26 May 2011

Stop What You are Doing, and Listen

I was listening to the Maryland Morning program yesterday morning on WYPR (88.1 FM).  On Wednesday mornings, the program features a segment called “Connecting Family with Meredith Jacobs.

Yesterday’s segment was one of those stories that the folks in the public radio realm refer to as a “driveway moment.”  As in, the story is so good; you will sit in your driveway to listen to the whole story before removing your car key from the ignition.

The subject of this segment was Meredith’s reflections on summer swim team.  I’m pretty sure Meredith does not live in Columbia, but the description of her experience with her child’s summer swim team would be easily recognized by the more than 2000 Columbia Summer Swim League members and their families.  She accurately describes the social interactions between swimmers, and between parents (aka “Jamie’s mom” or “Alex’s dad”); the team camaraderie, the individual achievement. 

All said, it was a joy listening and reflecting on my own experience as a swimmer and as the parent of a swimmer.  It should be required listening for all parents of school age kids in Columbia (or anywhere there is an active summer swim team program).  So if you have kids, or were once a swimmer, take a listen.

Columbia Summer Swim League practice starts next Tuesday at your local neighborhood pool.  If you or your child is at all motivated by this, I look forward to seeing you at the pool on Saturday mornings.  Go Wilde Lake Watercats!!

16 May 2011

Columbia Demographics 1990-2009 – Useful Eye Candy

To help better understand demographic change, I have taken the time to put together a map that helps depict the changes in Columbia, MD.  Shown below is a map of most of Columbia.  My apologies to the folks in Dorsey’s Search north of MD 108, the US Census boundaries in your area do not match up easily, and it would take me weeks to put together the numbers in your neighborhood.

For the remainder of Columbia, I have outlined the year 2000 Census Tracts that comprise the city.  If you click on a section of the map, it will display the name of the neighborhood and the total population for that area in 1990, 2000, and 2009 (estimate).  In addition, each pop-up window includes the statement “click here for details.”  I encourage everyone to “click here.”  By doing so, it will direct you to a spreadsheet that displays the detailed demographic data for the geographic area and in many parts of the city, it tells an interesting story.  For instance, the Columbia Association is concerned about the decline of those 21-54 years old in Columbia.  In the Hopewell neighborhood, this age group has seen a 40% drop (estimated), but attendance at the Hopewell pool is one of the best in the city.  This is just one example of the dynamic changes occurring throughout the city over the last twenty years.

It is important to note here that the 2009 data is an estimate, and at times carries a large margin of error.  The US Census Bureau is releasing state 2010 Census demographic data throughout this month.  When the new 2010 data becomes available, I will update the map and spreadsheets.

Also, in the lower left corner of each spreadsheet, shaded in blue, the limited data from the 2010 Census can be found.  I encourage you to look at it.  In many cases, the 2010 Census data does not correlate with the 2009 estimates. 

Coming up soon:  Let’s look at CA Aquatics Pool Attendance Data!

15 May 2011

Diving into CA Aquatics Demographics

So it’s been more than a few weeks since the Columbia Association Aquatics Department kicked off its Master Planning Process (http://www.columbiaassociation.com/aquaticsmasterplan/), and to be frank, there is something about the numbers presented that have been bothering me.  The first thing that put me on the path of unbelievably ridiculous research was a slide that CA put up during their master planning workshops.  The slide (pdf – Slide 18) entitled “How Much Does it Cost?” detailed the capital costs of pools over the lifetime of Columbia.  The first pool listed is the Bryant Woods Pool.  It was built in 1968 for a cost of $41,000.  The last pool on the list is River Hill Pool.  It was built in 1995 for a cost of $1.2M.

