Saturday, December 29, 2007

Bun Penny Brouhaha

Darrell Nevin emailed me a copy of the Mackenzie Ditter email about the impending closing of the Bun Penny store in the Mall in Columbia.

“Not sure if you knew this or saw it, but certain it is fodder for one of your columns.”

How could I have not seen it? Freemarket blogged about it here and Evan Coren blogged about it here. The Sun papers had a story about the closing and last night, on the eleven o’clock news on Channel 13, there was yet another story about it.

From my perspective, I just don’t see what the big deal is. Sure, it is sad that a family business is closing. That is always sad. It is sad for the owners, the employees and the longtime customers but I hardly think it is big news. Over the years many family run businesses have quietly closed their doors in Ellicott City and nobody ever made a big deal out of it.

I have known Bun Penny since it was opened by the Sachs family many years ago. For the longest time the store was the place to get lunch in Columbia. It was Columbia’s own Zabars.

Times change and so do peoples buying habits. Over the last few years I watched as Bun Penny slowly faded from popularity. I trace the beginning of this slide back to when the mall was renovated and the Lord and Taylor department store was added. What once was the mall’s front door was no longer. The entrance where Bun Penny was located took on a different character. Seldom did I see full tables in the glassed in seating area. I don’t think the store adjusted to this dramatic change in traffic patterns. Also, new competition sprouted up in town center. The Lakeside coffee shop surely took some business away too. That is what occurs in a dynamic marketplace. Either a retailer adjusts to these changes or they risk losing relevance.

That is hardly big news. It is just a fact of life.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Downtown Columbia: A Community Vision

It’s on the street now. The county’s long awaited and already debated framework for the development of Town Center is now available here.

It is 58 pages with two appendices. Don’t be discouraged by the page count though, there are only about 25 pages worth of meat.

I’ll read it this weekend and post my thoughts later.

Raggin On Ranazul

I don’t often write restaurant reviews. I defer to HoCoLoCo Girl in that area. However, once in awhile, just every so often, I have an experience so awful that it compels me to write a post about it.

I had just such awful experience at Ranazul last night. The thing is, I am quite certain that the other two tables in the “La Galeria” room we shared were also having awful experiences.

The short story for those with short attention spans is that the service stunk but the food was, in some cases exceptional and in all cases good. That makes the choice as to whether to return for a second chance a little more difficult to make.

For those who like the details, we arrived around 7:00 PM without reservations, a party of three. We were seated within ten minutes, so far so good.

Then we were left alone, completely alone with the paintings in the La Galeria room. We had water and menus from the hostess. I expected someone to offer to get us a cocktail while we looked over the menu. I was disappointed. At least fifteen minutes passed. Soon though another couple arrived and was seated at the table next to us. In very short order a waiter appeared at their table, welcoming them and offering to get cocktails and warm bread.

I sat watching, wishing he were at my table. Meanwhile, at the table next to us, the waiter was cheerily going over the menu and the specials in great detail. I heard him mention that they were out of the pear salad.

We still had no waiter at our table. This was getting ridiculous. Finally, I decided to go see if I could find someone to wait on our table. While hanging out at the server station I saw the guy who was serving the table next to us. I leaned over to him and said I’d appreciate it if he could find someone to come to our table. He nodded and I returned to my seat and waited.

And waited at least another fifteen minutes At long last a waitress appeared. She said she was ready to take our orders.

“What about the specials?” I was feeling a little cheated here.

“There are no specials.”

“Are you sure? I could have sworn I heard the waiter at the table next to us mention something about specials.”

“No. No specials. Would you like me to explain the menu to you?”

At this point I am getting pretty annoyed. The thought of getting up and leaving crosses my mind. Then again, I’m hungry. That’s why I came here.

We ordered a couple of glasses of wine and five tapas dishes. We had plenty of time to read through the menu during our no waiter period.

And then we waited some more.

Meanwhile, at the table next to us, things were also beginning to go south. His entrée came out, but hers didn’t. They began to exchange sympathetic glances with us.

Our glasses of wine arrived followed shortly by three of our tapas dishes. One of them was a salmon avocado sushi concoction that was delicious. Another was calamari and the third one was something called arepas, which was crab, shrimp and polenta with a sauce that was exceptional.

We polished these off in short order. The lady next to us still hadn’t received her entrée.

We all waited together. Soon, a third couple was escorted into La Galeria.

Our waitress reappeared and said that one of our choices, a salmon with crushed cashews would take a little longer. We told her we’d wanted to order two more tapas dishes and two more glasses of wine. We decided that since we were seeing her so infrequently that we’d better get everything covered while she was there.

The rest of the evening was more of the same. Soon we began laughing with the other two tables. The newest arrivals, having already begun to wonder if they were ever going to see a waiter asked, “How long have you all been here?”

“We got here last night,” I replied which drew laughter from all three tables. The lady at the table next to us, who had finally received her entrée, stated that their water had just seemed to disappear for long periods of time.

So, in conclusion to my ragging post, that I sincerely hope that the Ranazians were simply having a bad night. I may give them a try again but if they offer to stick me back in a table in La Galeria, I’m bolting

Thursday, December 27, 2007

A Stroll through Downtown

On the Friday before Christmas I was in Town Center on business. I had to drop by clients offices in the Park View office building and the Merrill Lynch building. I also needed to stop by Clyde’s to pick up some gift coins. I decided to accomplish these visits on foot, getting a ground level perspective of a pedestrian navigating through Town Center. It wasn’t pretty.

Leaving my car parked in the Park View office building garage, I walked along the outside sidewalk towards 20 Columbia Corporate Center. This requires crossing the mall entrance road which on a good day can be challenging. The Friday before Christmas cannot be considered a good day. Still, I managed to cross without getting hit and only received nasty looks from the cars who grudgingly respected a pedestrian’s right of way. The sidewalk on this side of town is not exactly inviting. At regular intervals street light poles sprout from the center of the walkway creating a bit of obstacle course.

When I reached the front of 20 Columbia Corporate Center I turned left towards the mall and the Merrill Lynch Building. Coming down alongside the JC Penney store. I was struck by the garbage and leaves that littered the curbs in this area.

After exiting the Merrill Lynch Building I crossed over Little Patuxent Parkway on the pedestrian bridge and down towards the Lakeside coffee shop. It was there that I encountered Roger Caplan and Mary Ellen Duncan. It seems that whenever I stop in Lakeside I run into someone I know. After a quick chat and cup of coffee I continued down to Clyde’s to get my gift coins. For my return walk I opted to cut through the mall exiting at the Food court entrance. This was probably the faster route and certainly it was more pedestrian friendly, even with the holiday crowds.
All in all, my little walk reinforced my belief that Town Center needs a fresh perspective and a more pedestrian friendly environment.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Sorry Dan

Matt and Dan
So today I dropped by Heavenly Hams in Dorsey Search Village Center to pick up my previously aforementioned turkey and ham and I run into Dave.




"Hey, did you check out my blog?"



"Yeah, it was great but you got my name wrong," he says as points to his Heavenly Ham nametag which very clearly says "Dan."



"Shit. I'm sorry. I'll fix it tonight."

Sorry about that Dan.



I gotta start writing this stuff down...

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Scene This Week In...

One of my favorite things about the holiday season is that strange phenomena that compels women (and some men) to bake up batches cookies and other yummy treats. Last night Mama Wordbones and the girl were happily baking away in our kitchen in Ellicott City. That inspired this week’s scene in Ellicott City.

If you’ve never purchased a ham or a turkey from Heavenly Ham in Dorsey’s Search Village Center you are probably unaware of the preparations this store makes for the annual holiday rush. Matt and Dave are two of the guys who will hand over hams and turkeys to the throngs of shoppers who will be descending on this small shop over the next few days. Your first clue that this is no ordinary sandwich shop is the chains and stanchions for crowd control that begin outside the store doors. On Christmas Eve people will be lined up well before the store opens at nine.

