Monday, August 31, 2009

Briefs or Boxers

According to this story by Ylan Q Mui in The Washington Post today, men’s underwear purchases may be yet another barometer of the economic recovery.

“Here's the theory, briefly: Sales of men's underwear typically are stable because they rank as a necessity. But during times of severe financial strain, men will try to stretch the time between buying new pairs, causing underwear sales to dip.”

Wow. I never thought of my underwear purchases that way but in fact it is dead on. I haven’t bought any new underwear in at least a year. I asked Bill, one of my colleagues at work if he had purchased any underwear lately.

“I haven’t bought any underwear in at least a year and a half,” he told me. That would also seem to mirror the current recession.

I decided to ask TW the same question. He sits in the cube next to me. He told me he couldn’t remember when he last purchased underwear.

“My mother buys me underwear every Christmas,” he informed me.

There’s one in every crowd.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Next Americans

This past Friday I played golf with three of my buddies. The four of us share the common experience of having grown up in Columbia. All four of us attended high school in Columbia and three of us were even in the first graduating class of Columbia’s first high school. It’s fair to say that our young lives were somewhat shaped by the planned city.

We’re all grown up now and over the years each of us has moved in and out of Columbia at various times. Today, one of us still lives in the town, two of us have parents still living in their original Columbia homes and three of us work in Columbia. Most of can recall when the Exhibit Center Building still housed an exhibit about Columbia called “The Next America.” If that was the Columbia promise, does that make us the next Americans?

If so we make a nice little representative group. Two of us are Democrats, one is a Republican and the other is an independent yet, to a man, each supports General Growths plan to remake Columbia Town Center. Each is frustrated with those people with miniscule constituencies who purport to speak for the people of Columbia.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Scene This Week In…

Many moons ago, when The Rouse Company assigned me their mall in Tampa, one of my charges was to manage a parking issue. The mall was located directly across the street from the old Tampa Stadium which was the home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers football team. Whenever the team played at home, many fans would opt to park for free in the mall parking lot as opposed to paying for parking in the stadium lots. This resulted in a packed mall parking lot on game days. It also infuriated some of the merchants who insisted that mall management do something about it. By the time I arrived on the scene, they were on Plan Z.

I have to admit that I had trouble empathizing with the merchants. This particular “problem” only occurred on four Sundays a year (this was back in the eight game regular season days). Before the games, the mall itself was jammed with food vendors doing a brisk business. Granted, during the game, the mall was empty and anyone arriving to shop probably had difficulty finding a parking spot but I felt that the merchants were missing the point.

The trick is to capitalize on that traffic. Hold events or sales right after the game to entice those fans and their money back into the mall.
I thought of this story when I saw this sign at the Wilde Lake Shopping Center this week. According to this story by Jennifer Broadwater in the Columbia Flier, Howard Community College fall enrollment at the school is “up 10 percent in head count from fall 2008.”

“Since 2000, the college's enrollment has increased about 50 percent, according to Barbara Greenfeld, HCC's associate vice president for enrollment services.

But this year's enrollment growth is particularly large, with 8,355 credit-seeking students registered.”

This has inevitably led to a parking issue that has resulted in overflow parking being directed to the struggling Wilde Lake Village Center. Hopefully, the remaining merchants at Wilde Lake can figure out ways to capitalize on this traffic.
The other day, as I was sitting at the traffic light at Montgomery Road and Waterloo Road in Ellicott City, I happened to glance at the dry cleaner located across the road. I must’ve driven by this place a million times but until this week I never studied the window sign very closely.

When I did, I laughed out loud.

So ladies, next time you need to clean up your man, now you know where to take him.

Friday, August 28, 2009

A Few Quick Words

Not much time for the blog today. I spent my morning at Ellicott Mills Middle School for Peanuts sixth grade orientation. That was a little chaotic. A wag of the tail goes out to the teachers and staff for keeping cool and keeping things moving. My main gripe is the parking situation. Cars were parked on both sides of Montgomery Road and some folks like me ended up parking in the YMCA parking lot and walking back. You would think that the county would install a sidewalk to connect these places but no such luck. Perhaps they are too busy putting in sidewalks to nowhere.

Then there was this news item from Mike Santa Rita in The Howard County Times. It seems that the bad month of August for Jordan Naftel just got worse.

“Since we were unable to reopen Jordan’s, our focus 100 percent is now to figure out how to take care of everyone and to figure out our plan,” Naftal said. “Doing a new restaurant was not the right thing for us at this time.”

That’s a little different tune than the one he was playing a week ago.

“Naftal said he still plans to open a restaurant in November in the Maple Lawn development in Fulton, with partner Carlos Venegas, owner of Ranazul, an upscale wine and tapas bar in Maple Lawn. That restaurant will be opening up as Carlos and Jordan’s Steakhouse, Naftal said.“On the happy side we’re opening in Maple Lawn,” Naftal said.”

I’m guessing there aren’t many happy sides for Jordan right now. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him reappear on the local restaurant scene in the not too distant future.

Right now I’m hustling over to Timbers for an afternoon tee time. If rain cuts our round short perhaps I’ll post again later today.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Throwing in the Towel

For Sale. Historic Manor house, circa 1738 on 82 acres in Elkridge, MD. Comes complete with irascible neighbors.

