Saturday, January 20, 2007

Weighing In

The other night I had dinner with my friend Jim Binckley at the Greystone Grill. We were collectively celebrating our 52nd birthdays this month with red meat and red wine. We got into a discussion about the various local blogs and the ongoing debate about the Town Center redevelopment plans. We both felt the local blogging conversation on Town Center was pretty much one sided.

So I thought I'd weigh in...again.

Jim and I grew up in Columbia. We have both watched the town grow from two villages (Wilde Lake and Harpers Choice) to the ten village community it is today. We easily recall a Town Center that merely consisted of the Teachers Building and the Exhibit Center. A lone silo stood on the site that is now The Mall In Columbia. Jim's family were among the first residents of Longfellow. My family lived in Bryant Woods. I worked for The Rouse Company when I was in high school picking up trash and mowing the grass in Columbia and continued to work for them after graduating from college. Jim Rouse has always been one of my heroes. To this day I have remained active in the affairs of Columbia serving on a wide variety of community boards.

I mention all this because I believe I have some street credibility when it comes to a discussion of what may occur in downtown. Prior to moving to my new home in Ellicott City, I even lived in Town Center in the Vantage Point neighborhood.

Here then, is what I think of the current Town Center debate:

  1. The majority of the undeveloped land in Town Center is private property now owned by General Growth Properties (GGP). GGP paid a premium for this land when they purchased The Rouse Company. They are very motivated to see that this land is developed in a manner that will bring the highest return. They have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to do that as well. I do not see this as a bad thing. They have the resources to make Columbia's downtown a very special place. The Voices of Vision speaker series that they are sponsoring also demonstrates to me that they understand the unique opportunity in front of them. I trust the judgement of their professional architects and planners much more than I do the untrained "citizen planners" who seem to get the most press these days.
  2. The demand that a significant percentage of housing in Town Center be set aside for "affordable housing" is laughable. Sure, make Town Center take on the burden of the county's affordable housing crisis. No other part of the county wants it and since Town Center currently has the smallest constituency in the county, it is easy to be for "affordable housing" in Town Center. I believe that affordable housing should be spread around the county equally. When we are willing to mandate that 15% of the housing in River Hill be converted into affordable housing I'll support the same standard for Town Center.
  3. The real problem facing Columbia is not the Town Center redevelopment. Contrary to what some of these citizen groups such as CoFoDoCo would have you believe, the real crisis Columbia faces is one of governance. The other major property stakeholder in Town Center is The Columbia Association which is run by a highly dysfunctional board of directors. There was even an initial reluctance by the CA board to get involved in the discussions of the Town Center planning process. Forget GGP, CA is the organization that will most greatly impact what the general public experiences in the parks and plazas in Town Center.

I know that many others in the community feel as I do. I suspect that in the coming months more groups like Fair Play Columbia will begin to come forward and that the voices of reason will help focus the debate of Columbia's future on the real issues that will most affect our quality of living.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Amen!

Anonymous said...

"I suspect that in the coming months more groups like Fair Play Columbia will begin to come forward and that the voices of reason will help focus the debate of Columbia's future on the real issues that will most affect our quality of living."

Are you implying that the entirety of voices heard thus far on these matters have not included some voices of reason among them?

"The demand that a significant percentage of housing in Town Center be set aside for "affordable housing" is laughable."

Why? Columbia was supposed to be for people of all income levels, right?

"Sure, make Town Center take on the burden of the county's affordable housing crisis. No other part of the county wants it and since Town Center currently has the smallest constituency in the county, it is easy to be for "affordable housing" in Town Center."

Despite your assertion, the responsibility of affordable housing is already being borne by many other communities in the County, including Ellicott City, North Laurel, Wilde Lake, Harper's Choice, Oakland Mills, Long Reach, etc. Town Center is being asked to handle a small portion of the total. Show it's disproportionate to what some of these other communities are doing and your argument will carry more weight.

"I believe that affordable housing should be spread around the county equally. When we are willing to mandate that 15% of the housing in River Hill be converted into affordable housing I'll support the same standard for Town Center."

That is a good point. Yes, it should be spread equally around the County, including Town Center. That said, perhaps more bang for the buck can be gained if some, but only a portion, of Town Center's affordable housing obligation can be converted into substantial fees-in-lieu used to acquire existing housing elsewhere in the County. (With clauses that prohibit clustering affordable housing.) Affordable housing doesn't have to be new, it just has to be affordable. Using those fees-in-lieu could allow acquiring more existing housing than would be gained by requiring in-place fulfillment using newer expensive housing.

Hearing that Columbia's developers got a bye on including affordable housing in River Hill, maybe the requirement for Town Center should be doubled to catch up.

Yes, CA's governance deserves ongoing scrutiny, especially with upcoming proposals to tinker with CA property in Town Center.

wordbones said...

Anon 12:49

Amen to you too brother!

Anon 10:47

No I am not implying that the "entirety" of voices heard thus far have not included some voices of reasoning among them. For example, I would count fellow Howard County blogger Hayduke as one of the more "reasoned" voices.

The majority of the voices I hear however are not reasoned.

Yes, Columbia's ideal was to be a community for people of all income levels and to a large degree it succeeded at that better than most privately developed planned communties. As it stands, Columbia already contains the lions share of "affordable" housing in Howard County. You cite Ellicott City yet the the percentage of affordable housing in the Ellicott City zip codes pales in comparison to Columbia.