This year I’m picking mine up on Sunday.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Meridian Square

The county wants to purchase a 15,000 square foot floor of the proposed 60,000 square foot Meridian Square office project in Oakland Mills. The project is proposed for the site that formerly housed a gas station next to the village center. The developer says that he needs the county commitment in order to secure financing for the building.

Rubbish.

The developer needs the county commitment so that they can secure “favorable” financing for the project. The project could move forward without the county purchasing a floor. It would simply require that the developer put up more equity.

I have no problem with the notion of having the county spread offices and services around the county as opposed to one central location. If the county can serve as a catalyst to redevelopment I am all for it. My problem with this deal is the way it has come down. The developer buys the site, announces the project and then says he can’t do it without county support. To me that says he should have never bought the site in the first place.

The way it should happen is that the county buys the site, solicits development proposals and then picks a proposal that offers the best terms to county.

If the county does proceed with this deal they should get the space below cost in recognition of the contribution their commitment makes to the project. In other words, the county needs to get a real sweetheart deal from Metroventures.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Claire Lea Needs Something To Do

Marc Fisher had a follow up story to the poinsettia tree saga in this mornings Washington Post. I think Marc's column yesterday was instrumental in causing the GGP about face on the tree. It appears that the new sheriff in town took control of the situation and showed mall management the error of their ways.

Nice job Greg!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Geary Got It!

I still can’t quite believe it but it appears that GGP is caving in on the poinsettia tree in the mall. The mall issued the following press release today:

POINSETTIA TREE TO RETURN TO THE MALL IN COLUMBIA
-General Growth Properties Works With Columbia Community
To Resurrect Tree-

(COLUMBIA, MD), December 13, 2007 – Executives from General Growth Properties (GGP), owners of The Mall In Columbia, today announced that the poinsettia tree will once again return to The Mall In Columbia for the 2008 holiday season. After witnessing the show of support for the tree from the Columbia community, GGP has decided to bring the holiday symbol back to the center.

“The community of Columbia has spoken and we heard loud and clear,” said Karen Geary, senior general manager, The Mall In Columbia. “GGP is committed to this community and recognizes our role as trustees of the community’s legacy and traditions. We are grateful to the many people who voiced support for our poinsettia tree. They are our neighbors in this community and they need to know that we listen and respond, whether it is a holiday tradition or the larger issues involving Town Center’s future.”

The Mall In Columbia continuously shows its commitment to the community. Recently, it opened Healthy Howard’s Soft Play Area in the JCPenney Court. Young families shared with GGP their desire for an area in the mall that would be suitable and safe for their young children. The center also introduced “Santastic,” an interactive holiday experience for families young and old. This interactive Santa display has been embraced by the community and will join the poinsettia tree as an annual holiday tradition at the center.

Geary Doesn't Get It

Dan Beyers first blogged about this in Columbia Talk today but I felt I had to chime in too. After all I was quoted in the column. Marc Fisher, Metro columnist for the Washington Post, wrote a nice column about the malls decision to discontinue the poinsettia tree this year after a thirty six year run.

Karen Geary, the general manager of the mall was quoted as saying ""The Poinsettia Tree doesn't define the community the people define the community."

Hey Karen, we really don't need a mall manager to tell us what defines community. That is not what the poinsettia tree was about anyway. It was simply something of beauty that was different from any other holiday decoration anywhere. It made our mall special. GGP should appreciate that more than anything. Yes, the mall is a temple of commerce but what harm does it do to set aside one area for something that simply makes folks feel good about coming there?

I think this is potentially a public relations nightmare for GGP.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Scene This Week In...

The Lakeside coffee shop is a cool place. I have to admit that I take some personal pride in this place. I was the guy who convinced Mike Lentz, the original operator, to go there. I also had to convince Columbia Management that it was a good idea. The Columbia Management folks were a little gun shy about that corner because all of their Rouse masters walked by it all the time. Anyway, what was originally Riverside became more appropriately named Lakeside. Mike is now somewhere along the coast of North Carolina running a raw bar…at least that’s what I heard.

But I digress. This past week I spotted fellow blogger Bill Santos and his wife Ann sitting by the fake fireplace with laptops in their laps. Jud Malone quipped that they were emailing each other.

And while I am on bloggers, apparently we have a new western Howard County blog, appropriately named, Western Howard Blog. Welcome, post often.

When I was a kid growing up in Catonsville one of the highlights of the Christmas season was going up to firehouse on Frederick Road and seeing the train display. That tradition is alive and well in Ellicott City at the Ellicott City Fire Company #2. They have a 24 X 10 train garden display that includes interactive buttons for the kids (and their dads). It’s free too though donations are always appreciated. The station is located at 4150 Montgomery Road (think Long Gate Shopping Center). The display will be up until January 6th. Hours are Saturdays and Sundays (11 AM to 8:30 PM), and Wednesday through Friday from 6:30 PM to 8:30 PM. Call (410) 313-2036 for additional info.

Change of Command

The Sun reported this morning that Doug Godine has been replaced. Doug has been the general manager of Columbia for GGP since last year when he replaced Dennis Miller. The new general manager is Gregory Hamm. Gregory has been working as consultant to GGP for over a year now with an office in Columbia.

And no story about GGP and Columbia would not be complete without the obligatory quote from Alan Klein,” I think a change in leadership behavior was needed; whether a change in leader was needed I don’t know.”

In my opinion, Alan Klein is not exactly a leading authority on leadership but the papers love to quote him anyway.

Doug Godine is a true gentlemen and I wish him well in his future endeavors.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Ultimate Decider

The Plaza tower saga rated a front page story in today’s Washington Post business section. It appears that the ultimate decision as to whether the tower will be built rests with the ability of WCI Communities to secure financing. A year ago that would not have been a problem for the Florida developer but back then its stock was trading at around $35.00 per share. Today it trades for $4.84. It may be mid January before the fate of this project is decided.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Poinsettia Protestors

The poinsettia tree protest was held today. My daughter and I attended, dutifully carrying our poinsettia plants to show our fealty to the cause. The cause of which I write is the hope that a mass protest might compel GGP to reinstate this cherished Columbia holiday tradition and get the freaking cars out of the fountain at the same time.Judging from today’s crowds, that is not likely to happen. I’d give it a 10% chance that we will ever see the poinsettia tree grace the center court fountain area of the mall again.
That is no reason to call today’s protest a failure. On the contrary, it was a grand success but for a different reason. It was a success at bringing community together. Old friends met and hugged. Pictures were taken and laughter was evident amongst the din of conversations.

The holidays provided a perfect backdrop for the gathering. It added a festive air.

It was not just the loss of the poinsettia tree that was lamented either. It was the vehicles dumped in the fountain and the car dealer banner that surrounds the fountain court that bothered people. It has just become too much.



The poinsettia protesters also noted that the fountain court seemed to contain more poinsettias than it did at the beginning of the holiday season. This turns out to be correct. I took this picture the day before Thanksgiving. All of the mall holiday décor was in place including the Santastic experience.

There are many more in fountain area today and not just because of those that the poinsettia protestors bought by.

If nothing else, the poinsettia protestors can take credit for having affected that change. Every little bit helps. In fact, maybe an annual “poinsettia drop” could be become a new tradition.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Poinsettia Protest

My friend Jim Binckley bought my attention to a column by Diane Brown in this weeks Columbia Flier. It seems that an ad hoc group of Columbians is planning a little protest this Sunday.

Claire Lea, Sandi Carbotti and Janet Shinski are planning on converging on the center court fountain at noon this Sunday with a poinsettia in hand "to make a statement."