According to this story by Larry Carson in The Sun today, Howard Community College has put the Belmont Conference Center up for sale after five years of tumultuous stewardship.

“The decision comes as the state Board of Public Works voted to cut $10.5 million cut from state funding for community colleges as the sour economy drives more students to the cheaper two-year institutions.”

Since the college foundation originally acquired the property under a controversial financing arrangement with local homebuilder Harry “Chip” Lundy, the college had found itself continually at odds with the neighboring property owners. The relationship is further strained by the easement that allows access to the property through a one lane road that goes through their properties.
Earlier this year the college had signaled its intention to sell off Dobbin House and its surrounding 13 acres as way to raise cash and pay down debt it incurred to acquire the estate. Now it appears that they have decided to throw in the towel completely.

It’s tough time to sell a multi million property, let alone one that has issues.

Done Deal for Harris Teeter at Turf Valley

According to a report in the Howard / Arundel Report this week, Harris Teeter has officially signed the lease for a new grocery store in Turf Valley Town Square. This is the same grocery store that sparked the ill fated petition drive and federal lawsuit by Marc Norman and his union buddies.

Greenberg Gibbons, the developer of the project has signed a lease with Harris Teeter for a 53,000 square foot grocery store. Site work for the store is expected to start in late spring or early summer next year with a store opening planned for late 2011.

2011 should be a big year for grocery shoppers in Howard County. Wegmans is expected to open in the first quarter of that year.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

So Where Do We Fall?

According to this story by Jamie Smith Hopkins in The Sun today, Baltimore area home prices are down 9% but according to this story by Dina ElBoghdady in today’s Washington Post, DC area home prices are up 2.85%.

Since we are in the middle of the two metro areas where does that leave us?

I’m not sure but my sense is that, though things have improved a tad, we are still down significantly from where we were two years ago.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The High Art of Dysfunction

This morning I listened in on a “Community Conference Call” hosted by Mike Davis, Lin Eagan, Phil Engelke, David Yungman and Sharon Lee Vogel. The purpose of the call was to bring attention to what they referred as the “hijacking” of the Columbia Town Center redevelopment plans (ZRA 113) by the county planning board.

“The Planning Board has had the plan since last December and closed public testimony in April. What more is it going to take to get this in the hands of our elected County Council?”

The Howard County Planning Board has been deliberating ZRA 113 for over nine months now. Originally, they were to make their recommendation to the county council by May. Realizing they needed more time they “granted” themselves an extension to July 16th but they couldn’t make that date either so they granted themselves another extension to August 20th.

They didn’t make that deadline either. This time though they didn’t even bother with the formality of granting themselves an extension. Now they are simply saying they’ll pick things up again at their September 2nd meeting.

Meanwhile, Rome burns. The center of gravity for development has shifted south. Prince Georges County Planning Board has already approved preliminary development plans for the new town of Konterra on Howard’s southern border and the city of Laurel is also poised to seize the initiative to capitalize on BRAC related growth. Columbia is dangerously close to becoming irrelevant.

Now, before I go too far, let me just say that I respect anyone who is willing to volunteer their time to try and make our community a better place to live. Planning Board members David Grabowski, Gary Rosenbaum, Linda Dombrowski, Tammy CitaraManis and Paul Yelder are all volunteers and have all given many hours of their time to the county.

But enough is enough. It is time for this group of individuals to acknowledge that they have become hopelessly dysfunctional and “shit or get off the pot” on ZRA 113, even if that means passing it up without a recommendation like they did on the village center redevelopment bill, ZRA 102.

At least that would be doing something.

New Favorite Coffee Shop

Regular readers of Tales of Two Cities well know that I love a good cup of coffee. Over the years I’ve written posts about Bean Hollow, Lakeside, Mad City, Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks. Though all have good coffee I tend to favor certain shops over others. My most recent favorite was the Orinoco coffee shop in Columbia until it closed earlier this year.

Since then I hadn’t really found a new favorite until I recently discovered the Little French Market in Ellicott City. This tiny café is tucked behind the Tongue Row shops facing the public parking lot.
When I say tiny, I mean tiny. There are no indoor tables which could prove problematic when the weather turns but for now the outdoor tables more than suffice.

The coffee is exceptional.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Senior Citizen Crime Spree

First there’s this news that an 87 year old man, Earl Lafayette Wilder has been charged with the murder of 91 year old James W. Brown at the Harmony Hall nursing home in Columbia.

Then there is this news item from Larry Carson in The Sun about an 82 year old guy from Savage who got caught in a prostitution sting operation in North Laurel.

Maybe they think they can get better health care in jail.

The Village that Ate Clarksville

Back in 1990, when HRD finally got around to developing Columbia’s final village, I called River Hill the village that ate Clarksville. Today it is hard to find any remnants of the former country crossroad community. Ironically, Clarksville Pike has become everything that Columbia once promised to eliminate…a “miracle mile” of retail.
And more retail may soon be on the way. The owners of the River Hill Garden Center have filed a rezoning application to allow it to redevelop the property as a shopping center. The garden center is currently operating as a non-conforming use on land zoned R-20 which allows for two residential units per acre. They are seeking a change to B-1. The owners are arguing that everything else along this stretch of the road is already zoned B-1 or B-2.

