Thursday, July 31, 2008

An Expanded Symphony Woods

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This drawing illustrates the extent to which Symphony Woods would be expanded in the GGP draft master plan for Town Center.

If you just focus on the new roads and buildings fronting Little Patuxent Parkway you miss the overall picture.

The Lay of the Land

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I like this exhibit from the General Growth Draft Master Plan for Town Center. It puts into perspective the size of the current Symphony Woods Park that is under the control of the Columbia Association in comparison to the land holdings of General Growth. I think many folks have a misconception of how big the actual park currently is and how big it could eventually be.

If the master plan is accepted as currently proposed, the land devoted to the park would be significantly expanded.

Wegmans Saga Part Five

The Columbia Wegmans store moved a little closer to becoming a reality yesterday. According to this article by Larry Carson in today’s Howard section of the Sun, county hearing examiner, Michelle La Faivre, “dismissed an appeal based on alleged discrepancies in the traffic analysis for the store.”

The opponents however, vow to fight on, even it if they have to go to federal court. Wegmans, on the other hand, is still planning to start construction next year.

Monday, July 28, 2008

CA’s Town Center Amateur Hour

Columbia Councilperson Cynthia Coyle (Harpers Choice) is promoting her own vision of Symphony Woods. In an amazing display of hubris, she and presumably others on the board are suggesting that they have a better plan than the one prepared by professional landscape architects, planners and ecological restoration experts. The Coyle vision is detailed in the picture above.

Not exactly awe inspiring is it?

A carousel dropped down into the middle of the park would almost certainly be an economic failure. It may look pretty but it is doubtful that it can draw enough business on its own to survive without hefty subsidies from CA.

Councilperson Coyle has further tried to rally support for her vision by propagating falsehoods about GGP’s plans. In an email to her supporters she states “that much of what is currently known as Symphony Woods (along the front of Little Patuxent Parkway) would be generally cleared of trees. The plan proposes buildings to be constructed in place of the woods. The buildings would include a new fire station, a new library and museum and the new CA Headquarters.” This statement is both inaccurate and misleading.

First of all, it was CA who first proposed putting their new headquarters in Symphony Woods, albeit at different location closer to Toby’s. Secondly, the idea of a new library and museum was merely a suggestion or “vision” of what could be. Ms Coyle certainly knows that. Thirdly, yes there is a new firehouse in the plan and it is on GGP property that is not part of CA owned Symphony Woods. Surely Councilperson Coyle knows where the property lines are.

Yes it is true that GGP’s proposal calls for a new road through the park and new “cultural amenity” buildings along the Little Patuxent Parkway frontage of Symphony Woods. These developments would necessitate the removal of some trees but it would certainly not result in the park being “generally cleared of trees.” Ms Coyle also fails to mention the reforestation with over 9,000 new trees that GGP has proposed.

Then again, what to expect from someone who has difficulty spelling symphony?

Good News for Howard County Coffee Lovers

This old dog is a big fan of the brown beverage. I was even able to make the transition from caffeinated to decaffeinated after my unfortunate health event last fall. In fact, as I bang out this post, I am enjoying a cup from the Orinoco coffee shop.

The good news for Howard County coffee lovers is that while Starbucks is closing some 600 stores across the country, none of those closings are in our fair county. In fact, we will have a net gain when a new Starbucks opens in the Shipley’s Grant development on Waterloo Road. I have previously referred to this area as Columbicott City since it straddles the border of Columbia and Ellicott City.

Starbucks is closing a total of 12 stores in Maryland including one in Harborplace in Baltimore. You can find the complete list of closings here.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Panhandling Columbia Style Part 3

The construction of the pedestrian crossings at Route 175 and Dobbin Road has given motorists a brief respite from the institutionalized panhandling that has become common at this intersection. On most days, legions of reflective vest wearing people with white buckets have worked the captive audience of vehicles stuck at the intersection. The charity they purport to represent does not appear to be based in Howard County.

It must be a very lucrative spot for them since they keep returning.

Now there is even some competition. In the past few weeks two women have also appeared holding up cardboard signs bemoaning their fate (no job, no money for rent, three kids, etc.) as they work the line of vehicles stopped for the traffic lights. Since these women show up everyday I wondered what they did with those hungry kids and how much time are they devoting to finding real work. My sense is that they have determined that this panhandling is rather lucrative.

Since my office is on Dobbin Road, I regularly encounter these panhandlers in my daily travels. Though I initially tossed a buck or two into the white buckets, I have grown increasingly cynical as time has gone by.