The implication was that the cost to construct pools has increased dramatically over the years.  I had a problem with this for several reasons.  First, the Bryant Woods Pool is a six-lane, rectangular pool with (by today’s standards) an undersized diving well and an adjacent wading (baby) pool.  The hot tub at Bryant Woods was part of an upgrade and built in the 1980’s.  The River Hill Pool is an eight-lane pool with beach entry, the site also includes a spray structure in the beach entry area, a snack bar, shade structures, a beach volleyball court and hot tub.  Even the baby pool has a spray mushroom.  By comparison, I believe that both the men’s and women’s bath house at Bryant Woods could fit inside a single side (sex) of the River Hill bath house.  In other words, it is difficult to compare a base model 1968 Dodge Dart, with bias tires, lap seat belts, drum brakes, no air-conditioning and AM radio with a top-of-the-line Lexus; with anti-lock brakes, airbags, multi-disc CD player, leather all-around, sunroof, and thousands of goodies at the high end.

Secondly, it occurred to me during the public workshop meeting that when the Bryant Woods Pool was constructed in 1968 for $41,000, the houses surrounding the pool were selling for about $27,000 (admittedly some more, some less).  When the River Hill Pool was constructed in 1995 for $1.2M, the houses in River Hill were selling for about $500,000 (admittedly, some more, some less).  From this point of view, it appears that pool construction costs have gone up, but have roughly remained at pace with the cost of constructing houses (and yes, like the BW v. RH pool scenario, there are dissimilarities in the housing stock amenities, but they do trend with the type of pool in each neighborhood.  In other words, if a house of the style found in Bryant Woods was built in River Hill, it would cost less; however, if the pool in River Hill was a rectangular pool without the bells and whistles, it would cost less too).

Lastly, and this is where CA could be most helpful, it would be beneficial to understand how much of the capital budget the Bryant Woods Pool consumed in 1968 and how much of the capital budget the River Hill Pool consumed in 1995.  CA would have to provide the numbers, but given the number of lien payers in 1968 (approx 2,000) v. 1995 (> 76,000) (and the resultant $0.75 per hundreds assessed paid), I believe the River Hill Pool constituted a smaller portion of the capital budget than the Bryant Woods Pool.

For the reasons stated above, I think CA Aquatics was a little misleading about “How much it costs.”

Hey! We’re (Still) Here!

Another set of data that didn’t seem quite right to me can be found on the Columbia Association – Aquatics Master Plan web page.  Under the title “Existing Conditions and Trends,” the following passage can be found:

Built and upgraded over 40 years, Columbia's inventory of aquatics facilities are aging and require investment to continue to offer programs and amenities that meet user expectations.
At the same time, Columbia's demographic trends show that our population is aging - the median age today is almost 40 years old, whereas it was 32 in 1990. In addition, residents in their prime child-rearing years (aged 21 to 54) have decreased as a proportion of the population from almost one-half of the population in 1990 to one-third of the population today.
To understand and respond to these and other trends, the Columbia Association is undertaking a master plan to set the framework for future capital investments and programs to keep our aquatics program strong and to make sure investments are made wisely.

The above paragraphs paint a pretty dramatic picture.  It portrays Columbia, broadly speaking, as getting older.  To an extent, this is true.  I checked the median age numbers at the U.S. Census and they are correct.  The median age in Columbia is increasing.

What is troubling is the second piece of data: “In addition, residents in their prime child-rearing years (aged 21 to 54) have decreased as a proportion of the population from almost one-half of the population in 1990 to one-third of the population today.”  To be kind, this is a 100% factually untrue statement.

I looked up the Columbia demographic data over at the United States Census webpage; first the 1990 and 2000 decennial Census data, and then the data from the 2009 American Community Survey.  Note:  The 2009 American Community Survey is an estimate conducted by the US Census Bureau.  The 2010 Census decennial demographic data (say that five times fast) has not been released for Maryland.  It is expected to be released within the next two weeks.

As shown below, the 1990 Census data indicates people aged 21-54 made up 60% (not 50%) of the population.  Over the last 20 years, this age cohort has seen a decline to 50% (estimate) of the population.  This 10% decline over 20 years is a much slower rate than the 17% decline offered by the Columbia Association Aquatics Department.

What is most interesting about the Columbia demographic data is that yes, as a proportion of the total population, those aged 21-54 have seen a decline; however, for twenty years the total number of people has remained remarkably constant.  The realization for the Columbia Association isn’t that 45,495 people in 1990 constituted 60% of the population or that 45,236 (estimate) in 2009 constituted 50% of the population.  What is most important is that 45,000 people, most likely lien payers and membership owners don’t take kindly to being marginalized by some “fuzzy numbers.”