Down the road and across the street, six development teams are vying for the right to redevelop the county owned former Gateway School which sits on approximately 8 acres along Clarksville Pike. A citizen’s advisory committee has reviewed development proposals that call for a mix of office, residential and retail space. The six teams are Holland Properties, Clarksville Development Group (Kirk Halpin, Focal Development, Kinsley Construction and Corridor Reznick), Security Development, Kimco, George Stone and a joint venture of JPB Enterprises and Roadside Development. The advisory committee is made up of Susan Smith, Mitch Caplan, Jacqueline Easley, Anne Stuart, Barry Curtis, Susan Goldberg, Roger Jones, Mohammad Saleem, Michael McGarvey, Steven Sass and John Connolly.
The committee will be making a recommendation this fall on which team to move forward with.
Despite these changes, you can still find a few reminders of Clarksville’s past like this old mile marker, probably dating back to the 1800’s, which sits in front of the Gateway school property. It reads simply, “9 M To EC.”

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Scene This Week In...

As I was leaving the main public parking lot in Ellicott City I noticed this unusual trash can. A closer inspection revealed that it had two separate openings, one for bottles and can and the other for waste. I’m not sure how long these new recycling trash receptacles have been deployed in the old town but I like the idea. I wonder why I don’t see more of these around.

In Columbia, Freemarket gave me a heads up that the mailbox in front of the American City Building had returned. I have to admit that I was surprised by this. After it was removed for “repairs” back in May, Brigid Schulte wrote this story in The Washington Post about how mailboxes are slowly disappearing around the country.

“In the past 20 years, 200,000 mailboxes have vanished from city streets, rural routes and suburban neighborhoods -- more than the 175,000 that remain. In the Washington area alone, half the blue boxes that were on the streets nine years ago have been pulled up and taken to warehouses to molt in storage or be sold for scrap, leaving 4,071 mailboxes remaining in the District, Northern Virginia and the Maryland suburbs.”

For now at least, this town center mailbox has been spared. Welcome back.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

And Still More Restaurant News…

The culinary travails of Jordan Naftel seem to have started a cascade of restaurant news this week. Yesterday it was the news of the possible relocation of Aida Bistro. Today comes word that the Lone Star Steakhouse may soon be reopened under new owners. Lone Star closed over a year ago and the property had been on the market since then.

Sources have told me that a major redevelopment of the former chain restaurant is in the works that will eventually be rechristened as The Stanford Grill.

It looks like the local economy continues to sprout green shoots.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Things Could be Worse

If you are trying to sell a house right now you can take some comfort in this information from the website Housing Predictor. Neither the Baltimore metro market nor the Washington DC metro market made it on the list of the “Worst 25 Housing Markets – 2009.”

On the other hand things are all that great around here either. In The Sun today, Jamie Smith Hopkins reports that 12.4 % of Marylanders are behind in their mortgages.

“In Maryland, lenders surveyed by the trade group began foreclosure proceedings on more than 4,100 homeowners with fixed-rate prime loans during the spring - from April through June. That compares with about 2,900 in the winter and 1,200 in the spring of 2008.”

Still, Housing Predictor had some encouraging things to say about Columbia which had the lowest price drop of the 5 submarkets surveyed.

And Then There’s this Restaurant…

Or perhaps I should say “proposed” restaurant.

About a year ago, Corporate Office Properties Trust (COPT) completed construction of the “shell” for what was originally intended to be an Italian restaurant on Columbia Gateway Drive. Shortly thereafter the tenant began the interior construction.

Then the money ran out.

Today, the interior sits about three quarters completed and the tenant has walked away. COPT is now actively seeking a new tenant to take over the space. They would probably even entertain a non restaurant tenant at this point.

Update 2:46 PM: I just heard that Aida Bistro has been in negotiations to relocate thier Gateway restaurant to this building. Stay tuned!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

General Growth Bankruptcy Update Three

According to this story by Ilaina Jonas in Reuters today, General Growth Properties cleared the last major hurdle to its reorganization attempts. Judge Allen Gropper, the bankruptcy judge overseeing GGP, recently “refused to allow lenders to strip out some of the malls from the bankruptcy case.”

That ruling, coupled with the extension granted earlier this summer, puts the ball squarely back in GGP’s court to renegotiate the terms of its heavy debt load and emerge from bankruptcy by next spring.

“William Ackman, head of hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management and one of the company's largest shareholders, wants lenders to extend the company's secured and unsecured loans by seven years, allowing General Growth to strengthen its balance sheet and the capital markets to recover.”

Despite this positive news for the company, speculation continues about a possible takeover of the company by the largest mall operator in the country, Simon Property Group.

“In a conference call earlier this month, Chairman and Chief Executive David Simon said his company would consider property purchases or an acquisition of an entire REIT. Simon has access to $6.3 billion in cash.”

Regardless of the eventual outcome, those savvy investors who snapped up shares of GGP back in February have already realized a windfall. Today the stock is trading at $2.70.

Go Retrievers!

According to this story by Daniel de Vise in the Washington Post today, UMBC has been recognized as the number one “Up-and-Coming” schools in the country by US News and World Report.

“UMBC has a strong record of diversity, highly competitive science and engineering programs and a research operation whose funding has more than doubled since the mid-1990s.”