One thought that occured to me as I sat at the light watching them work the cars was the irony of the county ban on roadside selling that went into effect a few years ago. Apparently it is okay to beg for money on the streets but it’s not okay to sell produce.

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.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Jumping the Gun

Tomorrow evening, Columbia Councilperson (Harpers Choice), Cynthia Coyle is putting forth a motion to oppose any plans to construct buildings and roads in Symphony Woods. She has already gotten this motion through the Planning and Strategy Committee. Ms Coyle hopes to have the full board vote on this motion at the monthly meeting of the CA Board of Directors.

I’m wondering what the big rush is.

On the one hand I share the concern about the details of GGP’s plans for Symphony Woods. In my last post I raised the question about the fate of the Central Library. The library would be bulldozed if the proposed new road alignment in Town Center is approved. As one of the anonymous commenter’s to that post reminded me, GGP has alluded to the possibility of replacing the current library with a new expanded library along the lines of the Cerritos Millennial library in Cerritos California. If you are not familiar with this facility you can find a pretty good description of it here and here. It is a pretty terrific facility.

It is quite possible that the Cerritos model is an appropriate one for Columbia. At a minimum it’s an idea worthy of further discussion.

In any event CA, by virtue of its stewardship of the Columbia lien holders land, gets a pretty sweet seat at the discussion and planning table. In order to best serve the interests of a majority of the lien holders, I would think it was their fiduciary responsibility to consider any reasonable proposition that may improve both the quality of life in Columbia and the value of it’s lien holders real estate.

To be even considering Ms Coyle’s motion much less actually voting on it in haste is both unwise and reckless. No one has formally proposed anything to CA yet. This is akin to hanging up on a conversation. It is unnecessary. It’s ready, shoot, aim!

Choose civility for crying out loud and listen to what GGP has to say.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Library Question

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A close inspection of the proposed new road alignments around Merriweather Post Pavilion shown in this display at the Vision in View exhibit, reveals that the current Central Library in Town Center is in the path of progress. If you look closely at the circled area of the picture above you can see a faint outline of the existing building.

In other words, the current building does not fit into the draft Master Plan.

I don’t have a problem with this as long as the library gets a new (perhaps bigger and better?) building in Town Center in the deal. The question is what is the deal?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Scene This Week In...

In the days before my daughter attended kindergarten, she spent the days with a daycare provider in Sewell’s Orchard off Oakland Mills Road. During the warmer months I would frequently take her to Pete’s snowball stand on Old Montgomery Road on the way home. She loved visiting “Mr. Pete” and his wife Angela.

Pete Barlas is a 78 year old Greek immigrant who came to this country in the 60’s. His snowball stand and fruit and vegetable stand are a neighborhood fixture. Much of the produce he sells is grown right there.

This past Saturday, as we were running errands, I asked my now 10 year old kid if she’d like to go see Mr. Pete and have a snowball. She thought this was a great idea.

No sooner than we had gotten out of the car Pete came to greet us. When we got to the stand I noticed that Pete had installed some rebar in front of the service window giving it the look of a jail.

“Things gotten a little rough around here?” I asked.

“You didn’t hear?” he replied.

Last September 9th, in the middle of the day, three Hispanic men accosted Pete in his stand. One of the men pistol whipped Pete. They tied him up as he lay on the floor. After stealing the cash out of the stand they accosted his wife and held her hostage while they ransacked his home behind the stand.

Despite this $1,000.00 reward offered by the Howard County Police, no one has ever been arrested in connection with the case.

Pete told me that this episode had changed him. “I think maybe I sell the place and go back to Greece now.”

He did say that the outpouring of concern from his neighbors and customers has been overwhelming and that is what keeps him going.

I hope Pete stays. I also hope that they catch whoever did this awful thing to such a great couple.
Pete and his snowball stand are this weeks Scene in Columbia.
The rock sculptures in the Patapsco River just outside downtown Ellicott City are this weeks Scene This Week in Ellicott City. Much has already been written about this summer “art happening” here and here. I even wrote a post last about it last week.

Still, I can’t get enough of this. I love the spontaneity and lack of permanence of the thing. Everyday you might find something different. I took these pictures late Saturday afternoon.

Kudos to Ellicott City resident Teddy Betts for getting this art thing started.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Vision in View Part Two

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The most informative graphic and detailed plan from the GGP Draft Master Plan “Vision in View” exhibit is this one. If you look carefully you can see the existing road network surrounding Merriweather Post Pavilion overlaid on the proposed new alignment of roads. This clearly shows new roads cutting through Symphony Woods and is certain to raise the most controversy.