"The loss of the tree is the loss of tradition," says Claire. "Our tradition seems to have been arbitrarily demoted. It's just gone. And I believe there are thousands of us who remember and who want it back. It's just so sad."

Thousands?

Perhaps. It will be interesting to see how many people show. I'll be there, with a poinsettia in one hand and a camera in the other.

Karen Geary, the mall manager, tried to justify the poinsettia trees demise with this letter to editor. I don't know about you but to me the letter rang a little hollow and a little preachy.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

In This Month’s Business Monthly…

I’m going to try something new here. As you may or may not know, I also write a column in the Business Monthly. In fact, I have been writing a column in the Business Monthly as long as the Business Monthly has been around.

I’ve been through three owners but I like the new ones the best. I figure it can’t hurt to suck up to them once in awhile anyway. The Business Monthly has been my only steady writing job. I figure that the fact that I get a 1099 every year for writing validates me a professional writer. Thankfully I also have another job.

Anyway, since I also have this here blog, I thought it might be fun, once a month, to open up this blog to comments about my latest column. I’ll gladly take the good, the bad, the ugly and the anonymous.

Or not. Your call.

This month’s column is entitled “The Ghost of Christmas Past.” You can find it here.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Scene This Week In...

In a word, snow. The first of the season, a good one too. My nine year old daughter and I both agreed that this morning it was magical.

For the Ellicott City scene I choose The Good Life Market in Ellicott City. These guys really did a nice job with the holiday décor. They even play holiday music outside. This was picture postcard perfect for a snowy day before Christmas.

In Columbia there is an old stretch of Oakland Mills Road that winds through Thunder Hill and the Smith Farm. It is an amazing trip in time to how Columbia looked before it was Columbia. The fact that it runs right in the middle of Columbia makes it even cooler. It is a very pretty drive on a snowy day.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Private Meetings Part Two

Last night I attended a political fund raiser for County Councilperson Greg Fox. It was extremely well attended given the fact that it was a) Sunday night and b) rainy cold and miserable.

I heard from several different people at the event that GGP has already met with most of the council members privately to share their vision for Columbia's town center. I hope that is true. I also hope that, if it is true, it will stop this silly posturing by the Columbia Council and the village boards over open meetings.

Again, I have no objection to public meetings. They play an important role in formulating public policy. Similarly, private meetings play an important role as well as they don't allow for posturing for the press and tend to focus more intensely on the subject matter.

The 2008 Columbia Festival of the Arts

The 2008 Columbia Festival of the Arts will be held June 13th through June 28th. Mark your calendars so you can be sure to be in town for the 21st annual festival. If you go to website you can see a sampling of last years paid performances. Right now the festival staff is booking entertainment for for the paid events at the Rouse Theatre and the free events at Lakefest...which brings me to the point of this post.

The festival needs money!

The success of the Columbia Festival of the Arts is largely dependent on the amount of money they are able raise during these cold months. Right now that fundraising is going on in earnest as most good acts need to be booked by the end of January.

If you are thinking about making any charitable contributions before the year end for tax purposes, please consider the arts. All donations are fully tax deductible. You can send a check directly to the festival offices at the Columbia Festival of the Arts, 5575 Sterrett Place, Suite 280, Columbia, MD 21044.

I'm trying to get them to accept Pay Pal but right now you'll need to contribute in the old fashioned way.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Profit Motives

If you haven't already done so, please visit the Hometown Columbia blog and read Jessie's post entitled "Jim Rouse as *ALL* about the money."

Jessie nails it perfectly and I have to say that I couldn't have said it better myself!

Wildlife in EC

A coyote has apparrently been spotted in the vicinity of the historic district. And you thought the wildlife was only in the bars!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Store Window Contest

This Saturday the Ellicott City Restoration Foundation is sponsoring a holiday store window decorating contest for the merchants in the old town. Shoppers will be able to vote for their favorite window by picking up a ballot in one of the participating stores or at the Howard County Tourism office located on the lower level of the old Ellicott City Post Office on Main Street.

It's a fun activity for the family and a great way to explore Ellicott City.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Scene This Week In...

Is it just me or does anyone else find the display of the poinsettia tree skeleton tragic?

The once elegant fixture of the Columbia holiday scene now sits stripped of its red flowers in a Merriweather Post Pavilion parking lot. I’m sorry but it comes off to me as a cheap sideshow in the already borderline tacky Symphony of Lights.

It is worse of course during the day when the colored lights that it has been festooned with have no effect. Fortunately the general public can’t see it as the exhibit is closed during the daytime. The poinsettia tree I knew and loved was beautiful day in and night without any artificial lighting.

And viewing it was free, now it will cost you twenty bucks a car just to see it in this sadly diminished form.

Thus I have dubbed it “The Ghost of Christmas Past.” You can read more about it in my column the December issue of the Business Monthly. I’ll post the link here under “The Way I See It” after the paper hits the streets next week.

On a lighter note, this fire hydrant in Ellicott City cracked me up. Those are pieces of chewing gum plastered around it. This particular fireplug sits on the corner of Winding Ross Way and Edgehill Court in Taylor Village in Ellicott City. It happens to be on the main walking route to the bus stop for a large number of elementary and middle school kids.

A true work of people’s art.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Is That What You Think?

The Columbia Association Board of Directors has placed full page advertisements in several local publications featuring this letter to County Executive Ken Ulman outlining their position on any redevelopment of Town Center.

For the most part the document is fairly innocuous, restating themes that all parties generally agree upon, such as respect the land; create a livable community, more restaurants and businesses and so on.

What struck me was the misleading statement about open space. The letter calls for preserving the “open space” around the Hug statue. That land is not open space. It is private property. CA has plenty of open space under its exclusive control in Town Center. From the looks of things they do a pretty lousy job of maintaining it too.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if the CA board instead spent the same amount of energy looking at how their own organization might adapt to a new downtown.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Scene This Week In...

The big man himself is the subject of this weeks scenes. Thanksgiving is the official kick off of the holiday season. From now until December 25th it will be difficult to keep the kids focused on anything but the big guy in the red suit.

In Ellicott City, Frank DiPietro must surely be one of Santa’s elves. Along with Ed Williams they own Mumbles & Squeaks Toy Shoppe on Main Street. If you want something different from a Toys R Us experience, you will find it in their store. I love this place.

In Columbia you get the real thing. At least you get a guy who looks like the real thing. This authentic looking Santa is all wrapped up in the Santastic experience brought to you by Creig Northrop, Comcast, Build A Bear and other sponsors with ads prominently displayed.

I usually update my Scenes This Week on Wednesdays but tomorrow my daughter and I will be amongst the millions of people schlepping through an airport on our way to a Thanksgiving reunion. Our destination is Birmingham Alabama and the home of my sister Pat. There is a true Columbia connection here as well. Pat worked in Columbia back in the early years (67-69) as an aide to Gary Clark, Zeeger DeWilde and Art Caplan. If you recognize any of those names you more than qualify as a Columbia old timer.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Santastic In Poinsettia Tree Out

click to enlarge
With all of the hoopla surrounding the new “Santastic” attraction at The Mall In Columbia you may not have noticed that something is conspicuously missing this year, the poinsettia tree. The 22 foot poinsettia tree graced the center court fountain of the mall every year since the mall opened in 1971. My favorite columnist wrote this about it five years ago.

After a thirty six year run, the poinsettia tree has now been replaced by trucks parked in the fountain. I for one, lament this loss of a Columbia holiday tradition.