This recognition will come as no surprise to many locals who have followed the exploits of the schools leader, Freeman Hrabowski. Coincidentally, Freeman will be the guest speaker at the September 25th breakfast meeting of Leadership Howard County.

It goes without saying that this old dog holds a special place in his heart for the schools mascot too.

Placing a Big Bet on the Future

A joint venture between Emory Properties and Ryan Development has quietly begun work on a 160,000 square foot Class A speculative office building in the Emerson Corporate Commons in North Laurel. The four story building was originally planned for a spring delivery but the recession temporarily derailed the project when the capital markets froze last year. It is the only new office project started in Howard County this year.

The developers are making a bet that the local economy will rebound significantly in the next twelve months. It is a large bet with personal fortunes on the line. It is also a stark reminder that real estate development is a high risk game. While critics often decry the profits that are generated by our industry the very real downside risk is often overlooked.

I have a close personal relationship with this development. It will be my task to secure a tenant (or tenants) to insure the economic viability of the building. I also own a small equity stake. The next year will undoubtedly produce more than a few sleepless nights.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Not Exactly Well Done

Last night, over beers with a few commercial real estate colleagues at Nick’s Fish House in Baltimore, the subject of Jordan’s Steakhouse abrupt closing came up.

“The landlord can’t just lock the tenant out without a court order,” Beano explained. “Maryland law is highly favorable to the tenant in these cases. Jordan may well have been within his rights to simply break back in and reopen.”

I should note here that Beano is an asset manager for a national real estate investment trust. He knows a thing or two about commercial landlord / tenant law.

That led me to think that there is more to this story than a simple dispute over a little rent. Reading through the comments posted to the blog Dining at Large , it appears that Jordan Naftel may have stiffed more than just the landlord.

Unfortunately, it is not that uncommon for a restaurant owner to walk away from one Limited Liability Corporation and its debts and then simply turn around and start up another with a clean slate.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Exiled on Main Street

This morning I received an email from HowChow alerting me to the closing of Jordan’s Steakhouse in Ellicott City. I thought this seemed odd given that Jordan Naftel had recently announced that he was opening up a second restaurant in Maple Lawn in the space formerly occupied by the oz Chophouse. I decided to check it out for myself and when I did I found this sign on the locked front door.

It seems that Jordan and his landlord, Rudder Management, are in a bit of a rent dispute. Apparently the landlord felt he had to take this dramatic action to get the restaurateurs attention. Jordan told me he is attempting to reach some sort of an accommodation that will allow the upscale Main Street steakhouse to reopen but until then he says he is busy trying to get the Maple Lawn location ready for a November opening.

There will undoubtedly be a more detailed story in the Howard County Times. When I was standing in front of the closed restaurant this afternoon I ran into Mike Santa Rita chasing down the story.

Location, Location, Location

Back in the late 80’s I worked for a local developer named Fred Glassberg. Fred’s company, Crystal Hill Investments, developed a few office and industrial properties in and around Columbia and I had signed on as his marketing and leasing guy. One of the marketing gimmicks we dreamed up was a lapel pin that simply said “location, location, location” which is the well worn punch line of the joke, “What are the three most important things in real estate?”

We had a lot of fun with those pins. Over the years, long after I left Fred’s employment, I would still occasionally wear the pin on my blazer. I was often asked where I got it from and if I could get another one.

Earlier this summer, as I was leafing through the June 26th edition of The New York Times Magazine, I came across a column by William Safire entitled “Location, Location, Location.” In his column, Safire sought to determine whether this expression was originally coined by Lord Harold Samuel as was claimed in his obituary in the Sunday Times in 1987.

According to Safire that isn’t likely. He was able to find the expression used in a “1926 real estate classified ad in the Chicago Tribune.”

“That usage appeared when Harold Samuel was 14 years old in London, too young to make deals. The context of the 1926 ad suggests it was already a familiar aphorism in Chicago; phrasal etymologists are not yet finished with this challenge, and the Lexicographic Irregulars are invited to weigh in.”

The mystery remains. If you think you may have the answer drop him a note at

I Know Our Dogs Are Happy Here

Ellicott City has found itself on yet another “best places” list. This time the old mill town has been recognized as one of the “10 Best Places to Live for Pet Lovers” by US News and World Report.

“…we focused on weather, population density, and the availability of green space when creating our top 10 list for the best places to live for pet lovers. After narrowing down the field based on those factors, we interviewed pet experts on the most animal-friendly towns. Len Kain, cofounder of, says he first looks at the availability of dog parks as well as major attractions that allow pets.”

Ellicott City invariably got points for the wildly popular “Worthington Off-Leash Dog Park.”

Monday, August 17, 2009

Mixed Signal

Earlier this summer, when this sign went up on a site in Ellicott City, it advertised new single family homes “from the $450’s.”

About a month later the sign was modified to read “from the $460’s.”

Last week it was changed to “from the $470’s.”

Though it is somewhat encouraging for the local economy to see the prices going back up there is a mixed signal here. Since this sign went up no new homes in this community have actually started construction.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Statistically Insignificant

In an op-ed piece in The Sun today, Ken Ulman and Peter Beilenson write of the lessons they’ve learned about healthcare reform from their Healthy Howard intiative.

“Much of the discussion in Washington has been theoretical. Our experience is real-world. Every single day, we implement a universal health and wellness program that can inform both aspects of the debate.”

