09 December 2009

A not so ringing endorsement

With all our discussion of car-dependency in Columbia, the following assessment comes from Talking Heads founder David Byrne as reported in today’s Washington Post (emphasis added by Columbia Compass):

It's safe to say performer David Byrne loves cycling. The Talking Heads founder has ridden 'round the globe and written a book about it, "Bicycle Diaries."
Byrne (two-toned red shirt, gray coat, spiky hair) brought his experience to the Newseum on Tuesday night, joining a Brookings-sponsored panel on promoting alternative forms of transportation. He kicked things off with a slideshow of his bike travels: Portland, Ore.; Buenos Aires; Hong Kong ("Certainly no bike lanes" there, he said. "Man, that was the worst") -- even Adams Morgan. The first slide was an aerial shot of Columbia, Md.: "Where my parents live. If you don't drive, you're pretty much stranded there."
Byrne told us that he has "four or five" bikes and that he likes to lend them to friends who come visit in New York.
So how can more people be persuaded to bike? Safer roads (with more bike lanes) and simpler bikes (with fewer parts), Byrne says. "That takes part of the fear away."

30 October 2009

Additional Columbia Development Details

For those that have not seen it yet, Wordbones put up a very interesting post regarding James Rouse (Jim Rouse was not an Oracle) and how Columbia was developed. In my research I have uncovered some information that supports his post.

With respect to General Electric, Wordbones provides us with these details:

When GE decided to abandon Columbia and consolidate manufacturing operations in Louisville, Kentucky, Rouse adjusted his plans. Realizing that Columbia’s labor force was changing from what he originally expected, the company exercised its option to buy back the industrial park from GE and created Columbia Gateway Corporate Park.

I would like to add the financial details of how General Electric first came to Columbia. The following is from pages 304-305 of the book Columbia and the New Cities.

Financing on a Giant Scale

In order to snare the GE facility, Rouse not only paid for a four-mile railroad spur, but expanded Columbia beyond its original borders. He bought 2139 acres of farms and gravel pits adjacent to the new town for a staggering $19 million, more than six times the price per acre that he had paid for the new city’s original land only five years earlier. Since its original acquisition of land for $23 million, Rouse had filled several of the “holes” in his “Swiss cheese” land-holding for $2 million. With addition of the acreage for G.E. and an adjacent rail-served industrial area, Rouse has bought 17,868 acres for his new city at a total cost of $44 million, an average of $2485 per acre. General Electric got a bargain. The company announced that it paid only $3.8 million for its 1100-acre factory and warehouse site. Columbia’s expansion will add to the city’s ultimate profit despite its high cost, Rouse told his stockholders at their 1969 meeting. But the G.E. deal forced Rouse to reshape the entire financial structure of his new town.

So with respect to General Electric, Rouse bought the land for $19M, sold half the land to GE for $3.8M, and then years later bought the land back from GE. Each time the Rouse Company had to alter the financial structure of the entire city.

Moreover, Wordbones uses the General Electric transaction as an example of Rouse adapting to change. A few pages later in Columbia and the New Cities (p. 309) provides an equally compelling example:

As development progresses the differences between estimated costs and actual costs or between estimated and actual revenues force a constant rejuggling of decisions about when to invest, how much, and in which facilities. For example, when final cost estimates showed that Rouse would have to spend three million dollars more than was originally planned for one year in Columbia’s water system (even though the total cost of the system remained about where it had been figured), the increased interest cost on the extra three million dollars forced Rouse to defer several roads and put off other items of community facilities until later in Columbia’s life. Otherwise, he explained to me, in order to sustain his profit he would have been forced to crowd another six thousand dwelling units onto the land (which he could scarcely do under the zoning he had arranged.)

