Wednesday, November 04, 2009

If Not Now, When?

Some critics of General Growth Properties plans for the redevelopment of downtown Columbia have questioned the urgency of approving the legislation that will enable these plans to proceed. They hang their argument on the company’s bankruptcy darkly suggesting that this will somehow prevent the company from performing.

Let’s look at the facts. GGP has already spent somewhere between $10 to $20 million dollars preparing a comprehensive master plan for Columbia’s downtown. They hired some of the best planners and architects in the country and have spent more time and energy on crafting a vision for the future of Columbia than The Rouse Company did for the last twenty years of its existence. For the last five years they have met with and spoken to virtually every community organization in Howard County as they fine tuned their development program.

And finally, even in bankruptcy, GGP has kept its Columbia development team together despite enormous pressure to simply cut their losses and move on. They have clearly demonstrated a level of patience that is rare in the real estate development business.

To suggest that the county is now somehow rushing this through is ridiculous and quite frankly dishonest. It is also highly insulting to the people who have worked so hard for so long to get to this point.


Bob O said...

To me, the salient question seems to be, "Do you want Columbia to have an urban center?"

I, personally, would answer no. But, I don't live in Columbia, mainly because I think it's too densely developed already.

I don't doubt the sincerity of the planners involved, I just think that if I were a resident rather than a caual visitor, this would not work for me.

Anonymous said...

I moved to Columbia in 1972, raised 3 children here and consider this beautiful city home. I think it's time we thumb our noses at the NIMBY's and show them that the Town Center belongs to their children and grandchildren. There is no reason why we shouldn't proceed immediately to create a Town Center that is excites the creativity and energy of our children and grandchildren. We are stewards of the future and we are stupid, selfish stewards if we fail our children and grandchildren. We can create with their help a vibrant retail, office, residential, and cultural center and the rest of the world will be envious. Our children and grandchildren are incredibly talented and creative. We owe it to them.

Sarah said...

Anonymous, I agree. There is nothing in "Town Center (ha!) worth going to now unless (a) you work there or (b) you want to go to the mall. I'm excited about the plans for Town Center.

Bob O said...

So, what to you want for your childen? Some sort of hive? I want my children to settle Mars.

Think about it. What's your scope?

Sarah said...

Within the scope of Columbia, not having a dead Town Center, y'know, in case we don't get to Mars. I think my parents wanted us to settle Mars, too (or at least the moon), but that didn't happen.

Not quite sure what you mean on the hive thing...?

Anonymous said...

I, for one, am so sick and tired of these "NIMBY"S". WHen I moved to columbia five years ago, it was due to the quality of life, as well as the "urban" nature of Rouse's plan. I hope that our town center ends up like Reston Va. Dense, full of great restaraunts and shops, and most importantly, people. If i wanted to live with suburban sprawl, I would have bought in Ellicott City or Gaithersberg. We as a community have a great opportunity here, hopefully one that wont be squandered by those who want the Columbia of the future to exactly as it is today. Change happens, get over it! This is a wonderful, and well thought out plan. IT will not only add an interesting dynamic to columbia, but to the whole region as well.

Bob O said...

Sarah, I love your profile. Sounds like you are my kind of people.

By "hive" I mean a community that uses social engineering to make everyone into homogenous consumers who chant, "We are all individuals."

The potential for this is already there in Columbia.

What kills me is that people move to Columbia for the "urban" environment. Kee-rist, why not move to downtown Baltimore or D.C. if you want that? I mean, go figure.

WildeLakeMike said...

Bob, to your point about why we moved to Columbia to experience an urbanized community. Frankly, when we moved here, we bought into Jim Rouse's concept of a New City. Baltimore was then (and may be now) a lost cause. Columbia offered what was new and exciting, and a chance to get it right. Learn from our mistakes. Look at downtown Columbia now. I mean really look at it. What do you see? A mall that doesn't even one Class A store. A few older office buildings. A motley collection of condos. And almost no people enjoying what few amenities that are available. I live downtown, I work downtown, and don't even feel comfortable walking to work, competing with all those drivers with phones glued to their ears. We need something better. Much better. We need GGP and the rest of us to fulfill Rouse's original promise. We need the New City of Columbia!