The article goes on to explain what the county has learned about the economic challenges of the program.

“More than 40 percent of our members express concerns regarding finances and describe how the monthly struggle to survive financially greatly limits their ability to take charge of their health.”

The thing is these numbers are statistically insignificant. While they point out that Howard County has a population of over 270,000 they never mention how many people are actually enrolled in the Healthy Howard program. I believe there is a reason for this. As of the end of June, there were only 200 people enrolled in Healthy Howard out of an estimated 10,000 eligible residents.

While I generally applaud the initiative I do wonder how much validity there is any lesson learned from 2% of your eligible base.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Sticker Shock

Peanut is entering Ellicott Mills Middle School this fall. As with every year since she began kindergarten, I dutifully picked up the list of supplies she expected to have on the first day of school. The shopping tally through elementary school usually wound up just shy of a hundred bucks if you included a new book bag. This year it topped $225.00.

By far the biggest line item for an incoming middle schooler in Howard County is the TI-84 Graphing Calculator. It should be noted that this is presented to parents as an optional purchase.

“The TI 84 Plus Silver Edition Graphing Calculator will be used regularly in your child’s class. Although students will be provided with a graphing calculator for use in school, students are best served by having a personal calculator and becoming very familiar with how it is used to address a number of different types of mathematics problems.”

That doesn’t sound very optional to this dad.

The price for this little item was $102.49 at Target in Columbia. This turns out to be a pretty good deal. The cheapest I could find one online was $129.88 (plus shipping) from

The kicker is that I think I’ll need to take a middle school class myself to figure out how to work the dam thing!

Friday, August 14, 2009

New Jobs Going South

Though Fort Meade is certainly the dominant engine of growth in the Baltimore Washington corridor, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Fulton is another hugely important contributor to our economic health. This week, in an article by Mike Santa Rita in the Columbia Flier we learned that JHU/APL has broken ground on a “$60-million building dedicated to space research.”

Approximately three years ago, the research lab acquired the property across the street from their main campus from Westvaco and dubbed it the “South Campus”. They have since cleared the site to make room for this new growth.

According to Dick Story, the chief of the Howard County Economic Development Authority, JHU/APL has built over 1.5 million square feet of Class A office space on their main campus since 2000. That is roughly equal to the total amount of Class A office space in Columbia Town Center. The new south campus can accommodate another million square feet of office space.

The center of gravity of growth and development in Howard County is moving south. This bodes well for the second generation of restaurants in Maple Lawn.

Who Knew?

Local blogger, Evan Coren is speaking as a panelist on a Session entitled “Local Blogs: Covering City and County Government and Empowering Activism” at the Netroots Nation convention in Pittsburgh this afternoon.

Here is his bio from the website:

"Evan grew up in Columbia, MD, a planned community built by Jim Rouse in the 1960s to be socio-economically mixed, preserve greenspace, and guarantee the infrastructure promotes a high quality of life. When a development company proposed adding 5500 residential units into the downtown in a way that violated the Rouse vision Evan started the Howard County Blog to raise awareness of the proposed plan. The blog played a major role in shaping the debate. Transitioning from blog-activism to grassroots Evan was elected to the city council by doubling turnout in a typically low turnout election, winning by 21 votes."

Wow, I didn’t realize that General Growth Propertiesviolated” Rouse’s vision.

Evan’s blog played a “major role” in shaping the debate?

Columbia has a city council?

Truly amazing stuff.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A New Sister City for Columbia?

When I read this article by John Harding in The Columbia Flier I got a good chuckle. It seems as if the makers of Jennifer Aniston’s new movie “Management” think that Beaverton, Oregon makes an acceptable stand in for Columbia.

“…it turns out that Columbia is played in the movie by locations around Beaverton, Ore.”

I’m not sure who should feel worse about this…Beavertonians or Columbians.

Muscle Car

I’m not exactly a gear head but, like many guys, I have a thing for cars. Whether they are unusual, old, or small, it really doesn’t matter, I just happen to like cars. I had a subscription to Motor Trend magazine before I even had a drivers license.

Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz about the new 2010 Camaro, so when I spotted one at the Auto Services Park on Dobbin Road in Columbia yesterday, I had to zoom in for a closer look.

Ya gotta admit, it’s a pretty sharp looking car.

This particular Camaro is owned by a guy named Andy. Andy works in the music business. He said that he had just recently purchased the car in Delaware. He was dropping it off to have the windows tinted.

Why Delaware?

“The Baltimore dealers wanted $6,000.00 over the list price. I just couldn’t see doing that,” he told me.

I understand. Still, it is pretty impressive that the battered GM could come up with a car that their surviving dealers can pin on a premium mark up.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The County Fair and the Economy

Last Saturday I took Peanut and one of her friends to the opening day of the Howard County Fair. A good time was had by all.

Later that evening I tallied up the cost of our day in West Friendship.

Admission (3): $15.00
Ride Bracelets (2): $36.00
Carnie games: $22.00
Food & Beverage: $15.00

Total: $88.00

This led me to wonder how the current recession might affect the fair. For many families, an expenditure of a hundred bucks for a day at the fair right now could be prohibitive.

In this report last month by Ana Bloom, Alex Johnson and Afsin Yurdakul on MSNBC, the reporters found that “many fairs and festivals around the country say they’re doing booming business this summer as families pass up expensive out-of-town trips in favor of cheaper ways to have fun.”