Taken at face value, the (factually incorrect) demographics above paint one picture, but they do not reveal the total picture.  I am very concerned that CA is approaching this based on proportionality.  I think it is wrongheaded thinking.  It whispers “divide and conquer.” This position is similar to the “how much does it cost” statement by CA above.

Most other institutions do not use the proportionality argument.  Hypothetically, if eighty kids need to be bused to a local elementary school, the public school system provides buses for them.  If at some time in the future there becomes a dramatic increase in need for busing at the high school level, but eighty kids still need to be bused to the elementary school, the school system provides more buses.  They don’t say to the elementary school parents, “you know, as a proportion of the total bus rider population, the elementary school kids have declined, so we’re going to cut off their service to the elementary school.”

Now is the time for the Columbia Association to get back on the right track.  It is time for the Columbia Association to commit, loudly and clearly, to providing (at a minimum) the amenities and services that were available over the last twenty years because the population that wants these services has not changed over the last twenty years.  The Columbia Association should also embrace the change that comes with a growing senior population, but not at the expense of others in the community. 

09 May 2011

John and David

As the Columbia community begins to settle in with its new (insert your own “relationship analogy” here: partner, step-dad, drummer, etc..), John DeWolf; it may be instructive to look broadly at Howard Hughes Corporation.  This morning, HHC announced David Striph as the Senior Vice President position for its Hawaiian assets. 

This announcement is significant because, although half-a-world away, the HHC (nee GGP) owned Ward Centers, located in Honolulu’s Ala Moana District has progressed on a roughly parallel track with Columbia, Maryland.  During the mid-2000’s, then GGP embarked on a master planning process for both Columbia and the Ward Centers.  In each case, GGP needed zoning changes to realize the master plans.  In Hawaii, the Ward Center master plan was submitted to the Hawaii Community Development Authority.

Subsequent meetings generated dozens of supporters and many that opposed the Master Plan.  To get a bit of the flavor surrounding the master plan, here is a report from the October 16, 2008 Honolulu Star Bulletin:

There were people both in support and opposition to the plan, which demolishes most of the existing buildings at Ward over the next 20-plus years, transforming the skyline with up to 4,300 more residential units in the form of mid- and high-rises throughout the 60-acre neighborhood.
[A] group calling itself the Kakaako Coalition held a rally at Sheridan Community Park an hour and a half before yesterday's public hearing.
Carrying signs and wearing red T-shirts, the group's position was that HCDA should require an environmental impact statement and traffic study before considering approval of the plan.
[M]any stakeholders were concerned as well about preserving open space and view planes, which could be blocked by high-rises along Ala Moana.
In addition, Frierson said, the neighborhood needs more affordable housing and fewer upscale projects targeting second-home owners.
Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?

Moreover, the Hawaii Community Development Authority approved the zoning (8-1) in January of 2009 and the Howard County Council approved local Columbia zoning (5-0) in February 2010. 

Another interesting point to consider is that although the Ward Centers is on 1/10th the land of Downtown Columbia (60 acres v. approx 600 acres in Maryland), the magnitude of development is fairly similar.  In the press release announcing John DeWolf, the Downtown Columbia project is described as follows:

Columbia Town Center has an approved master plan to create up to 13 million square feet of mixed-used development. The plan includes up to 5,500 residential units, approximately one million square feet of retail, approximately five million square feet of commercial office space and 640 hotel rooms.

Whereas the Ward Centers described in the HHC press release for David Striph are described as:

Ward Centers is comprised of approximately 60 acres situated along Ala Moana Beach Park and is within one mile of Waikiki and downtown Honolulu. Ward Centers currently is a 550,000-square-foot shopping district containing six specialty centers and over 135 unique shops, a variety of restaurants and an entertainment center, which includes a 16-screen movie theater. In January 2009, the Hawaii Community Development Authority approved a 15-year master plan, which entitles a mixed-use development encompassing up to 9.3 million square feet, including up to 7.6 million square feet of residential (4,300 units), five million square feet of retail and four million square feet of office, commercial and other uses.