Anonymous said...

I think Bob O might already be on Mars.

The fact is that "Town Center" is dying. Every employment, retail and social trend in America is going in the opposite direction. Change or die. Howard Co has lots of beautiful suburbs that are waiting for you if that's what you prefer.

Anonymous said...

Wow, it seems the spin machine's in overdrive.

"The fact is that "Town Center" is dying."

Town Center definitely is not dying. The supporters of a massive density increase have kept banging that drum for a while, but we know it's not the case. The Mall's expanded time after time after time, newer condos and townhomes have recently been built within the Mall loop, there's plenty of places to choose from to eat, socialize, shop, exercise, and be entertained. Go find Jessie's '07 post on "Density Destinations and Nothing to Doooo" if you want to read more.

"Every employment, retail and social trend in America is going in the opposite direction."

Baloney. Columbia repeatedly continued to be ranked very high on Money Magazine's list of best small cities for very good reasons. Columbia's desirability is a testament to its continued vibrancy.

"A mall that doesn't even [sic] one Class A store. A few older office buildings. A motley collection of condos. And almost no people enjoying what few amenities that are available. I live downtown, I work downtown, and don't even feel comfortable walking to work, competing with all those drivers with phones glued to their ears"

Not one Class A store in the Mall? That's a ridiculous statement. Town Center's varied condos are far from motley. Plenty of people enjoy the many amenities in Town Center year round. If you don't feel comfortable walking to work now, will you feel more comfortable when tens of thousands more car trips occur in Town Center with this proposal's massive density increase, with traffic congestion standards being weakened as the proposal requests, or with a less attractive vista along the way if on-street parking is approved? No, Town Center's few shortcomings can all be fixed relatively inexpensively in logical ways, not illogically by pouring a daily storm of additional car traffic on it and radiating out from it in most all directions.

"What kills me is that people move to Columbia for the "urban" environment"

Bob, don't believe the goofs who claim they moved here hoping Columbia would turn into Reston. It's hogwash. Those same Money Magazine best small city rankings that consistenly have Columbia near the top also list Reston way down their lists. Even Gaithersburg, with its sucky traffic, has been ranked higher on that list than Reston. Anyone who wants a dense-as-Reston rerun here is working in the wrong direction. It's certainly not in agreement with the Charette's outcomes. Over the past few years, a dense development was proposed to be added to Nashville, including 5,000 homes and commercial development, too. Some Nashville officials were even flown up to Reston to tour it as a model. Their planning board voted last summer on the proposal. They voted no.

I'm looking forward to the serious reality check this proposal will get during public testimony. From health to safety to schools to traffic to time to taxes, this proposal bears massive consequences. Keep in mind the purpose of the 30-year master plan: to improve Columbia's quality of life.


Anonymous said...


To answer the post's question of "If not now, when?", that would be when:

- a proposal has been developed openly with the public involved completely at every step to ensure all facets of the proposal are in the public's best interest,
- the proposal addresses actually proven-to-exist needs,
- the proposal makes best use of Columbia's reputation and assets, and builds upon them modestly and wisely to strive far to be the same example in the 21st century that it was for almost half the 20th century,
- the proposal doesn't merely and illogically accept unnecessary compromises on solving its shortcomings relative to traffic or other infrastructure by rationalizing that the public should just accept those impacts and ongoing costs because it's supposedly the best that can be done,
- the proposal includes realistic and accurate projections all vetted by truly independent experts,
- a framework for this phase of limited public involvement is created that offers sensible segmentation of topic testimony,
- individuals are allowed more time to testify to this massive multi-faceted proposal than the time any of us could very well wind up spending repeatedly at any of the more congested intersections' red lights,
- and the public fully understands all costs, impacts, and sacrifices.

So, you tell me, are we there yet on all counts?