With four more days to go, it will be interesting to see if this holds true for our county fair.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

They’re Not Done Yet

Susan Baker Gray and her cast of plaintiffs are asking Judge Frederick Motz to reconsider his ruling on their recently dismissed lawsuit. According to this story by Larry Carson in The Sun today, “Gray said the plaintiffs feel that decision was wrong and want the judge to revisit it after a court hearing.”

It kind of reminds me of why people bang their heads against walls…because it feels good when they stop.

Home Sales Up, Prices Down

According to this story by Jamie Smith Hopkins in The Sun today, home sales “rose throughout the suburbs and particularly in Howard County, up 27 percent.”

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that home prices “were down almost 7 percent from a year earlier, to about $298,000, which is below what they were in 2005. Some economists expect continued declines for a while.”

That matches up pretty well with what Kiplinger had to say this week. The business forecasting newsletter predicts that prices will eventually drop 40% below their peak in 2006 and could take “seven to 12 years before prices regain lost ground.”

There is a good chance that prices could begin to recover in our area considerably sooner due to projected job growth at Fort Meade.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Gone but Not Forgotten

Mama Wordbones is a smart shopper. When the Smart Shopper Magazine arrives in the mail she surgically removes all coupons of potential interest. The latest issue arrived today.

“Do you need new running shoes?”

She had turned to a coupon on page 4 for. Feet First. She knows that’s where I usually buy my running shoes. The fact is it has been awhile since I bought the pair I ran in this morning. The coupon got clipped.

As she was clipping I was telling her about the recent closing of the oz Chophouse in Maple Lawn. We had dinner there…once.

No sooner had I bought this up then she turns to page 30 where there is a full page ad for oz Chophouse. The ad includes two coupons for $10 off any dinner of $50 or more. The coupons are good through September 30th. The ad also says new menu coming soon.

That’s an understatement.

Full Disclosure

A recent anonymous commenter on this post insinuated that this blog has some nefarious hidden agenda.

“too many local blogs like this one are advertising without disclosing the personal gain involved in the positions taken, leading to straw man arguments that readers know is junk.”

Hmmm, how do I respond to that?

Well, for one, the greatest personal gain I realize from this blog is the satisfaction that people seem to enjoy reading it. I enjoy writing and it is gratifying to have people read and comment (even anonymously) on the things I write.

As far as other personal gain, I assume the commenter meant financial gain. That answer is easy. I don’t get paid by anyone to write this blog. If anything, writing the blog costs me money since the only currency I possess is time and anytime spent doing something other than commercial real estate costs me money. Someday I may sell ad space on this blog to rectify that but as of now it is only a labor of love.

I readily admit that I work as a commercial real estate broker. I have never sought to hide that. There is even a link called “My Real Job” under “Good Stuff” in the right side column of the blog. I help businesses manage their real estate needs whether it is finding a new location and negotiating a lease or finding tenants for the owner of a commercial property. This work gives me a unique opportunity to make observations on the local business climate. I am pro business and make no apologies for it. That being said, I also believe in the public good. When a business does something that betrays the faith of the public, I don’t hesitate to point it out.

I have no business relationship with General Growth Properties. I don’t list any of their buildings. I have represented businesses in lease negotiations with GGP and I have also represented a developer who purchased land from them in Emerson. Presently I do not own, nor am I a partner in, any commercial property in Columbia.

I grew up in Columbia. At various times I have lived in the Columbia neighborhoods of Bryant Woods, Thunderhill, Cradlerock and Vantage Point. I currently live in Ellicott City. I have served on the boards of the Columbia Festival of the Arts, the Columbia Foundation, the Howard County Chapter of the American Heart Association, the Columbia Business Exchange and Leadership Howard County to name a few.

I believe that a healthy business community in Columbia is good for my family, my business, and everybody who has a stake here.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Cast a Vote for Local Blogs

The Sun is conducting a poll on the Social Media section of their website. The poll asks “What would you like to see us add to The Baltimore Sun site?”

One of the choices is “external links to local blogs.” As of this writing, a whopping 27 votes had been cast and 48.1% of the votes have chosen the local blogs link.

In second place is “something not listed here” with 33.3% of the votes.

The Washington Post has included links to community blogs for over a year now so it’s not like The Sun would be carving out any new ground by doing this.

Still, it would be nice if the local blogs could at least beat out something not listed.

Second Sunday Market

This morning Mama Wordbones wanted to go down to Ellicott City to check out Second Sunday Market. Since I hadn’t had my morning caffeine fix, a trip down the hill sounded like a good way to address that.This is the second Second Sunday Market. The outdoor market which features food samplings from local restaurants, a farmers market, and live entertainment is held on the second Sunday of the month from now until December. After closing down for the winter it will return on the second Sunday in April.

The little market has a nice vibe. Even on a hazy, hot and humid summer day, a nice breeze and plenty of shade kept things comfortable. I was even able to enjoy my hot coffee from the newly opened Little French Market while sitting outside.
This is exactly the kind of “vibrancy” that is sorely missing in Columbia town center. We will definately be back for the third Second Sunday Market on September 13th.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

No Church? No Problem

My neighbor, Paige Fuss is transforming this former art gallery space on Main Street in Ellicott City into a wedding chapel for hire. Paige is seeking to fill a void she discovered last fall when planning her own wedding; there just aren’t many non church spaces around to meet the needs of those who don’t have a particular religious affiliation but find a courthouse wedding to be somewhat lacking.