Liz Bobo has already laid down a gauntlet of sorts in her op-ed piece in yesterdays Sun. She asks “How can the removal of about two-fifths of the trees in Symphony Woods in order to accommodate buildings be reconciled with the current emphasis on green?”

I think this is a little disingenuous on Liz’s part. By now she certainly knows that the current ecological condition of Symphony Woods is less than ideal. Streams are eroding, invasive plants are taking over and the wetlands are failing. She also certainly knows that GGP’s plans include 22.7 acres of reforestation, 57 acres of forest restoration, 4,800 linear feet of stream restoration, 5 acres of wetland enhancement and the planting of 9,200 trees (these do not include landscaping trees). This information was prominently displayed at the Vision in View exhibit that she attended.

This is bound to be a hot topic in the next few months as GGP advances its request for the zoning changes it needs to move this vision forward.

Friday, July 18, 2008


Fellow Howard County blogger Annethologie, recently wrote a post on the curious rock sculptures that have been appearing in the Patapsco River in Ellicott City this summer. Today, we learn more about them in this front page story in the Sun by Julie Scharper.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Me and Pzguru

A commenter on this blog, who uses the pseudonym pzguru, has been engaged in a dialogue with me originating with this post. For well over a week now we have gone back and forth on an accusation of impropriety by an elected official that pzguru made in regards to a development project in the village of Oakland Mills.

Pzguru has argued that the county department of planning and zoning, under pressure from Ken Ulman, the county executive, “illegally” granted a zoning variance to the developer of the Meridian Square office project at the Oakland Mills Village Center which will allow them to provide onsite parking at a ratio of 3.5 spaces per 1,000 square of rentable space as opposed to 4.5 spaces per 1,000 rentable square feet as mandated for this type of use (office). An inference has also been made about corruption and a “special deal” since the developer also made a sizable contribution to Ken Ulmans campaign.

Our dialogue had reached the point that I decided to dedicate a separate post to this subject to give it a more complete airing and hopefully to put it to bed.

Pzguru has asserted that, at a public hearing, the county office of law informed the DPZ that they did not have the authority to grant this variance. This was after it had already been granted. I argued that while they may have overstepped their bounds but that this sort of thing is not all that unusual. To me the more important question is who is harmed.

This is not a case where a community is fighting a developer. The Oakland Mills community considers this building an important part of their revitalization efforts.

The developer asked for the variance so they could build a bigger building. The argument they used is that the building site is already surrounded by parking lots that are rarely even half full. The Oakland Mills community supported this argument and so DPZ, apparently overstepping its authority, allowed it.

Giving this project a parking variance should be a non issue. True, it probably could have been handled differently but the end result would probably be the same.

Pzguru argues that actions like this from our elected officials are the reason “why people are jaded and cynical about politicians and have no trust in the government.”

I beg to differ. What I see is a county government that worked with the community and a private developer to help them achieve their goals. They considered the unique situation on the ground (existing excess parking) and determined that a literal interpretation of regulation (creating even more parking) did not make sense in this case.

Pzguru is frustrated that I don’t want to hang Ulman by the balls for this. I don’t. No matter how I slice it, I just don’t see a ball hanging offense here.

Vision in View Part One

Last night I dropped by the “Vision in View” exhibit at the General Growth Properties building in Town Center. The exhibit, which is in the Spear Center on the 4th floor, is made up of panels “showcasing key elements of the draft Master Plan.”

There is some good stuff to see and last night there were also plenty of folks from GGP around to answer questions.

My overall impression was that this exhibit needs to be more visible. The Spear Center is a lovely venue but it is a bit out of the way. Despite the open bar and hors d’oeuvres, the attendance last night at the opening reception was light especially when compared to the crowd that had gathered at the lakefront right next to the GGP building for a free concert. GGP may be better served by placing this exhibit in the mall.

Still, I saw many of the usual suspects. Liz Bobo and Lloyd Knowles were there as was Barbara Russell. I also spoke with Chris Tien, Steve Lee, Fred Gottemoeller, Jud Malone John Slater, Barbara Kelner and Jean Moon.

I’ll post more about last night later today or tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Best of the Best

According to this front page article in today’s Sun about Maryland schools MSA testing results, Worthington Elementary School “achieved a first in Howard County. One hundred percent of third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students at the Ellicott City school scored proficient or advanced in reading. Every elementary school in the county had at least 80 percent of students scoring proficient or advanced in reading.”

Congratulations to the staff, teachers and parents who made this happen.

Go Wildcats!