In a community that has been struggling with WWJRD, a partial answer is provided above. When confronted with unexpected, Jim Rouse considered increasing density and ultimately deferred road and public amenity construction. What is particularly interesting is those that oppose GGP plan before the county are loudly saying that regardless of what the future holds, the roads must be built and the amenities must be erected before any particular development phase is initiated. And to an extent, they have a point. Developing acres of farmland into a wondrous community allows a bit more latitude with respect to infrastructure and amenity phasing than a large infill development project. However, when confronted with WWJRD, they are clearly saying don’t do what Jim Rouse did.

Columbia and the New Cities. Breckenfeld, Gurney. Van Rees Press, New York. 1971

26 October 2009

Hijacking the Community Interest

I am loathe to base a blog post on comments retrieved from the HCCA Yahoo-group; however, CoFoCoDo “spokesperson” Alan Klein has crossed several lines that spur comment.

In a message this weekend, Alan begins his comments on the New City Alliance with cynicism:

“I was waiting for this.”

He then remarks that the principals of the New City Alliance have some ties with groups such as Bring Back the Vision and Columbia 2.0. Alan states “They try to make themselves seem bigger than they are by creating multiple groups, but it is easy to see through the charade.”

I will let the folks at the New City Alliance speak to your broadsides Alan, but if what you say is true, you should be flattered. Is it possible to apply the same broad-brush strokes to the Howard County Community Association (HCCA), most of the CA Board of Directors, and CoFoCoDo?

Moreover, Alan displays the plumage of hubris by stating that those with a view that differs from his own are opponents of the “community’s vision” and wish to hijack the “community’s interest.” Having lived most of my life in this diverse community, I am wary of any one individual that speaks for “the community.”

Alan, for more than three years, CoFoCoDo’s steering committee has directed you to appear often, (and at great length) in a variety of settings to convey their message to the people of Columbia. Now is not the time to jeopardize all their hard “behind the scenes” work. Rather than criticizing other’s ideas, provide a compelling argument for the CoFoCoDo steering committee’s point of view.

08 October 2009

A Call For Columbia's 2nd Generation

ca 2nd gen
My brothers and sisters, if you grew up in Columbia during the 70's or 80's, please read this essay by Michael Chabon:

Now, if you had an experience anything like that, please make plans to be at the Columbia Archives on Wednesday October 14, 2009.

The Columbia Archives is holding a series of seminars this month based on Columbia's four founding principles. To address the principle of "a place for people to grow," the Archives is focusing on those of us that grew up in Columbia and invited author and American University Professor Cindy Gueli to speak. Cindy grew up in Columbia and is co-author of a soon to be published book: The Next America? A New Town's Social Experiment. This book takes a look at the first generation that grew up in Columbia.

It's about time we all got together and remembered, shared and just plain had fun.

Once again, if you still live in Columbia, or Howard County, or even near Howard County:

Call or email the Columbia Archives to register:

(410) 715-3103

October 14, 2009
The American Cities Building
7:00 PM

Coffee and Conversation after at Lakeside Cafe.

Note: Michael Chabon lives in California and is not expected to be anywhere near this event.

Marco Polo Saved by the CA Board of Directors

Last night, the Columbia Association Board of Directors voted unanimously to keep the Faulkner Ridge, Locust Park, and Talbott Springs pools open. That being said, pool attendance numbers across the city are downright anemic. Attendance numbers are significantly down at almost every pool in Columbia, including the "super pools," as compared to 10 years ago (and even 20 years ago).

For those of us that are a certain age and grew up in Columbia during the 70's, 80's or 90's; this is a difficult reality. The entire pool system needs to be looked at, and solutions need to be found. I'm ready to (pardon the pun) take the plunge, anyone else?

06 October 2009

Marco...Polo...Screw You

I received word from throughout the Next American City that the Columbia Association has proposed shutting down...forever...three pools in Columbia:

Faulkner Ridge
Locust Park
Talbott Springs

No word on why CA has decided to withdraw from these communities, or how they decided to target these areas.

Something to keep in mind is that this is a proposal, so kickboards don't need to be converted to headstones...yet.

