Thursday, January 31, 2008

Scene This Week In...

“Excuse me sir. You are not allowed to take pictures in the mall.”

I was standing on the second level of the mall snapping pictures of what appeared to be a kids show for my Scene This Week In Columbia. The crowd was large, the strollers were double parked, and the kids seemed to having a blast. It was a perfect Columbia moment until the mall gendarme appeared.
My first reaction is that he must be kidding but he had that no nonsense mall security guard look about him. I simply said. “Well I already have, haven’t I?”

With that comment he gave me a look and then turned on his heel and left. I took more pictures.
How long has this no picture policy been in place?

It is a pretty stupid policy. I for one intend to ignore it. If I were GGP I’d be very careful about aggressively enforcing it too. It smacks of the same PR misstep as the poinsettia tree fiasco.

That same morning I had an appointment cancelled at the last moment so I used the opening in my otherwise hectic schedule to drop in for a cup of coffee at the Bean Hollow coffee shop on Main Street. As much as the Lakeside coffee shop in Columbia functions as the community center for Town Center, Bean Hollow does the same for Ellicott City. Interestingly, both coffee shops share the same DNA. They were both started by Mike Lentz who operated them as Riverside coffee shops before selling them off and moving to North Carolina.
Today, Bean Hollow is owned and operated by Gretchen Shuey.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

You Just Can’t Make Some Folks Happy

The Sun reported today that Greg Hamm, the newly minted “General Manager” of Columbia for GGP, spoke to an “open meeting” of the Columbia Association board of directors about his firms plans for the redevelopment of Town Center. His predecessor had been heavily criticized for holding private meetings with individual community groups.

In case you are interested, I attended one of these meetings and posted about it here, here and here.

Still, it seems that just wasn’t good enough for Alex Hekimian, president for life of the Alliance for a Better Columbia who was quoted as saying “There have been a lot of private meetings, and those people have gotten a lot more information than was available in public sessions. That's troubling. If the information was good enough for the private groups, why isn't it good enough for the public session?"


How would he know what was presented at those meetings if he didn’t attend one of these meetings?

I can see why some people refer to his group as the Alliance of Bitter Columbians.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

We’ve Got A Great Dump

Last Saturday I packed up the last five years worth of retired computers and related peripherals and headed out to the county dump. Mama Wordbones has been badgering me to get rid of them since we first moved into this house two years ago.

I finally got around to it. My prior reluctance to perform this task was my inability to accept the fact that these machines no longer held any value. I knew they were kaput but I kept hoping that someone would want them.

I finally accepted the fact that no one wants them and so off to the dump I went.

Of course they don’t call these places dumps anymore. They are called landfills and ours is run by the Department of Environmental Services.

A dump by any other name is still a dump. It is a place where you dump the stuff that you no longer want or need. It is the repository of last resort for unwanted items.

Our dump is more like an orphanage though. In the old days I recall driving out to open area with tractors and bulldozers and just dumping my stuff in a big pile. At Alpha Ridge there are individual stations for electronics, plastics, metals, paper, yard waste and so on.

The dumpster for computers and televisions goes to a recycler who will extract the last bits of value out of them.

It is all very efficient and very cool.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Not That They Will But They Might ‘Cause They Can

My good friend Jim Troy who publishes the Howard/Arundel Report, reports that the portfolio of office buildings owned by GGP in Town Center are now “eligible” to be sold. Jim reports that “the 10-year moratorium on selling assets that were part of the Rouse Company REIT lapses this year on the approximately million square feet portfolio.”

Interesting. If GGP needed to generate cash this would certainly attract attention from investors, particularly foreign buyers looking to capitalize on the favorable exchange rates.

Ah, but that is unlikely to occur. GGP has too much at stake in Town Center right now. It will be much easier for them to achieve their redevelopment plans if they control the surrounding properties. Besides that, the Town Center buildings have a significant vacancy level right now (approximately 30%) which pushes down the value. It is always better to sell an office property when it is 90% leased preferably under long term leases to strong credit tenants. These types of tenants will be more attracted to these buildings if GGP is able to create the type of Town Center they envision.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Panhandling Columbia Style Part 2

Back in April of last year I wrote a post about a panhandler working the LL Bean plaza of the The Mall In Columbia. This past week I had my second panhandling experience while I was taking a picture for another post of the Brunswick Bowling sign on Carved Stone in Columbia.