So is there any insight into Howard Hughes Corporation, given that they announced the hiring of two men (yes, I noticed that too) to carry out two master planned developments in the span of four days?  The jury is out (being that hiring announcements are a bit formulaic), but there are some clues in each announcement.

The introductory paragraph in each press release emphasizes the accomplishments of each Senior Vice-President.  For comparison, here is the background on John DeWolf:

Mr. DeWolf brings over 30 years of real estate experience to his new role. Most recently, Mr. DeWolf ran his own consulting practice leading real estate strategy, portfolio management and start-up guidance for multi-billion dollar businesses. Mr. DeWolf was Executive Vice President Real Estate/Strategic Initiatives for New York & Company where he oversaw the addition of 225 stores, the closing of 100 stores, and downsizing of over 250 stores. Additionally, as head of strategic initiatives he managed the development of two accessory store concepts and four new store prototypes. Previously, Mr. DeWolf had senior leadership roles with New England Development, Woolworth Corporation and The Disney Stores, Inc.

And the background on David Striph:

An industry veteran, Mr. Striph has financed and managed over two billion dollars worth of real estate assets during his career, including mixed-use, retail and high-end residential projects. Prior to joining Howard Hughes, Mr. Striph served as Senior Managing Director at Westmount Realty Capital, a Dallas, Texas-based real estate investor. Mr. Striph was also Managing Director at Fortress Investment Group, Vice President at Fremont Investment & Loan, and President of Amresco Capital Trust.

In addition, each press release provides complimentary quotes from Howard Hughes Corporation Leadership.  John DeWolf receives the following from HHC CEO David Weinreb:

"The Maryland Communities, Landmark and West Windsor are important strategic assets for the company. John brings the acumen and experience necessary to ensure that the full potential values of these key assets are realized, ” David R. Weinreb, Chief Executive Officer of The Howard Hughes Corporation, stated. “John’s appointment is a clear example of our dedication to identifying the best leaders for our management team, and our commitment to the time and exploration necessary to find the ideal leaders for each vital role.”

While David Striph is the recipient of accolades from Weinreb and HHC President Grant Herlitz:

"David’s multi-faceted background in commercial real estate makes him the ideal leader for our assets in Hawaii,” stated Grant Herlitz, President of The Howard Hughes Corporation.
“Ward Centers is a key example of the untapped value within The Howard Hughes Corporation’s portfolio. We have the approvals to redevelop the property with up to 9.3 million square feet of mixed-use development,” stated David R. Weinreb, the company’s Chief Executive Officer. “This opportunity has the potential to include thousands of residential units with unobstructed ocean views and to materially enhance the property’s retail presence.”

In the end, it is all too early to make any judgments about either executive, but it will certainly be interesting the observe the trajectory of both projects as each of these individuals fulfill their roles in their respective communities.

08 May 2011

Election Editorial Response

When my copy of the Columbia Flier arrived on my driveway early Thursday morning, I expected coverage of the recently completed Columbia elections.  A piece by Sara Toth on fellow Wilde Lake resident (and elected Wilde Lake Village Board member) Regina Clay has been up on the Explore Howard website for a few days.  Sara does a decent job covering the bases, but I was really insulted by the editorial regarding the Columbia Elections.  The editorial begins as follows:

Stop us if you've heard this one.
Eight years ago in this space we called upon the Columbia villages to put their heads together and standardize their election rules. It didn't happen.

Y’know, I love it when any entity gets up in front of the community and says “We told you to do something about this eight years ago,” and then for eight years does nothing to improve the situation.  It just shows the level of community commitment and professionalism in the organization.

Moreover, Explore Howard whitewashes a lot of Columbia election/Governance history between the 2nd and 3rd sentences quoted above. So to help set the record straight, let’s look at what did happen.