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Build a Bear Boondoggle

This past Saturday I took six ten year old girls to the Build A Bear Workshop in The Mall in Columbia. The occasion was my daughter’s tenth birthday celebration. We started with a cookout in Ellicott City and then trekked over to the mall for fun and games at the Build A Bear Workshop.

Please note that when I say “fun and games” my tongue is planted firmly in my cheek.

That is not to say that it wasn’t fun and games for girls. They had a blast. I am not sure what it is with girls and stuffed animals but it does seem that, for my daughter and her friends at least, they just can’t seem to get enough of them. My deal for them was that each girl could pick out whatever animal they liked and then they could add up to 15 bucks worth of accessories.

In case you have never been in Build a Bear, the “bear” accessories are where they make the real money. Still, with a 15 buck allowance the girls could have fun shopping for an assortment of things. At some point though, each and every one of them pulled me aside and asked if they could just have just fifty cents more.

I very quickly became the Build a Bear Bad Guy. I held firm to the allowance. No exceptions. It is easy to sound tough in retrospect but in reality it was very hard to refuse their “pretty please” entreaties. This of course only served to prolong the shopping experience as they all tried to get as close to that number as they could without going over. At least, I told myself, I helped them work on their math skills. We were there for an hour and a half. At the checkout I really didn’t have the energy left to make sure everyone towed the line on the budget. The total came to just shy of $250.00. Frankly, I was beat and at that point I was on Build a Bear overload and was just happy to wrap it all up. My mind was already anticipating a nice big glass of red wine when I got back home.

I will say that the store staff was great and they went out of their way to make the experience fun for the girls. That is what really mattered anyway.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The BRP Spyder

I was sitting at the traffic light at Snowden River Parkway and Oakland Mills Road last week when this odd looking motorcycle pulled up next to me.

It is a BRP Spyder and it was just introduced this year. The three wheel bike is manufactured by Bombardier Recreational Products. I’m not sure what the EPA gas mileage rating on this baby is but I do know is that at 14 big ones plus (and that’s if you can get one) I think I’d rather have a roof over my head in one of these.

The Spyder looks pretty sexy in July but no so much, I think, in January.

Altieri Homeless

I heard a rumor last week that Columbia based homebuilder Altieri Homes had closed shop. I decided to try and check it out .

I visited the offices at 9017 Red Branch Road. At 10 AM on a Wednesday morning no one answered the door at the second floor corporate offices or the design center downstairs. The next day I dropped by the sales trailer at their Hebron Manor project in Ellicott City. Though the sign said that the sales trailer should have been opened at that time it wasn’t. I left a phone message for the sales agent but I never received a call back. Judging from this limited bit of research I’d have to conclude that the rumors of Altieri Homes demise appear to be true.

Anytime a business closes it is painful. When a home builder closes the pain is a little more widespread. Consider those folks who bought homes from Altieri in the past year. The chances of getting the builder back to fix any problems are pretty slim. That may be a moot point anyway. Judging from these comments, Altieri wasn’t doing a very good job on the following up thing even before this rumor started circulating.

Of course it is not just the customers that are affected by the sudden closing. Contractors and vendors often get stiffed too. When I stopped by the Hebron Manor project there was one subcontractor on site doing concrete work. I couldn't help but wonder if these poor bastards would ever see a dime for that day’s labor.

Friday, July 11, 2008

A Wii Problem

One of the items on my daughters Christmas list last year was the Nintendo Wii. Like any good father trying to maintain the belief in Santa for just one more year I endeavored to get her one. I also thought it would be a fun activity for us during the cold winter months. I knew the game was popular but I had no idea how difficult it would be to procure this particular toy. I went to every electronics store in Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties in search of the elusive Wii. The closest I came was the Best Buy store at Arundel Mills Mall. There I was told that they expected a shipment that weekend but that people were expected to begin lining up to purchase one as early as 7:00 AM. They didn’t know how many of the games they were getting and so they couldn’t say whether they would have enough to satisfy everyone standing in line. I decided against this approach.

I did discover that I could find one online. All I had to do was pay three times the suggested retail price. I decided against this approach as well.

In the end, the Wii game did not make it under the Christmas tree. I decided instead to get one for her birthday in July figuring that the Christmas frenzy would be well over by then and that they would be more available.

I was wrong. This week I went to Best Buy, Sears, Walmart and Target. It was just like last Christmas. There were no Wii’s to be found in Columbia or Ellicott City. The only difference this time around was that online the prices were now only a thirty percent higher than the suggested retail price and forget about free shipping.

What is up with this?

Two thoughts nag at me. One, I wonder why Nintendo hasn’t ramped up production to meet demand? They are obviously not benefitting from the online retailers who are jacking up the price.