And it’s not just for weddings either. True to the new ventures name, Ellicott City Weddings and Events is also available for private parties. If a couple attending a private party in the historic district building later decides to tie the not, so much the better.

Paige is booking now for an anticipated opening this fall.

Friday, August 07, 2009

The Greenest House Around

While I was checking the stock market for the final time today (it's up) I ran across this video of the latest and greatest in residential energy efficiency technology. Since this remodeling job was partially underwritten by the manufacturers, it’s a pretty good bet that we will be seeing many of these products in stores soon.

And I thought this house was cutting edge!

Scene This Week In…

When I contacted Kevin Enright, the Director of the Office of Public Information, to find out the status of the two federal lawsuits that were filed against the county this past spring; I learned that the county had not even been served in the one that seeks to stop Wegmans.

In the suit filed by Susan Baker Gray on behalf of Phillip Rousseau, et al, as of last week anyway, the county has yet to be formally served.

I wonder what that’s all about. Could it be that the parties, whose “et al” include Frank Martin and Paul Kendall, were waiting to see how Judge J. Frederick Motz would rule on their other suit first?

If so, I suspect you won’t be hearing much more about the Rousseau suit.
In the meantime, Wegmans appears to be confident that the legal roadblocks have been sufficiently cleared that they can begin sufficiently clearing the site on Snowden River Parkway to make way for their new store.

“Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance Everybody thinks it's true”

That refrain from Paul Simon’s song, Train in the Distance” comes to mind each time I hear the wailing of a diesel train air horn. I can often hear this sound from my home as the trains roll along the banks of the Patapsco River through Ellicott City. I love the fact that the rails are still active in the old mill town even though the town’s train station has long been inactive.

Earlier this week I spotted this behemoth sitting idle on the tracks. I parked the car and snapped a few shots.

In Others Words…the first

I was hanging out with my old buddy Jim Binckley the other day. For those of you who’ve yet to be introduced to this member of the Tales of Two Cities cast of characters, Jim and I have been friends since our senior year of high school in Columbia. His family moved to Columbia in 1967. Mine came in ’68.

Whenever we get together, the politics of Columbia inevitably come up.

“Did you see Barbara Russell’s letter to the editor in the Flier?” Jim asked.

I hadn’t seen it.

“It has got to be one of the worst written paragraphs.”

The letter began as follows:

“The biggest problem with Council Bill 29 regarding the redevelopment of Columbia's village centers, and it has been there from the beginning and is still there despite all of the possible amendments, is this: The developer/property owner gets to design and present the proposal for redevelopment of the entire village center, with advice only from the community. The developer/property owner is the entity (others being residents and businesses in the village, the Zoning Board or the Planning Board) with the least interest or investment in the village centers except for a financial interest.”

Now I don’t care where you fall in the debate over the merits of CB 29 but you’d have to admit that this paragraph is a real mouthful. She doesn’t do a very effective job of making her point, whatever it is.

That got me to thinking. I decided to create a new irregular feature for Tales of Two Cities that highlights some of the more interesting words from local letters to the editor and assorted op-ed pieces. I’ve even created a new place on Where I Put Stuff called “In Others Words…”

The ground is very fertile here.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Pumping it up in Town Center

As previously reported by free market, the Exxon station in Town Center will soon be open under new management. I predicted a relatively quick return when I posted about the closing back on May 14th.

“Given the scarcity of available sites for a gas station in Town Center, I don’t suspect it will be long before the place opens again under new management.”

According to this story by Derek Simmonsen in the Columbia Flier today, the renovated station will reopen in about two months.

Danish and a Movie

According to this story by Maria Zilberman in The Daily Record earlier this week, the AMC Cinema in Town Center is part of a pilot program offering breakfast to theatre goers before noon.

“Now, the experience includes packaged cinnamon rolls and cheese Danish pastry, two types of stuffed crispy tortilla rolls, three types of juice and chocolate or strawberry milk.”

What about coffee?

The town center cinema is one of 55 theatres nationwide in the AMC chain participating in the program which is slated to run through Labor Day.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Shanghaied in Shanghai

I received an email this past Sunday from local blogger “Jack Crow.” Jack is currently in Shanghai, China where he had planned to write a series of blog posts about his experience under the title “Shanghai Blog Project.”

It seems as if those plans have hit The Great Wall.

“I've hit a wall. Its my first day back in Shanghai and the government here has tightened its grip on the Chinese internet since my visit last August. I can't even access blogspot let alone read blogs.”

Jack tried to enlist me to assist him by taking his emails and pictures and uploading them onto his blog. I respectfully declined. I am already hard pressed to carve out time to keep my own blog current without caretaking another. Fatherhood and livelihood take precedent on discretionary time right now, not to mention that I have two other writing projects in development. More on that later…

Anyhow, the least I can do for my fellow blogger and his readers is to let them know that Jack won’t be blogging from Shanghai anytime soon. I assume he’ll tell us all about it upon his return.

Have a safe journey my friend.

In This Months Business Monthly

“This will probably piss some people off.”