Town Center Website

Thanks to fellow blogger Bill Santos at Columbia Compass for giving us the heads up on this. As expected, GGP has launched a website dedicated to Columbia Town Center redevelopment. There isn't much there right now but expect to see more in the coming months. Most importantly, they have a section soliciting input and recommendations from the community at large, so let your voice be heard. I have added a link in the Links of Interest section of this blog.

If you want to see photos of the vision that they are sharing in community meetings you can check here, here and here.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Adam The First!

click photos to enlarge


As part of my in depth reporting on “Columbicott City, I stopped by the sales trailer for Bozzuto Homes at Shipley’s Grant. Adjacent to the entry road off Waterloo is this historical marker. I figure that most people zip by this sign without stopping to read it. There really is no place to easily pull over for that matter.

But it is an interesting marker. You hear a good deal about the Carrolls and Calverts around here but not so much about the Shipley’s. Sounds like they had a pretty nice spread back in 1687.

Today of course, the landscape is a bit different. This is the development model that sits in the sales trailer. Note that Route 100 and the overhead power lines are conspicuously absent. You have to step outside the trailer to see those features.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Private Meetings

General Growth is holding a series of private meetings with a wide range of community groups to discuss it’s vision for the future of Town Center in Columbia. I happen to think that this is a wise approach. It gives the company a chance to respond directly and appropriately to individual concerns.

I have attended one of these briefings. It was informative and there was healthy dialogue between the developer and the invitees. That is what is required to refine a vision and build it into a plan.

That is what GGP says it wants to do. They emphasized time and time again during the presentation that what they are discussing in these meetings is a vision, not a final plan. That, they insist, will come after absorbing the feedback from the various community stakeholders.

Some folks don’t like this though. In today’s Sun, June Arney reported on these meetings and the reactions of some of these folks. Alex Hekimian is challenging whether any village board members or Columbia Council members can legally attend these meetings since they are not open to the public and the press.

Hogwash.

These are GGP’s meetings. They can dam well invite whoever they want. They are not presenting a final plan, they are looking for feedback. Have you ever noticed what happens when a meeting is open to everyone and the press, especially when the topic is a hot one like Town Center?

The big mouths and politicians dominate the dialogue as they vie for being quoted by the press. That’s why some of the politicians don’t like them. They can’t grandstand.

I hope my elected representatives attend one of these meetings. That's what they are supposed to do. Go. Listen. Learn. Form an opinion. Report back.

Then they can grandstand and pontificate all they want.

Scene This Week In...

It was a picture postcard fall day today, a little foggy and damp. The trees were just past their color peak. It reminded me once again of just how beautiful Howard County is.

The Ellicott City scene is the view on New Cut Road leading out of the historic district towards Montgomery Road. This road gets my vote for one of the prettiest roads in HoCo land.

The Columbia scene is the view of Little Patuxent Parkway from the pedestrian bridge looking back towards the Central library. You can see the corner of one of the blue Columbia 40th birthday banners by the entrance to the GGP building.

Isn’t it time to take those down?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Columbicott City

click to enlarge
I missed this story in the Sun last week about the “limited income” apartments planned for Ellicott City.

I was wondering if “limited income” has become the new euphemism for affordable housing.

Anyway…

The 106 unit project being called The Residences at Ellicott Gardens is planned for a site at the intersection of Route 108 and Route 104. While this is technically Ellicott City, it still feels like Columbia because it is on the south side of Route 100. Then again maybe we should call this Waterloo Road Route 100 corridor area Columbicott City.

It is probably politically safe to put affordable housing in Columbicott City because it is sort of neither here nor there.

Also underway in Columbicott City is the Shipley’s Grant development, a 306 unit townhouse development that is about a quarter mile from the Ellicott Gardens project. Shipley’s Grant will be for people who are “limited” to purchasing a townhome in the $450,000 to $600,000 price range. That seems pretty pricey for a community that is bordered by high power transmission lines to the west, Route 100 to the north and Snowden River Parkway to the east.

They seem to selling well enough though.

Shipley’s Grant will also have a “village” retail center that will front Waterloo Road. So far Starbucks and Cold Stone Creamery have committed to leases in this new center on Main Street (Waterloo Road) in Columbicott City.

Monday, November 12, 2007

New Columbia Blogger

I discovered another Columbia blogger today. He left a comment on my The Big Picture post and I looked him up. Brian Dunn is a native Columbian and he started People Tree Films back in September. If you want to hear another generational voice (you will have to ask Jessie if he is a millennial or an Xer) on the future of Columbia you should check out his blog. I have added his blog to my blog links on the right.

Welcome People Tree Films. I'll tell Jessie to add you to the blogtail hour list.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Other Voices

The current issue of The Business Monthly is on the street. In the letters section there is a great letter from Caroline Sherman, a longtime Clary's Forest resident and local businesswoman. I generally agree with her views outlined in this letter.

Another letter in the Letters to the Editor section is from Mike Davis. Mike is also a longtime Columbia resident and practicing attorney who currently resides in Bryant Woods. Mike lays out the economic benefits of the Plaza tower condominiums. I don't believe enough enough has been written or said about the salient points he raises.

Of course the November The Business Monthly also features my favorite columnist.

Friday, November 09, 2007

The Big Picture

While Mama Wordbones is off having her whipped cocoa bath this morning at the Chocolate spa, I have a moment to share this final photo from the GGP presentation at Oakland this past Tuesday. This photo captures the “vision” in its entirety. Another key feature of this “vision” is a series of “commons” that create important connections. One common would link the Mall to the lakefront. Another would link the Symphony North area to the Mall and Symphony Woods. A third would extend Sterrett Place down through the woods to the lakefront. I believe a fourth one would create a promenade from LL Bean up through to Twin Rivers Road.

I caution that I may not have these exactly accurate. There was a lot of information imparted over a short period of time and I didn’t take notes. The best advice I can give is to attend one of the GGP sessions that are going to be held around town and see for yourself. I believe GGP is also planning an interactive website for this “vision”. As soon as I find out what the URL is I’ll link to it under the Links of Interest.

Now I have to go see how Mama Wordbones is doing.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

More From The GGP Town Center Presentation.

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Yesterday at the GGP presentation on Town Center development I asked Doug Godine if I could take a few pictures of the schematic vision. He said go ahead so here’s another shot. This is the “vision” for the Crescent neighborhood. This would be primarily residences wrapping around Symphony Woods with office buildings lining the outside perimeter.

I’ll post another shot in the next day or so. Right now I’m ensconced at the Hotel Hershey with Mama Wordbones, a fruit and cheese plate and a bottle of red wine (its good for the heart ya know). More news later…

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Coming Soon To A Meeting Near You

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This morning I attended a preview of General Growth Properties much anticipated vision for Columbia’s Town Center. Doug Godine, the General Manager of Columbia for GGP, took great pains to emphasize that this was not the final plan but a working plan that will evolve with input from all the stakeholders; the citizens of Columbia, Howard County Government, Columbia Association and even the State Highway Administration.

One of the key elements of GGP’s vision are two greenways that would eventually connect all the disparate parts of Town Center. Think of it as kind of a super pathway system designed to handle a high volume of pedestrian traffic. The inner ring would consist of a loop around the core of the Town Center. This greenway would be approximately 1.5 miles long. The outer ring would loop around the perimeter of the Town Center area and would be a little over three miles long.

GGP envisions four distinct neighborhoods. They are being identified as Warfield, Symphony North, The Crescent and the Lakefront. Each features a mix of uses but the bulk of the new office space would be in the Crescent while Warfield would be heavier on retail. All four areas would contain housing and all housing would be either condominiums or apartments. No town homes or single family homes are included in this preliminary vision.
A fellow blogger also attended and offered a very interesting suggestion on how to uniquely orient a new pedestrian promenade from the mall to the lakefront. I'll leave it to him to report on that. It was a real audience pleaser.