In Columbia, you will find the greatest concentration of affordable housing in and around (Wilde Lake) Town Center. There are very few single family homes in the area that is identified as Town Center proper.

And why is it that the burden of creating new affordable housing has to fall on new development? When you force mandates such as these on developers all they succeed in doing is raising the cost of new housing even higher. It is done because it is more politically expedient to require developers to address the housing crisis rather than ask the taxpayer to carry that burden.
-wb

Fair Play Columbia said...

Wordbones we want to thank you for your important contribution to having a more balanced discussion of Columbia’s future. At Fair Play Columbia we have found a thirst from many in Howard County for a new voice in this debate.

The idea that everyone in Howard County thinks the same way about its future is patently false. Yet some groups like CoFoDoCO would try to lead everyone to believe that they speak with near unanimity on issues such as town center redevelopment and opposition to the Plaza tower.

Unfortunately some elected officials like County Executive Ulman have been hoodwinked into jumping on that band wagon with his last minute election eve endorsement of CoFoDoCO’s agenda.

It is now up to all of us to speak up or these groups will continue to peddle their lopsided agendas and our politicians will continue to cave.

As for your comments about affordable housing, agreed. Affordable housing should be shared across the County. In addition CoFoDoCo’s desire for low density in Town Center is completely counter to their belief in affordable housing for Town Center. That is why actual advocates on the front line for affordable housing support the Plaza tower and the creation of a real thriving 24/7 Town Center.

Who knows what their vision of Town Center really is. In fact at last weeks Board of Appeals hearing one of the Plaza tower opponents testified under oath that a major reason they don’t want the tower is that they do not want affluent people moving to Town Center because it would lead to social discord. Now that seems to have missed something from Rouse’s vision of a community where all races, religions, and economic classes could live together in harmony.

Anonymous said...

Your argument that Town Center shouldn't have to include affordable housing because River Hill developers got away without including affordable housing sounds to me like "Bobby got to throw rocks through windows, why can't I?" Two wrongs don't make a right.

Your argument that Ellicott City only has a miniscule portion of affordable housing so why can't Town Center get away with skirting the issue again rings hollow. Two wrongs don't make a right. Further, I'd be very skeptical that Ellicott City zips don't have a lot of affordable housing with all the modest housing that exists in apartments near Route 40. Similar housing exists along Route 1.

Your argument that "In Columbia, you will find the greatest concentration of affordable housing in and around (Wilde Lake) Town Center. There are very few single family homes in the area that is identified as Town Center proper." Part of the reason it makes sense to have affordable housing in certain areas is to permit those folks accessibility to work, either via public transit or via pedestrian-friendly proximity. Car transportation is not cheap. Thus, near the Mall and near Village Centers, there are indeed higher percentages of affordable housing.

I don't think pro-higher density proponents can have their cake, saying "we need more density in Town Center to provide affordable housing" and eat it, too, saying "we shouldn't have to contribute to the solution by providing some affordable housing as part of each development".

wordbones said...

Anon 12:38

The simple fact is that Town Center (and its immediate environs)currently contains a higher percentage of affordable than most Columbia villages. The notable exception being Wilde Lake. I know this from personal experience. I lived in Vantage Point and I had more than a few neighbors using Section 8 housing vouchers.

What Town Center could use is better balance on the higher end. The Plaza Tower would help address that.

And as for the argrument that affordable housing should be close to the jobs then you would not want to put that much more in Town Center. Town Center has 2,741,000 square feet of office space and approximately 1.2 million square feet of retail space. In Columbia there is more commercial and retail space outside of Town Center. Columbia Gateway alone has 4,368,000 square feet of office space, almost twice that of Town Center. All told, outside of Town Center, there is 12,045,000 square feet of office space in the various Columbia businsess parks and an additional 3 million square feet of retail space.

Anonymous said...

I take it then that your experience has not involved Oakland Mills, Long Reach, or Harpers Choice, all of which have ample affordable housing, too.

Columbia Gateway was never meant to be a residential area, so comparing an office park's total commercial space to Town Center's commercial space is hardly a fair comparison. Similarly, pointing out that Columbia's non-residential business parks have considerably commercial space than Town Center is also not a fair comparison.

In Columbia's *villages* (not office parks), it makes sense to have affordable housing near employment and access to affordable transportation. Town Center, like most of Columbia's other villages (how did River Hill turn out that way?), should continue to provide balanced housing opportunities.

Anonymous said...

WordBones,

More-n-likely, you'll have received a ping to your blog, from my blog. I hear your call, and I'm speaking up on this issue. I, too, have lived here since childhood and do not feel that the CoFo Folks represent anyone other than their own interests, which, of course, they have every right to do.

They just don't represent me and the Columbians I know.

Now, I'm in the first day of creating my blog and need just a little time to orient my thoughts and get my data and initial blog posts in order before taking it out to the public. Would you please do me a favor and kindly wait to hear from me before announcing any new blogs, such as mine, on your site?

I'd love to take you to lunch as well. We've dined together before, often, in years past.

wordbones said...

Anon 2:03

I must say that I am intrigued.

My web skills are elementary at best so I have no way of telling what site your comment came from.

In other words, your secret is safe with me.

So... I will anxiously await your blog unveiling.

And as for lunch...anytime!
-wb