1st, the history

It is a well-known fact that the differences between Villages on Columbia Election Day exist because voter eligibility is derived from the Covenants in each Village.  The Covenants vary from Village-to-Village, but the one thing that is constant is there exists a high bar to change the Covenants.  For example, the Wilde Lake Covenants can only be changed “by execution of an instrument signed by not less than 90% of the lot owners.”  So to change voter eligibility from “lot owners and tenants” to “all residents over the age of 18” would require 2,357 lot owners (90% of 2618 dwelling units. (Source, Columbia Association 2011 Public Information Guide, p. 23) to sign a petition (or similar) to approve the change. 

The term of office also varies by Village.  Some Villages have two-year terms.  Some Villages have one-year terms.  The term of office is not in the Covenants, it is spelled out in the Village Articles of Incorporation (aka Charter).  Again, using Wilde Lake as an example, the terms of office are as follows:

Beginning with the first annual meeting of the Association to be held on or before march 1, 1968, the members, at each such annual meeting, shall elect five (5) directors, at least two of whom shall be elected from among the membership of the Association, each for a term of one year.
It also states: 
“The members of the Association shall in each year elect from among the members thereof a representative to serve a one year term as a member of the Columbia Council.”
Now, amending the Articles of Incorporation requires first an affirmative vote of 2/3 of the Board of Directors (Village Board) and a majority of the members entitled to vote.  For those of you keeping score at home, that’s 1310 property owners and renters that would need to approve the change.

Now the intention here is that neither the Covenants nor the Articles of Incorporation are easy to change.  What has become the accepted “wisdom” is that it is nearly impossible to change either document.

Fast Forward to 2003

Let’s recall the events that provoked the Explore Howard editors all those years ago to call “upon the Columbia villages to put their heads together and standardize their election rules.”  Back in the Spring of 2003, then Howard County Councilperson David Rakes went to the Long Reach polling place (Stone House) to vote.  Mr. Rakes had previously lived in Oakland Mills, but within the last year rented an apartment in Long Reach.  Given that he was a renting an apartment, he was asked to provide a copy of his lease as proof of residence.  In a related article , Mr. Rakes stated, “This is nothing but a false barrier; it's discriminatory."  In the same edition of the Columbia Flier, the editors cobbled together an editorial that lamented the low voter turnout (this time Hickory Ridge did not reach a quorum) and the Rakes controversy.  Toward the end of the editorial, they stated:
“We call for an assembly of village officials _ a constitutional convention, if you will _ to establish in time for next year's village elections uniform rules governing the voting process that remove as many barriers to participation by residents as possible.”
Now for those whom have the time and energy, “standardize their election rules” (2011) does not exactly comport with “uniform rules governing the voting process that remove as many barriers to participation by residents as possible;” (2003) but we are going to stick to broad principles here.

The Last Great Governance Discussion

After the 2003 Columbia elections, the idea of election reform was not ignored.  In fact it was a topic of discussion amongst every Village Board.  Residents provided input.  Boards discussed how to change the unchangeable (Covenants).  Exo-Covenant and Supra-Covenant ideas were put forth and debated.  Lawyers were consulted.  The last great covenant discussion was unearthed and discussed at length.  Ultimately, the Columbia Association electeds convened a second Governance Committee, whose only task was to study election reform.  This committee studied four different reform proposals, took input from residents and village board members, and issued a report that can be found here:  NOTE:  links to appendices do not work.

The result of all this input was filtered through the Columbia Council/CA Board of Directors. There was general acceptance that Village Board elections were locked in by the Covenants and Articles of Incorporation of each Village and could not be changed.  The CA Board endorsed a plan in which Columbia residents would participate in two simultaneous elections.  Elections for Village Board and Columbia Council Representative would proceed as they always have.  But every other year, all village residents over the age of 18 would also vote for Village representation on the CA Board of Directors. Technically, this would achieve a standardized election for the CA Board of Directors. Residents in Dorsey's Search, Kings Contrivance, Long Reach, River Hill and Wilde Lake would vote in odd-numbered years, while those in Harper's Choice, Hickory Ridge, Oakland Mills, Owen Brown and Town Center would vote in even-numbered years.

Under this arrangement, the elected CA Board of Directors would be charged with carrying out the business of the Columbia Association, while the elected Columbia Council Representative would either be the same person (assuming they ran for both positions) or would be a “figurehead.”  This is the “2005 endorsement” that is mentioned in this week’s Explore Howard editorial.