I really don’t want to steal anymore of GGP’s thunder here. Suffice it to say that I was impressed by the depth and breadth of this “vision”. GGP and it’s planners have developed a very enticing framework for the remaking of Town Center. If you are interested in Columbia you owe it to yourself to attend one of these information sessions that GGP will hosting around town in the coming months.

If you have followed the controversy over the Plaza and the rhetoric of groups like CoFoDoCo, you have heard what armchair planners think should be done. Now it is time to see what the professionals think should be done.

Scene This Week In...

I’ve kind of got this thing going on for clerks in Columbia. You may recall that last week it was Jo and Sheila at Orinico coffee shop. This week it’s Greg and Jessica at Trader Joe’s. I count myself among those who looked forward to the arrival of TJ’s. I for one think our fair town can support two of them. How about a TJ’s at Wilde Lake Village Green?

Anyway, Greg and Jessica were gracious enough to ham it up for my picture and so they now occupy this weeks Scene in Columbia.

As for my Ellicott City scene, most everyone I know refers to this guy as the Bubble Man. He holds court every weekend on the sidewalk in front of the Forget Me Not Factory on Main Street in downtown Ellicott City. On this particular day though he wasn’t waving any bubble wands. He was just greeting and talking to folks looking very Gandalf like and leaning on a thick wooden staff.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Build It And They Will Come...Hopefully

There was a commercial broker reception for the completion of 7021 Columbia Gateway Drive this afternoon. 7021 Columbia Gateway is a 104,000 square foot five story office building in the Columbia Gateway Corporate Community. This is a speculative office project developed by Orix Real Estate Equities in Chicago.

The leasing efforts for this building began in earnest the day the ground was broken in August of 2006. While it is not unusual for a building of this size to not have any leases signed at the time it is completed, it is far from comforting for the developer. Of particular concern is the fact that two more speculative office projects are now underway within sight of this building.

6811 Benjamin Franklin Drive is a 56,000 square foot two story building being developed by Columbia based Abrams Development Group. It is scheduled for completion by the end of the year. Just behind 6811 Benjamin Franklin is 6821 Benjamin Franklin which is also called Franklin Center. Franklin Center is a 200,000 square foot seven story office building being developed by The Trammel Crow Company out of Washington, DC. That works out to 360,000 square feet of new space with no tenants, so far. Of the three buildings, only Franklin Center is going for LEED Silver certification.

It is safe to assume that all three buildings are hoping to capitalize on the demand for space associated with BRAC at Fort Meade. It is too early to tell whether that demand will spread to Columbia Gateway, although there are several DOD contractors already located there.

As far as 7021 Columbia Gateway is concerned, the clock is certainly ticking.

Monday, November 05, 2007

TJ's Has Come To Town...Finally


Trader Joe's opened this past Friday in the Gateway Overlook Shopping Center. I have been a fan of this store since I first discovered one in Monterey California back in 1996. When I used to describe the store to my East Coast friends I called it a poor mans Sutton Place Gourmet. Of course that was back when Sutton Place Gourmet defined the specialty grocery market. Today that is a crowded category and SPG is now part of the Balduccis chain.

But I digress...

A couple of observations from their first weekend: 1) The place was packed but somehow the lines at the cashiers moved pretty fast. The cashiers actually seemed to like their jobs too, despite being jammed. 2) I noticed on my receipt that the store lists their address as Elkridge, even though they are on CPRA assessed land.

Trader Joe's is a fun place with a unique selection of foods and a certain energy that you don't find in your average chain store. The new store in Gateway Overlook does not have a liquor license though so you won't find "Two Buck Chuck" wines there.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

General Blog Note

This is a kind of Saturday blog chore thing, you know, fixing things...cleaning things up and whatnot. From now on, Tales of Two Cities can now be accessed simply by using http://www.wordbones.com/.

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Plaza Tower Saga Continues

This mornings Sun paper contained two stories about the continuing saga of the Plaza condominium tower in Town Center. The first story reported that Councilperson Sigaty's proposed legislation Council Bill 63 and 64 will die after being tabled in the last council session. Apparrently Ms Sigaty counted noses and found she came up short of a majority needed to pass the bills. This speaks well for the wisdom of the other council members. Ms Sigaty's bills were simply an act of ill conceived political pandering to a vocal minority. The planning board saw this when they unanimously voted not to recommend this legislation. You can read their conclusions here and here and here to see for yourself.

The other story concerned the public hearings on the county's master plan for Town Center. While there is not much new news here it is still gratifying to see that the debate isn't being dominated by CoFoDoCo attempting to "speak for the people of Columbia."

I did not make it to last nights CA board of directors public hearing about downtown redevelopment. I got a hung up in the bar downstairs catching up with old friends after our little "blogtail hour." If anyone who did attend would like to share their observations, please do.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Stand Up And Be Counted

(click to enlarge)

Tonight the Columbia Association Board of Directors will hear testimony about the pro and cons of the Town Center development plans that Bring Back the Vision has supported. The Bring Back the Vision folks are hoping to get some younger residents to come and be recognized. They define young as anyone under 50 (ya gotta love that!).

That makes sense. The Town Center development will have it's greatest impact on those folks and therefore their input bears more weight, or it should anyway.

If you think your voice has not been heard so far in this debate over Columbia's future, please try and attend this evening. You don't have to testify. You can simply stand and be recognized when they ask for a show of support. The meeting will be held at 7:30 PM in the CA board room in the Columbia Association Building (Teachers Building) in Town Center.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Scene This Week In...

I dropped by the Orinoco coffee shop last week. I needed to check my email and I didn't want to run all the back to my office by the airport. I have resisted the temptation to get a Blackberry or a Treo. I find I can get along quite well with my laptop as long as I can find a good wireless hot spot. The Orinoco coffee shop on McGaw Road has become one of my favorites. The coffee is excellent as well, even though I have now been reduced to ordering the decaffeinated brew. It's that heart disease thing.

Anyway, after ordering my coffee I was given a gift bag of sample Orinico coffees. This is their way of celebrating their first year in business. That earned them my Scene in Columbia picture this week. Besides a picture of the very cute Orinico coffee ladies, Jo and Sheila, is a vast improvement over last weeks picture of the Costco gas station. The proprietor of this fine establishment is Juan Carlos (JC). He also makes the best Cuban sandwich in town. Congratulations Orinico!

For the Ellicott City Scene I dropped by the Patapsco Female Institute on Sarah's Lane in Ellicott City. A friend of mine told me that his daughter held her wedding there recently. I was surprised and intrigued so I thought I'd go up there for a look. It is really quite a lovely place and well worth a visit, particularly on a beautiful fall day.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Insiders Guide

I'm not sure how I missed this but this evening, as I was carving a pumpkin in the kitchen, my daughter pointed to a picture in the newspaper I was using to keep the pumpkin mess off the counter. (Mama Wordbones is kind of picky about that sort of thing.)

Anyway, Morgan points to a picture and says "There's the star store." That got my attention.

Lo and behold, she had pointed out a picture of Shoemakers Country store that accompanied a piece in the Sun called an Insiders Guide to Historic Ellicott City!

I'd certainly rather see that kind of story about Howard County rather than this one or this one.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Burying The Hatchet

Larry Carson reports in the Sun today that Ken Ulman has nominated his former political rival, Chris Merdon to head up the “new revenue authority.” The first major undertaking for the authority will be the construction of a much needed parking facility to serve the historic district of Ellicott City.

This speaks well for both men. It is not that often that we see this type of post election collaboration after what can be conservatively described as a nasty campaign. Nicely done!

Friday, October 26, 2007

Rain, Glorious Rain.

The sustenance of life has returned in earnest to Howard County. The trees, shrubs, lawns and wetlands are breathing a collective sign of relief.