Two, if the economy is as bad as some would make us believe, how is that a two hundred dollar game console is selling like hotcakes? I would expect that discretionary items such as this would be affected by the slump.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

In This Month’s Business Monthly

A lot can happen in five years. People get married, people have babies and people get proven wrong. All three of these events happened in my column this month.

Five years ago this summer I wrote a column entitled “Requiem for Rock Palace.” Five years ago The Rouse Company announced its intention to enclose Merriweather Post Pavilion creating a year round, albeit smaller, arts venue. Gone would be the outdoor music theatre that has hosted such rock legends as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and The Who. The plan was to choke off most of the parking with a mix of office and retail development. If they could get a few more housing allocations from the county for Town Center they’d throw them in there too.

It all seemed so inevitable back then.

Not to everyone though. There were many different forces that came into play that spared Merriweather from the wrecking ball, not the least of which was the acquisition of The Rouse Company by General Growth Properties.

Before that occurred however, another of those forces was a grassroots organization called Save Merriweather. It was formed by four young Columbians, Justin Carlson, Ian Kennedy and their girlfriends at the time, Tanya and Lena. They set out to try and stop the inevitable and five years later you’d have to admit that it looks like they largely succeeded, with a little help from their friends.

Five years later the girlfriends are now the wives and Justin has become a daddy. Everyone still lives in Columbia and they are generally encouraged by what they are hearing from General Growth about the Pavilion and its place in the redevelopment plans for Town Center.

Five years later it is time for me to acknowledge that I got it wrong. You can read this month’s column here.

Judge's Bench Pub

Yesterday, after a very humid nine holes of golf at Hobbits Glen, my buddy Alan and I were ready for a nice cold beer. Unfortunately, since it was Monday and Coho’s was closed, there were no cold beers to be had at the clubhouse. I couldn’t help but thinking, “What kind of golf course is this?”

Since we both live in Ellicott City we decided to head on over to the Judges Bench Pub on Main Street. This was Alan’s suggestion. Though the Judges Bench has been around for a very long time, I had never actually gone into the place. I had always understood that it was one of those joints where, when a stranger walks in, the whole room goes quiet.

Perhaps that was the way it used to be but not so much anymore. 17 months ago Mike Johnson bought the bar and the building it is housed in. He immediately made us feel welcome and told us about some of the changes he’s made, the most notable of which is the addition of 17 beers on tap. The previous owners featured two. The new Judges Bench also features live entertainment every day of the week and has a party room/game room on the second floor.

The one thing he didn’t change was the name.

It was a pleasant surprise and yes, the beer was cold. I cooled off with a pint of Peg Leg Stout and then headed up the hill to home.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Scene This Week In...

Once again I am surprised by how little merchandising is done is for Fourth of July holiday. For the second year in a row Mama Wordbones and I have hosted an Independence Day party for our new neighbors in our new neighborhood. Since nobody lived here three years ago,a few of us have created opportunities for all these new people to actually meet each other outside of the bus stop.

We adopted the 4th of July holiday. I like the 4th. It remains one of those few holidays that always falls on the same date. It hasn’t been corrupted into a hybrid holiday like “Presidents Day.”

Anyway, I went searching for patriotic stuff to deck the place out appropriately (and only marginally tacky) and I had a harder than I expected. Halloween, New Years Eve, St. Patrick’s Day, to name a few, all are heavily marketed. In fact you could say that they are over marketed. Not so much with 4th though. I visited Target, Wal-Mart, Party, Party, Party among others and I gotta tell ya, the pickings are pretty slim.

One exception is the Forget Me Not Factory on Main Street in Ellicott City. While their selection was not what you could still call extensive, it was varied and unique. I dropped a few bucks with them today and I had a good time doing it.

The store is owned by a mother/daughter team, Nancy and Janet. Their most visible pitchman is Barry the Bubble Man. All throughout the year Barry dons a variety of seasonally appropriate costumes and stands in front of the store working an arsenal of bubble wands for the passersby. This weekend he will be Uncle Sam in shorts.
An outpost of Columbia exists in closer proximity to Emerson and Maple Lawn than it does to Columbia. It even has a Laurel zip code. The Columbia Horse Center out on Gorman Road is owned by the Columbia Association but it actually run by Columbia Horse Center, Inc.

My daughter is attending Horsemanship Camp at The Columbia Horse Center this summer. Two years ago she attended Pony Pals there too. They are a great group of folks and the kids seem to be having a great time.

I made them my Scene This Week in Columbia because I've always liked the "Whoa" sign.