Just as the bankruptcy court granted GGP's request for more time to come up with a reorganization plan, all parties here should be careful and make sure we don't rush into a Columbia reorganization plan just because some artificial deadline approaches. In both cases, the goal is to get it right. More time can and should be taken, especially during this phase where the public is now being more fully allowed back into the process.

Jerseyex-pat said...

Bob, I am the "Goof" who moved here in hopes of a "Reston Rerun". When my partner and I moved here five years ago, we moved here from suburban Philadelphia, looking for a better quality of life; a better planned, suburban experience with urban elements. I didnt want to live in Baltimore or D.C., but I also didnt like midless and blad suburban sprawl found throughout the rest of the county. Columbia seemed to be the perfect answer. Certainly, Reston Town Center isn't perfect, but take a drive there on any given day, and the place of FULL of people! People walking, eating, ice skating, shoping, etc. What do we have now in Town Center? Aging office buildings, a non pedestrian friendly environment, and a mall. Big deal. I am not saying that we should recreate Reston Town Center "word for word", but the vibrancy and energy found there is something we need in Columbia asap!

Bob O said...

Wow, what great comments. Thanks to you all for taking the time and thought to write such meaningful entries.

It would be easier, of course, to reply to individuals if they were not all titled "anonymous." It would also lend those posters credibility.

Altogether, I think all of the anons come up with a well-rounded point of view.

First, there are many successful and major businesses in downtown Columbia; in fact, I think the bellweather of the vibrancy of an area is the presence of an Apple store, based on the demographics of their consumers and the amount of sheer cash they are pulling down. Then there is Macy's, Sax, etc, the theaters, etc. Albeit, these are all located in The Mall, which right now IS the downtown.

Second, when you go to downtown Columbia, there is no there there. You can't find it. Okay, you can go lakeside in the evening or to the mall. That's not really a "downtown" in the acceptable form of the term, i.e., as in Ellicot City's downtown. One of the major problems with Columbia's non-existent downtown is the traffic--it's been made automobile friendly, so everyone can get quickly to the mall, which means it is ipso facto pedestrian unfriendly. That, I think, is the heart of the matter--who wants to walk around there?

Despite this, I don't think increasing the population density is the answer; redesigning the roads, buildings, and pedestriant walkways there already might be.

Just to go off on a tangent, I think that Main Street in downtown Ellicott City should be shut off and that the bridge near the flour mill should be demolished. Then you'd really see the place flourish as it became a pedestrian mall from the post office on down, sort of like at Christmas. Just shutting down traffic on Main Street radically transforms the entire area.

Something to think about for "downtown" Columbia, where the lights are bright.

And, btw, I am on Mars, at least in spirit. If you can't see beyond this limited horizon, then what's a heaven for?

PZGURU said...

You are making the case AGAINST yourself. If you like Reston so much, then MOVE TO RESTON. How/why do people like you think you have the right to cram your agenda dwon the throats of the rest of the people who moved to Columbia for HOW IT IS?!?!?!?!

You and many of the other people who are trying to re-create Town Center need to realize that you are in the minority on this issue. Town Center is not dead and it's not even dying. That is just another BIG LIE that the pro-redevelopment folks are repeating ad nauseum to try to justify their plans.

I don't have any problem with "evolving" the town center area by addind arts/cultural amenities, or park areas, or even SOME (a few) new residences, but this notion that town center can only "survive" if 5,000 or 8,000 new residences are built is complete bunk.

B. Santos said...


I would like to gently suggest that you are mistaken in stating that "the rest of the people who moved to Columbia for how it is." Given the high residency tenure of many Columbians, I posit that most moved here based on what Columbia one day would be.

jersyex-pat said...

PZ-Guru, I completely disagree with your thought process, but allow to explain something to you. We relocated here because of my partner's job. With his office being located in Laurel, and my place of business being in Southern New Jersey, Reston was not a viable option. I bought into the "promise" of Columbia, and what Twon Center was ALWAYS planned to be, and hoprfully will be some day. If you have ever read anything about the planning and initial devlopment of Columbia, a dense and "urban" core was always projected, and planned for. Take a look at the pictures of the initial models that the Rouse Company showed HoCo officials when proposing the development. What do you see? Dense, high rise structures, a vibrant down town. You may have moved here for "how it is now", but that was NEVER the intent. Talk to Barbara at the archives, I think that maybe she could help educate you to that respect.