Last night Mama Wordbones and I went to Clyde's for dinner. As we left the house, I grabbed an umbrella that was sitting by the garage door. When we got to Clyde's and I opened it for her I discovered that at least three of the support struts were broken and akimbo. We snuggled close under the remaining serviceable portion of the crippled umbrella and made our way to the restaurant. We laughed about the fact that we hadn't had much use for umbrellas in such a long time that we had forgotten that this one was in the garage because it was supposed to go into the trash.

We left it outside the door at Clyde's. Since it was still raining we thought someone might perhaps "borrow" it before we returned. It was still there when we finished dinner. It had stopped raining. We deposited it in a trash can by the hug statue on our way home.

I don't mind this weather at all.




Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Scene This Week In...

I stopped into the Costco Gas Station at the Gateway Exchange Shopping Center this week. In the time it takes to fill up my SUV I ran into Roger Caplan longtime Columbian and local PR impresario and Bob Shinski, longtime Columbian. We were all filling up on the cheapest gas in town. That inspired me to make the new and architecturally unimaginative gas station my "Scene This Week In Columbia" photo. I mean how often do you run into two different people you know when getting gas?

Anyway, I was inspired.

The Scene This Week in Ellicott City is a different perspective on the Howard County Circuit Court Building. I took the photo from College Avenue just above St. Pauls.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Support Your Local Farmer

Buy a local pumpkin!

In case you haven't picked up this years pumpkin yet please consider visiting a Howard County farm stand that has been in continuous family operation since 1922, Baughers Fruit and Vegetable Stand on New Cut Road (just off Montgomery Road) in Ellicott City. Mrs. Baugher has worked the stand for over 50 years while her husband has worked it for seventy years. They both can tell you a few stories of old Howard County.
The apples they sell are grown in the orchards behind the stand.

Baughers will close for the season on October 31st. It will reopen again the third week of June just as it has since 1922.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Hammer Time At Comcast

I ran across this story in today's Washington Post. Mona "The Hammer" Shaw is gets my vote for heroine of the day.

As I have written before, I dumped Comcast largely because their customer service infuriated me so much. So far, my experience with Verizon FIOS has been the exact opposite.

The thing is, this is nothing new. Customers have been telling Comcast that they have lousy customer service for years and yet they still don't change. There is even a website devoted to the subject.

I think I'll send Mona a contribution towards her fine.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Marketing Slogan or Lifestyle Philosophy

As I was making a quick pass through Town Center yesterday I chanced upon a gathering by the "Hug" statue at the Lakefront. It appeared to be a meeting of CoFoCoDo folks with some county officials. I couldn't stay long since I had a lunch appointment with a client but I was able to make some observations and listen to a couple of the speakers.

Lloyd Knowles made a statement that really resonated with me. He spoke of the early promise of Columbia being "The Next America" and indicated that he was concerned that the new plans for Town Center were going to make it more like the current America. That started me wondering about what exactly "The Next America" means.

Back in the early days of Columbia, the Exhibit Center building (now ironically home to the Plaza condominiums sales center) featured an exhibit on the vision of Columbia entitled "The Next America." Inside the exhibit center was a multi screened slide show and a model of what the future downtown of Columbia might look like. At the time, Town Center consisted of two buildings (Exhibit Center and Teachers Building). The American City Building was under construction. The slide show spoke of a town that would be an alternative to the strip development that was occurring along the suburban arteries leading out from the cities. The bad examples they used looked like the developments along Route 40.

The thing is, I don't recall that there was much detail given about what the future Town Center might look like aside from the model that showed much more density than anyone now would tolerate. To my recollection there was no discussion of height limits. The whole "Next America" focus was more about open space and walk ability. It reflected a time when most households had only one wage earner.

What struck me about Lloyd's words were his attempt to turn this marketing slogan into something much more. I am not certain what exactly he envisions a "Next America" to look like (and when does it stop being "next?"), but he seems passionate in wanting it.

My other observation was the make-up of the CoFoDoCo crowd. It numbered around forty people none of whom was under forty. Many seemed to be long time Columbians who yearned for the old days. They spoke of a vibrant Town Center they once knew with the Columbia Cinemas and the Rusty Scupper.

One other thing I heard that gave me pause was Cynthia Coyle talking about how she was opposed to any roadway running through the little plaza where the "hug" statue now sits. This comment struck me because I believe this area to be private property, not part of CA land in Town Center. It is akin to a neighbor standing on your property and telling everyone he doesn't like your driveway!

I wish I could have stayed for more but my appointment beckoned.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Blogs First Birthday

Today is the first anniversary of this blog. When I started this a year ago I wasn't really sure where I would go with it or whether I could post often enough to keep it relevant. One year later I have have obtained some clarity in direction (though it may not be readily obvious to the reader) and some consistency in posting.

I thank all of you who have read my words here and those of you who have felt compelled to share your views and comments, even those who strongly disagree with some of the things I post. I may not always respond to broadsides but I welcome them none the less.

To celebrate Blogs First Birthday, I have added a few new items such as the banner photos at the top of the page. I chose these two historical markers, one from Columbia and one from Ellicott City because I found a certain irony in each. First of all, the marker in the "new town" looks old while the marker in the old town looks new. The Ellicott Mills historic marker has it's own special irony. It is not even located in Ellicott City. This marker sits at the entrance into the community of Oella in Baltimore County.

The other new features are Scene This Week in Columbia and Scene This Week in Ellicott City. Taking inspiration from Hayduke with his One Daily(ish) Shot, I will endeavor to update these images every week. We'll see how that goes.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Fan Loyalty

Mama Wordbones and I have been shopping for a ceiling fan. After visiting various lighting showrooms and scouring the net we settled on a Monte Carlo Model 5AHR60 RBD. Fortunately for us, this particular model was offered at three Howard County retailers. We could choose between Annapolis Lighting, Industrial Lighting (AKA Lighting By Design) and Lowes.

Our first stop was Annapolis Lighting in Dobbin Center. I don't know what it is about this store but half the time I go there I encounter either rude or oddly indifferent salespeople. Other times they have been very helpful. This particular visit was a mix. Annapolis Lighting had our fan for $540.00 plus tax.

For our next quote we opted to call Industrial Lighting ((410) 796-5535) rather than visit the showroom. Industrial Lighting is located at 8325 Patuxent Range Road in the Baltimore Washington Industrial Park on Route 1 in Jessup. We spoke with Cynthia who happily gave us a quote over the phone. She would sell us the fan for $458.91 plus tax.

The final stop was the new Lowes store in Gateway Overlook. Lowes did not have the fan in stock but they told us that we could order it for $477.00 plus tax. Lowes heavily promotes the fact that they will match any competitors price and take the take an additional 10% off. That sounded like a great deal so we decided to test this policy. What we discovered is that Lowes will only give you that additional 10% off on items "in stock." Since our fan of choice would have to be ordered, they would only meet Industrial Lightings price. No additional 10%.

Since I was already in the store, ready to purchase this particular fan, I pushed. "If you give me that additional 10% I'll buy the fan from you right now."

Sorry was their response. Okay, in my book that gives the advantage to the local retailer which happened to be located less than 3.5 miles from Gateway Overlook.

I thanked them for their time, turned on my heal and headed on over to Cynthia at Industrial Lighting and purchased the fan. She was friendly, knowledgeable and helpful.

So, in this instance, the local merchant prevailed against the big box retailer in both price and service.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Business Person of the Year

Earl Arminger was recently named Business Person of the Year by the Howard County Chamber of Commerce. I can't think of a more worthy recipient. For those who think that developers are the root cause of all problems in Howard County, perhaps they should read this story from the Sun last week.

Congratulations Earl!

