Friday, July 25, 2008

A Failure of Informed Leadership

Last night at the CA Board of Directors meeting, Chris Tsien accused the board of failing “to take an informed leadership role in caring for the Symphony Woods property.” He went on to point out that the board is now failing “to take an informed leadership role in determining the property's future.”

I think Chris hit the nail on the head.

If it were not so tragic it would be comical. Columbia is facing its most important challenge that will profoundly affect the health and welfare of the town for years to come. The organization that should be the strongest voice for the citizens and lien holders is fumbling the opportunity.

That is not to say that the CA board is being passive. The Planning and Strategy committee passed a motion calling for the organization to oppose the construction of any buildings or roads in Symphony Woods. Last night, they modified that stance to allow for restrooms, a small café, and a carousel.

In other words, they seem to want Columbia to go back to a simpler time instead of embracing the future and thinking about future generations of Columbians.

Last night I only saw one person at the standing room only audience who could be classified as a young person. His name is Matthew Petr and I’m guessing that he was under thirty. I was happy to see him there. Unfortunately it turns out that Matthew was there as part of his job to secure utility easements for AT&T. The poor guy had no idea that the evening would be dominated by a debate over the future of Symphony Woods. He didn’t get to address the board until around 9:30 PM.


Anonymous said...

Chris Tsien is always on target. I wish I could have heard the testimony.
The CA Council reputation has suffered dramatically over the past several years. Why should we assume that the Council that pushed Maggie Brown out with an abbreviated contract be smarter when it comes to the future of Columbia? Watch for Liz Bobo or LLoyd Knowles to replace Maggie. With Liz' anti-business voting record, GGP should move on to developing shopping malls in Colorado where the real green people live.
I wonder if Liz was pushing her agenda on this one?
Happy Hunting 55+

Anonymous said...

Pour les arbres, CA, merci.

Please don't squeeze the trees.

Anonymous said...

Tsien's quotes here are too abbreviated to determine just what he wants. Please clarify.

wordbones said...

Anon 9:53 AM,

Chris submitted most of his testimony as a letter to the editor. In deference to Chris I opted to wait to print his full letter until it was published in the paper. It appeared today in the Sun.

So, in response to your request, here is his letter in its entirety:

Dear Editor:

I write to express my disappointment that having first failed to take an informed leadership role in caring for the Symphony Woods property, the CA Board now fails to take an informed leadership role in
determining the property's future. Frankly, the CA Board of Directors
has missed the boat.

The Charrette was years ago -- ample time for this Board to have
consulted professionals, whether its own staff, Howard County's
planners or outside consultants. Instead, the Board did little but talk to each other in a self-congratulatory bubble. The Board's failure to work with its own staff, the Board's failure to work with other community rganizations, the Board's failure to work with the County and the Board's failure to work with Columbia's developer have shortchanged us all.

I point first to the failure, to the Board's neglect, that allowed
Symphony Woods to degenerate into an empty, unused stand of dying trees amidst a quickly eroding watershed. I point next to the Board's amateurish attempts to come up with a so-called "plan" for Symphony Woods, a plan that is na ve in the extreme and a clear indication that the Board does not understand the scope of the project, whether standing alone or in the greater, and more important, context of the
entire Downtown. If there is any lesson to be learned from GGP's many community meetings, it is that good design is more than sitting down at a kitchen table with a crayon and a picture.

The Board has missed the chance to play an intelligent, informed role
in planning Downtown Columbia. Instead of helping lead the effort to improve Columbia, the Board is filled with the alarmists, the
naysayers, the johnnies-come-lately, nipping at the heels of the professionals who have been listening to the community at meeting after meeting and adjusting their plans accordingly. The Board can play a role, but now only a role guided by its own isolationism, and not a role fulfilling its fiscal responsibilities and its opportunities to be
a visionary organization.

The CA Board is "out of the loop." Please, do no more harm and get out of the way of people who actually know what they are doing.

Christopher C. Tsien
10500 Little Patuxent Pkwy, Suite 700
Columbia, MD 21044


Young at Heart said...

I don't always agree with Chris, but he is right on target about this. Both the current and former CA boards have abdicated their responsibility in regard to Symphony Woods in particular and downtown in general.

They chose not to be leaders but to wait and react to GGP's plan. They made no plans for their own property, but then objected when GGP included it in their concept for downtown. While Symphony Woods could be a tremendous asset, it is going to take more than a fountain and carousel to make it so.

Dave W said...