With that having been said, times have changed dramatically since the mid- 1960's. Low density development is not sustainable. Like it or not, higher density development is the direction in shich the country is moving. What is so wrong with Reston Twon Center? I happen to think that it is a wonderful place in wich to shop, dine, work, etc. Furthermore, R.T.C commands some of the highest rents for commercial space in Northern Virgina. How is this bad? Explain to me why this is not a good thing. I just dont get your point of view. Additionally, many people like me who are in their late 20's/ early 30's dont want to live in a traditional, car-driven, suburban style community. We want to be able to walk to things, to have the option of living near shops and culture. Sorry, but the mall just doesnt cut it anymore. It is time for a change, and I for one think that plan that G.G.P has shared is a step in the right direction.

PZGURU said...

@ B. Santos:
People bought in Columbia for what it "would be". Talk about laughable. People bought there for how it was when they bought it. If they wanted to live in a big, dense, urban core, they would have bought a house/home/condo in a place that HAD a big dense urban core.

My point is that just because a small percentage of people want to re-make TC into another Reston doesn't mean that everyone should buy into it. What about all of the people who like TC just as it is????

PZGURU said...

@ JerseyexPat:

See my comment to B. Santos.
I realize you wouldn't want to commute from Reston to South Jersey. I'm willing to agree with the rationale behind that.

My point is that TC ended up as it is and has been for the last 40 years because that's how Rouse ultimatelu chose to make it. Maybe he realized that a hundred high rises from the original "concept" plan was too much.

My second point is that why do a small percentage of Columbians feel entitled to force their ideas down everyone else's throats. Why do people feel the need to make another "reston" out of TC/Columbia. Should every area be made like Reston? NO! What is wrong with having some places that ARE low density for the people who want low density living, and have some medium density places, and then some high density places?

Seriously - if you like Reston, I;m sure there must be some jobn there, or close to it that could/would suit you, and then you could live in denser area if that's what style of community you want.

B. Santos said...


Think about what you are saying. If you moved here in 1975, the mall was surrounded by trees and there were two department stores.

There were actual restaurants in the mall that had table service.

There was a radio station in the mall.

At the lakefront, you could be served food in the pavillion.

Other than Clydes, the retail space on the bottom floor of the Teachers building and the Exhibit Center were real estate offices.

South Entrance Road was connected to both sides of Rt. 29.

The Central Library property was a wooded parcel of open space.

The Columbia Association rented boats on Lake Kittamaquandi, (12:00 pm to 12:00 am, 7 days a week)

Banneker Road was the address of the fire station, CA headquarters, and the Exxon, not condos.

There was a stop sign at the north Governor Warfield Parkway/Little Patuxent Parkway intersection.

So if "People bought there for how it was when they bought it"

A LOT has changed in thirty years.

Given that this had been farmland until Rouse came along, the only constant has been change.

Anonymous said...

Jersey, you're not making sense, which is consistent with having made a decision and trying to back into the logic. Much like what Santos does. Not good company to be in!

Anonymous said...

In '75, there were many trees inside the Mall, too. They were at some point later pretty much entirely replaced by the interior sprawl of kiosks and carts.

In '75, you could be served at the Mall's Woodie's Patuxent Room, Friendly's, or sit-down McDonald's.
In 2009, you can be served at the Mall's Champs, PF Changs, or Cheesecake Factory.

In '75, there was a radio station at the Mall.
In 2009, everyone at the Mall is their own radio station, carrying around their own cellphone.

In '75, you could be served food lakefront at the pavilion.
In 2009, you can be served food lakefront, just a few months ago, Clyde's was serving food in the pavilion, and they continue to serve food outside just a few steps away.