While I was taking the picture I was approached by a stocky fellow who appeared to be in his late twenties or early thirties. His hair was cut short and he was dressed in typical Columbia casual (warm up jacket, sweat pants, etc.). He walked with big strides towards me. Before he got too close he shouted out “Hey buddy could you help me out so I can catch the MARC train into Baltimore. I just got out of prison.”

He stopped and added. “Look I’m just bein honest here.”

My knee jerk reaction was a quick “Sorry pal,” and he simply shrugged his shoulders, turned and headed off again.

As he walked away I began to have second thoughts. What if he really had been recently released by some local correctional institution?

There are more than a few of them in Howard County after all. I mean why else would he just blurt that out?

I liked the fact that he was dealing with his post penal situation in such an open and honest manner. I called him back over and laid a twenty on him. He was a little surprised and very grateful.

As he strode off in the direction of the Starbucks on the other side of Carved Stone I had two thoughts. For one, there isn’t a MARC station anywhere near here. Secondly, if he truly had just been released from prison then panhandling was probably a violation of his parole.

Howard Lite

Is it just me or does anyone else agrees that the Sun has significantly pared down their Howard County coverage?

The new tabloid format cannot the mask the fact that there is lot less meat in the package. It isn’t as noticeable in the online version. It’s much more evident, to me anyway in the print version.

They seem to have come down to level of The Washington Post for Howard County coverage.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

April at Merriweather

I just learned that Santana will be performing at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Sunday April 6th.

April 6th?

Did I miss something?

Have they enclosed Merriweather already?

They haven’t of course. This is the earliest I have ever heard of a show being held at the outdoor theatre. I don’t know about the other Santana fans out there but I just can’t see paying $55-$75 to sit in the cold and watch a concert.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Scene This Week In...

Okay, so I skipped a week there. My bad. I don’t know what it is but since Christmas I seem to have more things to do and less time to do them. January and February always seem like such bleak months anyway.

But there is beauty in a gray winter’s day and that is exactly what I found on College Avenue about a mile outside of the Ellicott City historic district for my Scene This Week In Ellicott City. These guys were just standing around in a pasture as I drove by. I spotted the white one at the crest of a hill and thought perhaps I could get a closer shot if I stopped and walked over to the fence. I pulled over on the shoulder, got out, walked over to the fence and started zooming in and snapping some shots. Before long the pinto decided to come to check me out which provided me the close up. Fortunately, the white horse was also curious and came close enough for me to get a decent picture too.

For the Scene In Columbia I picked the Brunswick bowling sign. I recall when Brunswick opened this bowling alley back in 1974. I was around back then and I recall it was a big deal to be able to go bowling in Columbia rather than heading over to the Brunswick lanes on Route 40 in Ellicott City. Today the bowling alley remains as popular as ever while the neighborhood surrounding it has gradually shifted from industrial to office and retail. Just across Snowden River Parkway, Rock Realty has demolished a warehouse formerly owned and occupied by an electrical contractor. They will be building a Chevy Chase Bank and possibly a hotel and other retail in its place.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Barely A Whimper

Another of the Mall In Columbia's original local tenants has left. Hyatt & Co men’s clothing store recently closed its mall store and relocated to Maple Lawn. How come there wasn't any outcry over this departure?

Hyatt caters to the fashion forward men’s market which is a retail category that has certainly taken it’s lumps over the years as mens clothes have trended to a more casual look. The store relocated from its original location to the Nordstrom’s wing of the mall when the mall expanded with the arrival of Nordstrom.

I guess this isn’t such big news because Hyatt is staying in business. They have managed to adjust to the times and that just doesn’t make much of a story.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Wegman's Saga Part One

There was a story yesterday in the Sun about Wegman’s receiving initial site plan approval for their proposed store in Columbia. The action by the Planning Board predictably upset the union folks who are challenging the decision to allow the gourmet grocer to locate in an industrial zone. They are calling the zoning action “illegal.”