Monday, October 08, 2007

Heart Attack

A week ago last Saturday I had a heart attack. At the time I didn't even realize it was a heart attack. I was getting ready to go out for the evening and suddenly felt clammy and a little nausea. Then it passed.

Granted, I still didn't feel that great afterward but I can't say that I felt like I needed to go to the hospital. We decided to stay in for the evening. It was midnight before I decided that something was obviously wrong and that I needed help. In the emergency room I was told I had a heart attack.

I am sharing this information because until this event occurred, I had no idea what a heart attack felt like. Being a somewhat typical guy, I think I need to be unconscious or have a limb hanging on by a thread before I would consider going to the emergency room. I always thought a heart attack would "knock me to my knees." Mine didn't.

Time is the most critical factor in a heart attack. Delaying getting help results in heart muscle loss and as I now understand it, heart muscle loss is permanent. The good news for me was that the muscle loss was minimal.

I was lucky.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Now What?

It looks as if a compromise on the Plaza tower has fallen flat. According to this story in today's Sun, "a three hour meeting failed to produce a compromise...".

Not that I am surprised. I'm not sure how WCI can can make the tower shorter without incurring significant costs (loss of revenue from fewer units, re engineering the design, etc.) and according to the story Alan Klein "said he might reluctantly agree to consider a height up to 180 feet."

Some spirit of compromise, eh?

There were even some theatrics. Lloyd Knowles apparently walked out of the meeting to protest the fact that it was a closed door meeting. How very mature. Tell me Lloyd, how do you expect to get parties this far apart to come together in an open meeting?

Closed meetings are much better for hammering out compromises. They provide less opportunity for grandstanding than open meetings do.

And this notion that somehow General Growth should just go and buy the property back is ludicrous. Let's assume for a moment that WCI would even be willing to consider this (and there is no indication that they would). If I am WCI I want more than the land price back. I would want all of my costs so far covered as well including all legal fees, architectural and engineering fees, marketing fees and so on. I suspect that this makes any buy back cost prohibitive from the get go.

In my opinion, WCI should just go full speed ahead with construction with their already issued building permit. If the county council passes Mary Kay Sigaty's legislation and it becomes law WCI can then come back and sue the county for all of its costs and more. My money says WCI wins that one.

The taxpayers would be the losers. Thank you Alan Klien.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

27 Hours In ICU

One of the truly great institutions in Howard County is the Howard County General Hospital. This past weekend I had the opportunity to experience first hand just how great HCGH is by spending 27 hours in the Intensive Care Unit on the third floor of the hospital.

I was also able to compare my experience at HCGH with the world renown Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. I was transferred there after my stint at HCGH. I spent another 27 hours at that institution.

First, let me say that I'm fine. I am now back in Ellicott City. The last few days however, were a bit chaotic.

The nurses and doctors at HCGH were some of the most compassionate and friendly professionals I have ever encountered. That is not to say that the Johns Hopkins people weren't professional and extremely competent, they were. There was just something more comfortable and congenial about the folks at HCGH. The ICU rooms even have windows which allow the bed confined to at least glance outside and experience sunrises and sunsets. The "set down" room at Hopkins had a window that looked out at other windows. It was too far from the bed to see out of anyway.

When you become immersed in the front line of the health care system like I was the past few days you gain a new perspective. My experience in both institutions reinforced my appreciation for how truly fortunate we are here in Howard County.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sunday Paper Scan

Today's newspapers had a couple of interesting stories. The first story that caught my attention was the Political Notebook column by Larry Carson in the Sun. In "Columbia tower bills a source of differences" he pretty aptly summarizes the prevailing political winds swirling around Councilperson Sigaty's two pieces of anti tower legislation, Council Bills 63 and 64.

What really struck me though were the quotes from Alan Klein, spokesman for CoFoDoCo. Alan posed the rhetorical question of "Why should you vote in favor of these bills?" to the council members during last weeks public hearings on the bills.

Alan answered his own question. "The simple answer is that you said you would. Three of you, along with both major candidates for county executive and many of he candidates who were not elected, announced your support for height limits in Columbia that would include the proposed Plaza tower."

As Larry Carson pointed out none of the council members actually promised to vote for THIS legislation and, ironically, Alan's statement actually lends support to those who oppose this legislation.

Huh?

The very fact that that no candidate came out in support of the tower in the last election meant that pro tower voters had no clear choice of who to support. Most of us, myself included, were left to decide which candidates would use reasonable judgement when faced with legislation such as this. In my case, my councilperson is Courtney Watson and so far I have been impressed with her common sense approach to the issues. I hope she will dismiss these comments from Mr. Klein as just so much whining. "But mommy you said..."

The other Sunday paper story that resonated with me was in the Metro section of The Washington Post. In an article about a fence in the planned community of Montgomery Village Steve Hendrix explored the conflict over a security fence that has been erected between a neighborhood of "low income and subsidized townhouse" and its more affluent neighbors. Though the story did not deal directly with Columbia, it's central premise will be familiar to anyone in Columbia. The more affluent neighbors grow increasingly frustrated with trash and vandalism and seek to erect a barrier in what was previously open space.

The erection of the fence causes an uproar in the less affluent area and the neighbors then look to the courts to resolve their differences.

In the end though, the conflict has served as a catalyst for bringing neighbors together. As a result of this the neighbors may be able to get to the real root of the causes of the trash and vandalism problems rather than trying to put a fence around them.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Another Top 10 List

Dow Jones Marketwatch has come out with a list of the ten best cities for business in the US. The Washington, D.C. metro area was ranked number 7 while Baltimore came in well out of the top ten at number 34.

So where does that put good old Howard County?

Appropriately enough, somewhere in the middle.

The Marketwatch rankings were based on " the number of firms from the most recent Fortune 1000, S&P 500, Russell 2000 and Forbes list of 400 private companies based in its metro area. S&P 500 and Russell 2000 lists are as of Sept. 14. The same per-capita calculation was made on the numbers of small businesses -- companies with fewer than 500 employees -- in these metro regions."

They also considered job growth and unemployment. In this category the Washington DC metro area had no peer. "The region was the only one of all 50 metro areas to post a sub-3% unemployment average for the sample months."

The number one city on this list was Minneapolis-St. Paul. "The Twin Cities region has a high concentration of massive and diverse Fortune 1000 and S&P 500 companies. It also has a significant number of Forbes 400 private companies. Further, Minneapolis-St. Paul has a healthy array of up-and-coming companies on the Russell 2000 index. And it has more small businesses per capita than just about any other city. "

The number 50 city was New Orleans. "Not to kick a city when it's down, but the Big Easy probably would have made this list even if Hurricane Katrina hadn't struck two years ago. It just may not have been on the very bottom."

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Plaza Tower Hearing

Last night the County Council held a public hearing on Councilperson Sigaty's legislation, ZRA-79 and ZRA-83. ZRA-79 is an effort to impose height limits on all new buildings in Town Center and ZRA-83 is a less than veiled effort to stop the construction of the Plaza residence tower being developed by WCI Communities in Town Center.

First, let me state that I did not attend the hearings last night. I really wanted to go and testify against this legislation but I was unable to do so for personal family reasons.

Anyway, I was happy to hear that there were plenty of folks who shared my view that this legislation is bad policy. Thanks to Dave Wissing at the Hedgehog Report, I was able to find out what transpired.

It was a good night for the voices of reason. It apparently was a bad night for Alan Klein.

"Even when Alan Klein tried to show the “overwhelming support” for the legislation by asking people to stand in support, only about a third of the room actually stood up,..."

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Ninja Cyclist

I have to admit that I was a bit floored when I found out that the Columbia Bicycle guy has a Facebook fan site with a thousand or so members. I've seen this guy all over Columbia. He has even been spotted in the county seat. Thanks to Jessie, I now have a name to attach to our prolific peddler. He is Athtar.