That was my exact thought as I finished the final draft of my August column for The Business Monthly. I honestly didn’t set out to do that. It just kind of developed that way. My original thought was to relate my past experience with the Columbia village centers to the current debate over CB 29, the village redevelopment legislation. This debate has turned into the warm up act for the larger debate on ZRA 113 the town center redevelopment legislation that is anticipated to go before the council this fall.

My personal history with the village centers begins back in 1971 when I worked in The Cheese Shop in what was then called Wilde Lake Village Green. Back then, the village center contained a cheese shop, a butcher shop, a grocery store, a pharmacy with a soda fountain, a full service restaurant, a barber shop, a beauty shop, a book store, a record store, a liquor store, a tobacconist, a dry cleaner and a bank. The only stores still standing from those days are the barber shop and the dry cleaner. This was before the mall opened.

Later, after graduating college in 1977, I was hired on as the Village Center marketing director for The Rouse Company. My job was to help build and sustain customer traffic to what by then were four Columbia village centers in Wilde Lake, Oakland Mills, Harpers Choice, and Long Reach. Already market forces and demographic changes were pulling shoppers away from the village centers.

This look back got me thinking about the whole Columbia “story” or vision as some would prefer to call it. Yes, Columbia broke new ground in religious tolerance, race relations, secondary education, and healthcare but these changes did not occur in a vacuum. Columbia merely capitalized on these changes. This was essentially a brilliant marketing move.

Not that this is a bad thing. It merely needs to be considered when you hear folks speak of maintaining what was originally planned. What was originally planned was planned to meet what homebuyers and shoppers wanted forty years ago.

You can read this month’s column here.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

A Non Fiction Summer Read

A colleague of mine suggested I put “The Shadow Factory” by James Bamford on my summer reading list. The book is a good primer about the growth and importance of the National Security Agency at Fort Meade.

Forget about Silicon Valley, some of the most groundbreaking work in computer technology is going on right here in our backyard.

“in 2010, the NSA expects delivery of the Cray X-3, known as Cascade. Funded with $250 million from DARPA, it will likely be the most expensive computer ever created, and the fastest- designed to break the petaflop barrier with a sustained speed of more than a quadrillion calculations a second.”

It’s not always an easy read and he tends to be overly alarmist with his privacy concerns but Bamford offers pretty good insight about the agency’s work and burgeoning contractor community springing up around Fort Meade.

And speaking of books, Barnes and Noble in Ellicott City is now offering free Wi-Fi in its Ellicott City store. It wasn’t that long ago that they were charging four bucks for this service.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Buy a Nurse a Donut


Because the coffee is free, for the next four Tuesdays at Dunkin Donuts anyway. I spotted this sign in the window at the DD in the Montgomery Station shops in Ellicott City.

Tales of Two Cities is a big fan of nurses. Not only I have experienced first hand the excellent care of nurses, I also live with one.

Mama Wordbones did have a problem with “card carrying” qualification though. She says all that stuff is online now so many nurses don’t actually carry cards anymore.

Memo to DD, if someone says she’s a nurse on Tuesday this month, take their word for it and give them the free coffee. You may end up seeing them again some time.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Postcard from the Choptank

Mama Wordbones and I have been enjoying our mini vacations this summer. While we’ve scaled down our vacation spending this year we haven’t really scaled down the fun. Last weekend we were up in the hills of western Maryland and this weekend we’re down on the eastern shore on the banks of the Choptank River. We’re becoming a regular poster couple for Maryland tourism!
Our original thought was to go for a long weekend “downy oshun” but we weren’t able to get two weekend nights at any place we liked. Something about it being high season I suppose. Mama Wordbones mentioned the Hyatt Chesapeake in Cambridge as an alternative and I jumped right at it. We stayed here once before back in January of 2004. It was shortly after the resort was opened on the grounds of the former Cambridge State Hospital.

Staying in the summertime is an all together different experience. The place is full but it’s still very comfortable. Yesterday we went off reservation and took our bikes on short ride over to the town of Cambridge. Because of my crack navigational skills we ended up on the far side of the wrong side of town. We worked our way back into Cambridge from the southern end of High Street. There is a striking economic contrast between the southern end of High Street and High Street north of downtown.

At one point, when I finally broke down and asked for directions we had a remarkable encounter. We approached a guy for who was standing on the corner with a megaphone, cajoling passersby to help support the homeless shelter fish fry going on in the lot behind him.

He immediately zeroed in on Mama Wordbones John Carroll University baseball cap.

“Where’d you that hat?”

The man with the megaphone was Frank Stout. Frank is a Cambridge Commissioner for the Third Ward. He is also a fellow alumi. I don’t often run into fellow Blue Streaks so it’s always a kick when it occurs.

He got us headed in the right direction to get back on the reservation.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

The Jobs Just Keep On Coming

According to this story by Jamie Smith Hopkins in The Sun today, the National Security Agency could be adding up to 11,000 new jobs at Fort Meade in addition to previously announced jobs attributed to BRAC.

"Robert C. Leib, Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold's special assistant for BRAC, said he expects significant job growth. The county had already anticipated that NSA would add about 4,000 jobs in the next four or five years, and this plan suggests to Leib that more might be coming."

This is more great news for the economic health of our area. We are fortunate to have NSA in our backyard.