It sounds like the old Comp Lite argument all over again.


It is disingenuous to suggest that this location is still an industrial zone. It is true that in the original plan (or was it vision?) for Columbia it was intended as an industrial area. That was back when GE was operating a huge appliance manufacturing plant across Snowden River Parkway from this site. This area was (and still is) part of the Seiling Industrial Park.

Today GE is gone and the former appliance park is now a mix of warehouses, retail, office and flex buildings with the retail concentrated along Snowden River Parkway. The proposed Wegman’s site was originally home to American Hospital Supply which later became part of Baxter Healthcare which later spun it off to Allegiance which was in turn acquired by Cardinal Health. All this time the building and property were actually owned by the State Farm Insurance Company and leased to these different companies.

Approximately six years ago, State Farm sold the property to a group of local investors who set up a limited partnership called Science Fiction. The Science Fiction partnership determined that the original Final Development Plan for this parcel allowed for gas stations, banks and restaurants. They developed plans for tearing down the building and putting up a variety of retail buildings much like the layout that is now on the site of the former Pontiac/GMC car dealership across the street on McGaw Road (Green Turtle, Orinico Coffee, etc.). Before this development program got very far the partnership received a purchase offer from Jack Antwerpen that was more than twice what they paid for it. Antwerpen originally planned to put a Toyota dealership on the site but ran into some difficulty with Toyota for that location.

Meanwhile Antwerpen temporarily leased the property out to HBO films. During this time they began discussions with Wegman’s. Wegman’s had been scouting for a Columbia location for some time. The Rouse Company had tried to entice them to locate in what is now Gateway Exchange (Lowes, Costco, Trader Joes, etc.). Apparently Wegman’s preferred this Snowden River Parkway location.

The point is, considering all of the other uses that could have ended up at this property, Wegman’s probably makes the most sense.

What doesn’t make sense is an industrial use.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Scene This Week In...

STWI took a brief hiatus over the Christmas / New Years holiday. Actually, the break is more related to a bad case of writers inertia that crept up on me. Some may call it writers block but I don’t think that adequately describes my particular malady. I’ve had plenty of ideas and topics in my head I just lacked the motivation to post them.


A good dose of nice weather has helped me slug off those winter blues. In fact, everyone I’ve encountered seemed to be buoyed by the nice weather of yesterday and today. For the Scene This Week in Columbia I snapped a photo of some folks enjoying a late lunch at the outdoor tables at PF Changs at the Mall in Columbia. I was over at the mall getting a haircut from Wayne Sheperd at Cavalloro & Co. With all the brouhaha over the closing of Bun Penny and the supposed demise of local businesses in the mall, I am reminded that Cavalloro & Co has been a mall tenant since the mall first opened. The owners are the same but they did change the name some years ago. It used to be called Rex’s Place.

In Ellicott City, the scene I chose was the reincarnation of Sarah and Desmonds. Sarah and Desmonds Gourmet Bakery and Vegetarian Café used to be on Main Street. I am not sure why they closed that location but now they recently reopened on Old Columbia Road (near The Well) in a space formerly occupied by Wessels Flower Shop which relocated to a space on Main Street formerly occupied by Su Casa. The nice young man behind the counter is Christian Lepson.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

And Now To Sports...

Since none of our local NFL teams are playing football anymore this year, it’s nice to at least have something interesting going on for the fans. The big news today is that the Washington Redskins coach, Joe Gibbs, will not be returning to the team next year. Apparently he quit but undoubtedly some fans will have a different opinion on that.

The Ravens were already in the search for a new coach after Steve Bisciotti sacked Brian Billick at the end of a very disappointing season.

Will both teams now go after Marty Schottenhiemer, the coach who was fired by the San Diego Chargers last year after finishing 14 - 2?

Should they?

Weirdly enough both teams could end up in with a Schottenheimer for a coach. Marty’s son Brian, currently the New York Jets offensive coordinator, is also interviewing for the Baltimore job.