I also seem to remember that the last time CA hired a president from outside, pool closures were high on the list (no offense Phil, it's possible this scheme was in the works before you got here).

28 September 2009

Questions Regarding Symphony Woods

The Columbia Association has put a lot of effort in promoting their plans for Symphony Woods. Through a series of public events, a website, local press, editorials and blog commentaries (here, here, and here) the Cy Paumier design has created a buzz around town. And what’s not to love; bringing sunshine into the park, an interactive fountain for the kids (and kids at heart), a place to have a coffee – maybe a sandwich (day or night). What I have heard, both at a public meeting and among friends and neighbors has been that the design is “nice.” Not amazing, not innovative, but a full-throated “it’s ok.”

What concerns me about the design is not so much the elements presented, but the unanswered questions the design creates.

The first question regarding Symphony Woods is the question of use. Given that Symphony Woods is underutilized, what is the appropriate amount of human activity? The Columbia Association/Cy Paumier plan does not currently address this question. This is not to say that this question has not been asked about parklands and forests. The United States Forest Service has been asking this question since 1936. As recommended reading, the United States Forest Service puts forth the book Parks and Carrying Capacity – Commons Without Tragedy. This book is authored by Robert E. Manning (published 2007) and retails for $35.

Closer to home, the Maryland State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) employs the concept of carrying capacity in managing Deep Creek Lake. In their assessment of Deep Creek Lake, DNR defined carrying capacity as follows:

Carrying capacity relates to the ability of the lake or buffer strip to support various uses by people. There are two types of carrying capacity. Social carrying capacity relates to a level of use beyond which the recreational user's expectation of a quality experience is not realized. Physical carrying capacity relates to the level of use which the resource can sustain, beyond which irreversible biological or physical damage occurs to the point that the resource is no longer suitable or attractive for recreational or other uses. The optimum carrying capacity is the level of use that does not exceed an area's physical or social carrying capacity.

Given this rich, and heretofore ignored, field of study, the question regarding Symphony Woods becomes, “What is the optimum carrying capacity of Symphony Woods?” The data related to answering this question is scarce.

Currently, Symphony Woods can be characterized as a wooded parcel, generally in poor condition, which requires continuous maintenance to retain its artificial structure. In the area where the park is planned, the (current) preferred groundcover is grass. The establishment of underbrush and understory tree canopy is actively discouraged; thereby preventing a healthy forest environment.

The only data point known regarding overuse is related to the Wine in the Woods festival. If thousands of people in the woods, over several days, is detrimental to the trees, how many people can visit the park daily without damaging the trees? This question is a subset of the carrying capacity question and has not been answered in any manner by the Columbia Association or the Symphony Woods Park design team.

If there is little data on the environmental carrying capacity of Symphony Woods, there is less data related to social carrying capacity. Social carrying capacity is also more complex, in that if a park drops below a minimum number of people, new visitors may have anxiety entering an empty, or nearly empty park. The effect is that visitors may be discouraged to use the park because, of all things, lack of use. At the opposite end of the spectrum would be a park populated to the point that visitors perceive it as overcrowded and are discouraged from entering.

The social carrying capacity is critical because the proposed design elements are targeted toward increasing the social carrying capacity in Symphony Woods; however, the magnitude of the effects are either not known or not well communicated. John Slater, a member of Cy Paumier’s design team has called the design elements “magnets” that will attract people. The obvious question is, “How strong are those magnets?” How does “magnetic field strength” translate into carrying capacity? If the trees are cleared, the grass planted, the fountain, cafĂ©, and parking lot constructed; will there be enough people attracted to the park to sustain it as a gathering place?

