ask the editors, “Would it be common sense to go to a formal hearing without any prepared evidence or testimony to support your case?”

In addition, the editors state:

[o]ne could argue that Broida's partners in the legal fight against the Plaza live too far away from the site to be injured by it.


Well, actually, Renaissance did argue (successfully) that Knowles, Stolley and Meskin did not have standing. Truth be told, Ms. Stolley was found to not have standing because she did not participate in any of the hearings before the appeal to the Hearing Examiner. The large stand of dense woods between Mr. Meskin and the Plaza Tower site were found to mitigate his standing claim. And Mr. Knowles was found to live too far from the site of the Plaza Tower. From the Hearing Examiner decision:

The evidence is undisputed that Mr. Knowles lives 1.8 miles to the west of the Property. Interposed between the Knowles residence and the Property are four major roads and numerous and large residential and commercial developments, including the 1.4 million square foot Columbia Mall. The unrefuted testimony of Carl Gutschick, a professional engineer, established that the proposed building could not be seen from the Knowles property. Clearly, Mr. Knowles’property is within neither sight nor sound of the Property.


However, Mr. Knowles did claim he had standing, siting the following case:

Hikmat v. Howard County, 148 Md. App. 502, 813 A.2d 306 (2002)

The Hearing Examiner addressed the issue of standing under Hikmat:

The Appellants contend, however, that the Bryniarsky standard does not apply in this case; rather, they urge that I apply the lower threshold for standing set forth in the Hikmat case. My examination of that case’s holding indicates, however, that it represents a narrow and unrelated exception to the general “aggrievement” rule. Hikmat involved an appeal by Howard County of a Board of Appeals decision reversing DPZ’s denial of a waiver request. The court first noted that governmental entities like Howard County generally cannot be “specially aggrieved” in the Bryniarsky sense. Based upon a series of cases arising from mandamus or certiorari actions, however, the court found that “the facts necessary to satisfy the aggrieved requirement, when the petitioner is a governmental entity, appear to be that it have an interest in interpreting, administering, and enforcing the laws in question in a given case.” 148 Md. App. at 520 (italics added). The Hikmat court decided to extend this exceptional standard for aggrievement to cases arising under a petition for judicial review. Nonetheless, the standard clearly applies only to governmental entities, and not to private individuals or parties.


I’m not certain (I’m not a lawyer), but if I’m reading this right, Mr. Knowles was arguing he had standing because he is a government entity (Lloydville? Knowlestown?).

In closing, a review of the hearing provides a bit more data, and better picture of the circumstances surrounding this case. Yes common sense is called for, and the best assessment would probably find that better common sense on all sides would have helped move this process immensely.