Weighing InThe 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.