I bring these questions to the table because they speak to the basis of the park design. If the Columbia Association wants to increase usage in Symphony Woods, and the Cy Paumier design brings in a dozen people a day, could that be construed as exceeding expectations? For an improvement of general open space in Columbia, Cy’s plan may be exactly the type of planning needed. Given the location of Symphony Woods in downtown Columbia, it is a very important piece of real estate. For me, the criteria for success would be as follows: At some future date, after the park is constructed I call a friend of mine and we are trying to find a place to get our families together. A place where the adults can hang out and the kids can play. If my friend says to me (or vice-versa) “Why don’t we meet over in Symphony Woods Park? Then the place is a success.

11 September 2009

Sign of the Times

Has anyone noticed the new Owen Brown Village signs?

elkhorn sign

These signs are maintained by the Columbia Association. Over time, they have been replacing signs in the city. Sometimes the new signs closely approximate the original design. For instance, here is one of the original Running Brook Signs:

old rb sign 2

Compare the above sign with this sign that was installed last year:

new rb sign

In other cases, the new sign is completely different from the old sign. For example, this sign outside the Locust Park Neighborhood Center is consistent with the original neighborhood stucco-and-brown-board-with-white-lettering signage in Long Reach.

lpnc sign

The Long Reach neighborhood signs have all been replaced with the following style:

lp sign

The Columbia Association has also been placing a standardized sign indicating different amenities throughout Columbia:

lake elkhorn sign

symphony woods sign

Although some signs are not very well maintained:

wilde lake sign

At times, there have been stumbles. The Town Center sign below was originally pink:

town center sign

That's where I am right now with the Owen Brown signs. There is something about them that seems a little bit off.

ob sign

The white lettering on a deep blue background, a hint of red...maybe it was a departure from the the earth tones that dominate our sign-scape. I thought about it, but that wasn't the problem. There is something about the white-on-blue with red piping...and framed in gray.

The other day I was in Laurel, and it all came together.

Wal Mart Laurel

12 August 2009

Was James Rouse an Urban Thinker?

The planning website Plantizen is conducting a poll of who are the great urban thinkers. James Rouse is on the list, but currently languishes with twenty votes at the time of this writing. If you can take the time to visit the poll website and cast your vote.

26 June 2009

Diminished Expectations?

Currently cloudy, 70 deg-F, possible showers today. How many CA pools will open?

21 June 2009

CA Pools Close for No Good Reason?


There may have been. There might have been a strike by lifeguards. Pumps could have failed. Chemicals not delivered. I’m just not sure.

For all accounts, yesterday was a typical Maryland/Columbia day in June. Temperatures in the mid-80’s; muggy, humid air; partly sunny or partly cloudy, depending on your disposition. My son and I had a lot of fun during the day. Morning drizzle gave way to outdoor fun in the backyard.

After lunch, we decided it would be great to cool off in the pool. We began a long trek around Columbia looking for relief from the heat. Clad in our swim trunks and towels, we first set out to Running Brook Pool. Closed. Gates locked, no one in sight, no sign, no reason.

Puzzled, we jumped in the car and headed over to Thunder Hill. Different Village, same story. Back in the car, doubts were being raised. “Are there any pools open daddy?”

We figured we would try our luck at a “super pool.” Off to Dickenson. When we arrived we found more locked gates and only birds on the lounge chairs. “Daddy, it’s not fair,” was what I heard from the back seat.

Circling back to casa de Santos, we made one more detour in hopes to find one pool that bucked the tide – Clary’s Forest. Clary’s has everything: hot tub, beach entry, fountain, diving board, and beach volley ball. The silence was humbling. “Will the pools ever open again?” I heard from my little swimmer who had no place to swim. “I’m sure they will, just not today.”

Now I know that thunderstorms were predicted for yesterday, but they never came. It seems that CA has been caught in the equivalent of a public school snow day declaration to see less than an inch accumulate on the grass. For me, this does not wash. Snow day declarations and closing pools due to thunder both are related to safety, but the snow day is often called because it can take a significant amount of time to plow the snow and make things safe. Thunder at the pool will cause the water to be vacated in usually less than three or four minutes, and the pool shut down (if needed) within half an hour.