This, along with an anonymous comment posted on Hayduke's blog, got me thinking about Columbia's original prolific peddle pusher, the "Ninja Cyclist."

Around eight years or so ago I was hooked up with a local group of cyclists. We'd gather for a regular Sunday ride out on in western Howard County. We actually had a group name too. We called ourselves the Howard County Road Surfers.

Anyway...

After our rides we'd hang out for a bit and every once in awhile someone would bring up the Ninja cyclist. We had all seen the Ninja cyclist around not only Columbia but in Ellicott City as well. One time I saw NC standing against the inside guard rail at the merge of Route 29 and Route 40. That is not exactly a fun place to be on a bicycle.

Everyone agreed that NC was an accomplished rider and most of us had witnessed the black rider doing some very trick moves.

Rumors abounded. A bike mechanic at Princeton Sports told one of our group that NC was a transsexual. Another of our group said they heard that NC was a fashion designer.

Whether either of those two things are true or not I think it is safe to say that our NC is a little different. I once sat two stools away from NC at the bar in Clyde's. NC was dressed entirely in black. including a black baseball hat with a BMW logo. NC even wore black gloves while eating dinner. I attempted conversation but NC didn't exactly warm to me. Though I often have that effect on people I still suspect that NC is not as approachable as Athar.

I have not seen NC for some time now. I hope all is well. I consider this person to be part of our quirky local scene and I would be sad to find out if that is no longer so.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Thank you David...

In my post "Battle of the Broadbands" I shared some of my frustrations of migrating from Comcast internet service to Verizons new FIOS service. One of the comments to this post was from fellow HoCo blogger David Keelen. David wrote "If you ever have problems with your FiOS call me."

Well I had problems. In fact I emailed David that I was almost ready to go back to the "devil I knew" rather than "staying the course" with FIOS.

That was two days ago.

Yesterday a Verizon FIOS guy named James showed up at my door. James proceeded to delve into the gremlins that had beset the "House" computer in the basement. This is a computer that I keep just for my daughter and any guests that visit. It was not responding well to the divorce from Comcast. It had issues.

James was soon joined by another Verizon technician named Bill and the two of them worked for about two hours to isolate and fix the problem. I am happy to report that the house computer is now purring like a kitten and all is well. Thank you David. Thank you James. Thank you Bill.

This was a far cry from any service experience I ever had with Comcast. It was enough to convince me to stay the course.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

I Just Looked Around & They're Gone...

Last Friday I decided to pick up some flowers for Mama Wordbones for the weekend. It wasn't any special occasion though she is still a bit frustrated with the FIOS/Comcast switch so in the back of my mind I probably thought it wouldn't hurt. I stopped into Howard County's oldest florist, Wilhides Flowers just off Old Columbia Road in Ellicott City. As I was paying for my Irish bells and Snap Dragons I made a comment about helping out my old buddy Lee Wilhide. I've known Lee since serving on the board of the Columbia Business Exchange with him about twenty some years ago. I even wrote a Valentines column once using Lee's front line observations.

"They've moved to Florida."

Huh?

It turns out that Lee and Bev Wilhide are no longer county residents. That is major news to me at least. Besides running the flower shops, Bev Wilhide also once served as Chuck Eckers Chief of Staff. Bev and Lee were a local institution.

Taken alone this news wouldn't have hit me so hard but right after picking up the flowers I drove down the hill to Annabell's on Main Street in Ellicott City to procure some wine. I parked in front of what once was "Oh My Word" , a calligraphy store. I say once was because last Friday the windows were covered up with brown paper. The owners of "Oh My Word" were Colette and Jimmy Roberts. Jimmy was the guy most often in the store. He and I go back to the early eighties when he managed a Rouse mall in Springfield, Massachusetts and I was his regional marketing director. I always enjoyed stopping in his store and trading banter with him about the goings on in our community.

Now the store is gone. There was no information posted on the door explaining where they went. I'll miss Jimmy. I only hope that he and Collette are fine. Maybe they are in Florida now too.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Bringing It Home

In all the rhetoric flying around about the Plaza Residences condominium tower in Town Center you seldom hear anything about the actual future residents of the building except in the abstract. The tower opposition forces have even gone so far as to imply that these future residents would not be in sync with Columbia's values (as they deem them to be). That is easy to do when you are dealing with an abstract but it is a little different when you replace that abstract with an actual person.

An actual person such as Gary Kaufman. Gary is the Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of Micros Systems, Inc.. Micros is a local company. It was started by a guy named Tom Giannopoulus in his kitchen in Allview Estates. Today, it is a company with 4,100 employees with a 248,000 square foot corporate headquarters in Columbia Gateway Corporate Community. The company revenues last year were $679 million. It is truly a hometown success story.

Gary has a contract to buy a penthouse unit. He is not buying some large mansion outside of Columbia with a mammoth carbon footprint. He apparently wants to live in Columbia, close to his office. Not only should Columbia provide housing for guys like Gary, Columbia should applaud the fact that Gary wants to live in the town. His home grown company and it's headquarters in Gateway probably pump close to $100,000 per year into CA's coffers through the CPRA assessment.

Given the money that the CA is doling out to it's executive staff Columbia is going to need more guys like him as lien paying residents.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Battle of the Broadbands

Just before I moved from my townhouse in Town Center, Verizon was digging up the neighborhood installing new fiber optic lines for their FIOS service. My neighbors and I applauded this development and looked forward to the day when we could all tell Comcast to stick it.

Ultimately, I moved to Ellicott City before the FIOS service was activated. In my new "hood" my choices for broadband were limited to Comcast and Ellicott City Cable Company. Let's just say that I never considered Ellicott City Cable Company to be a real choice even though the developer tried to make the service mandatory for all homeowners. I credit Ken Ulman for rectifying that situation. I believe it is one on the main reasons he did so well in what at least appears to be a predominately Republican neighborhood.

People may not be well informed on most issues but they sure as hell are informed about their cable service.

Anyway...

A year and a half later, Verizon has arrived on my street. Since I was chomping at the bit to drop Comcast, I jumped at the opportunity to switch to Verizon. Perhaps I jumped too fast.

It's not that I don't like the service. The FIOS broadband is fast. It is most noticeable when downloading videos. The FIOS TV is another story.

Verizon gives you three set top boxes at no additional charge. Comcast charges for each and every box. This would seem to give FIOS a huge advantage expect for the fact that with FIOS you need a box for virtually every TV in the house. With Comcast you can simply plug the coaxial cable into the back of the set and get 90 some channels. When you plug the FIOS cable directly into the TV you get about 20. FIOS claims you get 40 something but the reality is that many are duplicates (you get the NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox stations in both Washington and Baltimore).

Still, the savings are there. I figure that with Verizon I am saving about $40.00 a month over what I was paying for Comcast so that's a plus on the Verizon side.

On the negative side, Verizon had to dig a new trench from the street to the side of my house. This did not go over well with Mama Wordbones who has spent countless hours trying to keep our new front yard healthy and presentable. Why, she wanted to know, couldn't they have put that line in before the house was finished like Comcast and ECC did?

Another negative was the learning curve. While I consider myself an easy adapter of new technology Mama Wordbones is another story. She had finally mastered the TV remote with Comcast and now she was being forced to relearn how to find HGTV and the Today Show. She also was not pleased with having a new set top box on the kitchen counter (it has since been relocated).

So it is not so simple. For now we will forge ahead with FIOS because I am already knee deep in it. I will say that their customer service is terrific which is an adjective I never used for Comcast in my many years of being their customer. Other than that I am not yet convinced that, aside from the economics, the switch was worth it.