To try and rectify any loose ends, CA’s legal staff created a “compact” to be signed by all the Village Board and Columbia Association.  Ultimately, this proposal was met with much resistance by many actors.  The Alliance for a Better Columbia exercised much hand waving and worried about potential lawsuits from corporations that would no longer have the same voting rights.  Villages currently under the one vote per property regime bristled at the prospect of having to maintain two sets of voter rolls.

Ultimately election reform collapsed under the weight of opposition, and the status-quo remained.

The Straw Man

Getting back to present day, the Explore Howard editors offer a straw man argument for poor election results:
It's a mobile society, and it's not uncommon for Columbia residents to move from one village to another. Young couples move from apartments to single-family houses. Empty-nesters downsize. Sometimes these crossover Columbians get blind-sided by a shift in the rules.
I have tried to find the source of this story and after some extensive searches on Explore Howard, the earliest mention I came across was in 2003 by then Columbia Council Representative Barbara Russell (OM):
“I think the time has come to set up a big meeting where all the 10 villages' board members could discuss such issues as voting rules," said Barbara Russell, the Oakland Mills representative to the CA board. "More uniformity is needed. People get confused, especially when they move from village to village."
To be fair, it may be entirely possible that in 2003 there was a noticeable internal migration of people throughout Columbia; however, given today’s economic climate, I am not so certain that this occurs in an appreciable amount.  I suggest that the folks at Explore Howard, a news organization, do a little research and find out how many people have moved from one village to another over the last five years.  In addition, the Explore Howard staff should interview these people and ascertain their voting records before and after the move.  Otherwise, the editors at Explore Howard should stop exploiting what most likely is a myth.

Future Thoughts, What will Elections be Like in 2019?

It is entirely possible that eight years from now, there may be a Village that does not meet a quorum, but we can collectively change that.  Some of the folks involved in the 2004-2005 CA governance debate are currently on the CA Board of Directors.

Absent another round of CA governance discussion, there are a few other things that can be done.  First, the folks at Explore Howard could do a better job of covering the Village Boards.  Maybe set for themselves a goal of a Village Board story in the paper/website every two weeks.  Another goal may be to write about each Village Board at least once every six months.  Lastly, if Explore Howard really believes that voter eligibility is a real problem and a true barrier to voter turnout, why not construct an infographic chart that depicts what elections take place in a particular year and who is eligible to vote?

The Villages need to work at this problem too.  Interestingly, the Villages of Owen Brown and Hickory Ridge often find it difficult to obtain a quorum.  If you ask the Village Association folks about this, they typically say that the low turnout is because their association site is not near the Village Shopping Center.  So during elections, a few people are spurred to vote in Oakland Mills or Harper’s Choice because as they go about their shopping, they are reminded by the elections and take a few extra minutes to vote.  In Owen Brown, voters need to take a separate trip to a different location to vote, and that difference of eight votes shy of a quorum this year most likely would have disappeared in another village.  So in particular Owen Brown and Hickory Ridge, but all Villages, should attempt to increase village resident traffic to their community building.  I also believe each Columbia Village should publish and hold an event every February on the “State of the Village.”  This would help clarify the issues for the upcoming elections and start to get people interested.

Lastly, residents need to get more involved.  The Ellicott City/Columbia area did not become “the number-two place to live in America” through a plethora of inaction.  It did so by the hard work of many people and it will not remain a highly desirable place to live unless people continue to be engaged.  One of the easiest ways to be engaged is to vote in the local Columbia elections.

06 May 2011

The Evolving First Impression of Mr. John DeWolf

I recently had a chance to listen to a HoCoMoJo audio interview with John DeWolf, the Howard Hughes Corporation Senior Vice President of Development.  Mr. DeWolf will be the point person with regard to Columbia Downtown redevelopment.  I encourage everyone to listen to the audio for details.

The one thing I will say is that Mr. DeWolf does have a bit of a monotone (and in the interest of full disclosure, my intonation is pretty flat-lined too).  I would find it interesting from an acoustic perspective to sit in on a meeting between HHC's John DeWolf and CA's Phil Nelson.