I would imagine that beside the safety standpoint (which I believe all parties would place as the highest concern), some may try to marginalize this decision to shut down the pools by saying there are inclement weather pools that stay open. I say great, if there is inclement weather. The sun was shining most of the day yesterday.

Others may say that closing the pools would save money. I might agree with that, but in saving money, CA has degraded the value of my membership. Without value, I could care less how thrifty the organization is.

Bottom line: In my mind, CA dropped the ball on Saturday June 20, 2009.

06 May 2009


"A great city has two hallmarks: tolerance for strangers and intolerance for mediocrity."

Bonnie Menes Kahn, Cosmopolitan City

30 April 2009

Church Awarded Expansion Over Residents Concerns

Today in the Columbia Flier, Jennifer Broadwater has a piece on the Columbia Presbyterian Church expansion that was approved by the Howard County Board of Appeals. One of the uses that was talked about extensively during the hearing was the rental of the space to homeschooling groups during the week. Expected attendance is more than 200 children a week.

Local resident Bruce Corriveau is quoted in the article as follows:

"They are not building the church they promised to the community," said Corriveau, the spokesman for the neighbors who also is an attorney. "Regardless of what you call it, it has the feel, function and features of a school."

Dick Talkin, representing the church, had this quote in the paper:

"Complaints about existing conditions and mere speculation about future use are simply not enough," Talkin said.

Oh really? Here is a picture of the traffic on Ten Mills Road (which is immediately adjacent to the church) taken the Friday before closing arguments of the case:

tmr 4-17 a

And yes, the intersection of Ten Mills Road and West Running Brook Road is failing:

tmr 4-17 b

It seems to me that transporting more than 200 students through this "existing condition" will be problematic (there is not an abundance of pedestrian access to the church, and they have indicated that no school buses will be used to transport students).

In closing, let me make one thing clear: Children are precious, and educating them is a worthy, noble, and necessary endeavor. However, which children are being given preference, those that sit in car seats to get to the church, or those that LIVE on Ten Mills Road and West Running Brook Road?

26 April 2009

Beyond the Numbers on Columbia Election Day

I would like to take a moment and thank everyone that ran for either a Village Board or CA Board of Directors position this spring. Although there were many non-competitive races this year, those that where competitive certainly made this election season interesting. For those that won, congratulations! For those that did not win, please continue to participate, I believe this year we will need everyone to be involved.

Looking a little deeper, I would like to thank the following people:

Kevin Preston – Harper’s Choice
Ed Cosentino – Owen Brown
Summer Romack – Owen Brown
Evan Coren – Kings Contrivance
Nina Basu – Long Reach
Trevor Greene – River Hill
John Bailey – Hickory Ridge
Brian Donoughe – Oakland Mills
Christopher Huza – Oakland Mills

What do all these people have in common? They, like me, grew up in Columbia (or at least Howard County). Collectively, we represent almost 20% of the Village Board positions (Oakland Mills has a board of 7, to the best of my knowledge, all other boards elect five).

There may be more. Given that some Villages stagger their elections, there may be some additional “I grew up in Columbia” folks that are not up for election. Lastly, there are some open seats on Village Boards. If you grew up in Columbia, please consider volunteering.

We should all get together sometime soon. In the meantime, friend me on Facebook.

30 March 2009

We are Good for Business

Thinking about starting up a small business in Maryland? Business Week has named Columbia as the best small city in Maryland for business startups. Columbia also compares favorably to other small cities across the United States. Particularly similar sized communities such as Sugarland, Texas and Provo, Utah.

04 March 2009

Worth a Look

A quick shout-out to my friends over @ Columbia 2.0.

Their latest video is a little look at downtown Columbia last week and worth a look. The mock interview with James Rouse is a little hokey. Otherwise, some intriguing questions.

BZ to C2.0

25 February 2009

A Call to Service

Nominating petitions for the Columbia Village Elections are now available at most Village Centers. Please consider running and serving on your local village board or the CA Board of Directors.