"Last night I only saw one person at the standing room only audience who could be classified as a young person."

I'm offended....

Anonymous said...

"empty, unused stand of dying trees" ??? Reality check, please. CA's stewardship of Symphony Woods, a peaceful, natural, and quite alive forest, certainly could improve, but previous imperfection isn't license for chopping down swaths of it to build roads and buildings.

Such unhelpfully inaccurate "empty, unused stand of dying trees" depictions seem to just be echoing the mantra the density advocates have been espousing when referring to Symphony Woods in very negative terms. Is this just a weak attempt to lead the public into believing sacrificing Symphony Woods is sacrificing very little? Such mischaracterizations make me now treat any statement from the increased density advocates with considerable skepticism.

Other than the stewardship issue, the remainder of Mr. Tsien's letter seems to be mostly venting at the CA Board. Doing "no more harm" where Symphony Woods is concerned isn't "getting out of the way" of chainsaws and bulldozers. Instead, it's keeping those chainsaws and bulldozers out of the woods, thanking GGP for their feedback regarding Symphony Wood's health, and putting corrective, restorative measures into effect for:
- addressing the floor compaction in those location's it's happened,
- restoring the undercanopy in those places it's been lacking,
- improving stream and wetland areas where needed with increased tree canopy,
- and other measures where the ecosystem would benefit.
Thank you, CA Board, for not being a rubber stamp.

As for those "professionals who have been listening to the community", have they overlooked the traffic studies time after time say this huge amount of increased density won't work and that the Charette asked for low density and preserving Symphony Woods? Can someone please provide an example of where "listening and adjustment" has resulted in a substantive change to what's being proposed?

And, Young at Heart, the Board's continued choice of preserving Symphony Woods as forest isn't the absence of a plan - it's the ongoing execution of Symphony Woods' original and current plan to retain it as the tremendous asset it is in our community's environment.

ilana said...

What "tremendous asset" is Symphony Woods providing to the community? In the 15 years I've lived in Columbia, the only times I'v ever been in Symphony Woods is for Wine in the Woods and Jazzfest. I drive by there several times a week, and I rarely see a single person using the space for anything besides making tracks to Merriweather.

I'm sorry, a carousel, a water feature and interpretive paths aren't going to draw many young families to the site either, as proposed by some members of the CA board. Maybe 75 years ago, but the lack of vision on the part of the board is astonishing when you consider that CA was formed to BE forward-thinking in determining the evolving recreational needs of Columbia.

We had a jewel in Howard County called the Enchanted Forest that disappeared in large part because they failed to evolve as kids tastes have. If CA wants to attract young families to Symphony Woods, they need build a lot more than a carousel and a water feature.

Young at Heart said...

Anon 10:32,

If the board's plan was/is to "preserve Symphony Woods as forest", then why hasn't that been done? Why wait until now to begin those restorative measures? As it stands now, Symphony Woods is neither a natural wooded environment nor a healthy usable space. This is a result of the failure of leadership.

I'm not saying I support the GGP plan for Symphony Woods, but that the CA board's plan is not a viable, professional, and well thought out alternative. The people of Columbia deserve better.

Anonymous said...

It's a tremendous asset in its sanctuary from the built space. It's great for having picnics (and young families do), playing frisbee (and young and old do), photography, cross-country skiing, free light shows (sunlight through the forest canopy by day, moonlight by night), sledding, wildlife habitat, refreshing acoustics (wind through the trees beats motorized traffic noise any day), quiet reflection, walking, and other social pursuits, too. The smell of a forest invigorates compared to what awaits along a traffic-laden road.

It doesn't need an artificial water fountain/feature - it already has natural ones. It doesn't need a carousel, restrooms, or a café either - those are all amenities that exist across the street in the Mall. Similarly, clearing portions of it for buildings and roads aren't needed either. A vibrant Town Center exists now, improvements can be made to it, and GGP can profit handsomely from the remaining development capability under current zoning, all without any loss of permanent open space.

As to why Symphony Woods hasn't been maintained in the healthiest forest state possible from bottom to top, I too am puzzled, but that would be a question best posed to current and past CA Board members, Mr. Tsien included. Nonetheless, the forest canopy is indeed healthy.

Young at Heart, you are right that restorative measures for Symphony Woods' present challenges could certainly commence now. I heartily concur. That is indeed the right path forward for it and Columbia - a healthy, not sacrificed, forest continuing to be interconnected with other permanent natural areas throughout Columbia.