In '75, some real estate offices occupied a few lakefront offices (they weren't the only real estate offices around).
In 2009, anyone can sit down at their home computer and have the real estate offices come to them, allowing more space at lakefront for the vibrant additional restaurants now there.

In '75, South Entrance Road was connected to both sides of Route 29, but it was well known then that it would be closed once the Broken Land Parkway interchange replaced it.
In 2009, the bulk of South Entrance Road's traffic is obviously handled by Brokenland Parkway (and more safely, too), as it was planned in the '60's to do.

In the '70's, West Columbia had a public library in Wilde Lake Village Center and East Columbia had one in the Long Reach Village Center.
In 2009, West Columbia and East Columbia still both have libraries, both now larger, to serve the population sizes expected per the original plan from the '60's.

In the '70's, boats could be rented at lakefront or you could bring your own.
In 2009, you can still bring your own boats to lakefront or now rent at Centennial Park.

In the '70's, Banneker Road was the address of the fire station, CA headquarters, and the Exxon, not condos.
In 2009, the fire station and the Exxon are still there, CA's headquarters remains in Town Center, and some condos and townhomes are now on Banneker Road. Yet, the additional homes that were added to Town Center there and elsewhere didn't exceed Columbia's planned and allowed density from back then.

In '75, there was a stop sign at the north Governor Warfield Parkway/Little Patuxent Parkway intersection, but with the expectation that as Columbia's population grew to its planned size, the roads would be upgraded to handle the traffic volume of Columbia's originally planned size.

Columbia may have changed in some ways since then, but the obvious point is it changed in ways that were proposed back then, approved back then, planned for back then, publicized back then. People who moved here then and since understood what Columbia was then and what it was planned to be.

Ever been to a sold-out concert where another 2,000 people were then sold tickets and squeezed onto the lawn? A lot of people wind up not enjoying the show, having a harder time parking, waiting in longer lines for the bathroom, and getting stepped on a lot.

"the only constant has been change".

No, Columbia's constant since its inception has been its original plan, including its balance, and the size it intended Columbia to become.

Anonymous said...

"If you have ever read anything about the planning and initial devlopment of Columbia, a dense and "urban" core was always projected, and planned for."

Um, so if it was always projected and planned for, then wouldn't just the zoning density that was requested back then for that implementing that plan obviously provide the means to create the Town Center that that plan intended? Yes. Meaning this additional massive density increase request isn't necessary to achieve the Town Center that was always projected and planned for.

Anonymous said...

"Despite this, I don't think increasing the population density is the answer; redesigning the roads, buildings, and pedestrian walkways there already might be."

Thank you, Bob. That is a very astute summary of a good response to addressing the Charette's outcomes respectfully and recognizes the Charette's outcomes also specifically poo-pooed a massive density increase.

Regarding Ellicott City, pragmatically, I doubt its merchants would welcome reducing vehicle accessibility to Main Street's bottom, nor would people who still depend on that intercounty link.

"Given the high residency tenure of many Columbians, I posit that most moved here based on what Columbia one day would be."

That doesn't explain it well, Bill. High tenures result from original expectations remaining consistent and being fulfilled.

People moved to Columbia because:
- they liked how it was at the time they came
- and liked the expectation of how it would someday be based on its original plan.

And the high tenures then resulted from:
- those people remaining in Columbia because they have continued to like how it is,
- and expect Columbia to remain true to its original plan.

Again, keep in mind the consistency of Columbia's high rankings in Money Magazine's reviews. They aren't called "Best Places to Live if only a lot more density gets added beyond what's now planned and traffic gets worse, too". I very much doubt people's trains of thought were "Hey, it's not what we want now, but maybe if we wait for years someday the developer will instead ask for a massive zoning density increase and it'll turn into the kind of place we'd like to live even if it isn't feasible or raises taxes or ...".

B. Santos said...

A direct quote from Mort Hoppenfeld discussing the Columbia Plan:

Participants in building our urban civilization will need the comforting knowledge that only change is constant, that complexity is necessary, that indecision is an art equal only to deciding. The most important of all characteristics necessary for success is belief.

Please get on board.