If Brian Schottenheimer becomes the new Ravens coach and Marty Schottenheimer becomes the new Redskins coach they could both move their families to Howard County, right between the two cities.

I had to make a local connection in order to justify this sports post.

And, while I’m at it, anybody have a Super Bowl prediction they care to share?

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Empty Building For Sale

When I last wrote a post back in November about this building it had just been completed and was actively trying to attract its first tenant. Two months later the building owner, Orix Real Estate Equities is offering 7021 Columbia Gateway Drive for sale even though no leases have been signed.

It is not exactly a fire sale. Orix is simply expanding their options for this asset. They are hoping that a company wishing to own a building as opposed to leasing one will be attracted by this offer. Orix believes that they can get a premium price for this 104,000 square foot, five story Class A office building because of its location in Columbia Gateway and the fact that it is ready to go. If a company wants to build their own building like this it typically takes about eighteen months. Orix is further encouraged by the recent sale of the Micros building next door. Last summer, 7031 Columbia Gateway Drive sold for around $250.00 per square foot setting a new record sales price for a Columbia office building.

Good luck.

7031 Columbia Gateway Drive has two blue chip tenants (Micros and Motorola) with long leases. 7021 Columbia Gateway Drive is empty with no leases. I happen to think it’s ugly too.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Take Me To The River

The Patapsco River that is. Just across the bridge from downtown Ellicott City, the mill town of Oella is going upscale. Charles Wagant, the president of the Oella Company has struck a deal with Steuart-Kret Homes for 11 sites in the historic mill community. The project, dubbed Granite Hill, includes five existing historic homes that will be restored and at least three custom homes that will be attached to existing historic structures overlooking the Patapsco River. Prices for the custom homes will be in the million dollar range.

This has been a long time coming for Charles. Working out of his restored church in what can be described as downtown Oella, Charles has been a tireless promoter of restoring Oella and enhancing public awareness of the Patapsco River valley His strong support helped the Grist Mill Trail become a reality after years of hard fought battles with other property owners in the area.

If you have never wandered up into Oella it is worth the trip. No stores or shopping but some great views of the river and a pretty good idea of what it looked like back when the original mill, was chartered by the State of Maryland in 1808.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Happy Birthday Hedgehog!

Local blog, The Hedgehog Report, just celebrated its fifth anniversary at the end of December. In blog years that makes The Hedgehog Report ancient. I have had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Hedgehog himself, Dave Wissing and can tell you that he’s a nice guy and doesn't look anything like a hedgehog.

Well okay maybe just a little bit like one.

I think his blog gets something like 1,000 visits a day. Though he primarily focuses on political polls, he will frequently post on local issues as well.

Five years of blogging make The Hedgehog Report the granddaddy of local blogging.

Congratulations Gramps!

In This Months Business Monthly

The January issue of The Business Monthly is now on the street and online. This month I wrote about Claire Lea and her successful protest to bring back the poinsettia tree to the mall’s center court fountain for the 2008 holiday season. I happen to think that Claire and her friends Sandi Carbotti and Janet Shinski embody a spirit that is uniquely Columbia.

What do you think?

This is your chance to chime in and toss a bouquet or a brick, your choice. You can find the column here.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

County Framework for Town Center

In my original post on this topic I said I would share my thoughts on the county’s framework document for Columbia’s downtown over the weekend.

It’s been a long weekend. I realize its Tuesday but today feels like Sunday so I figure I’m still on time. Some logic eh?


I am about 36 pages into the document and I have begun to see that GGP’s draft vision plan that they began sharing at private meetings earlier this fall fits very nicely into this framework. I attended one of these meetings and posted about it (with pictures) here, here, and here. Of course these posts don’t include the narrative that was provided by GGP’s Project Director, Chuck McMahon but I can tell you that GGP’s and the county’s thinking are aligned.

Of course the devil is in the details.

The other thing I noted was the makeup of the focus group that advised the county. It includes representatives from every local interest group. Of course, you can never make everyone happy and those who didn’t get everything they wanted in this document are already whining about it.

No surprise there.

Happy New Year!

A very happy new year to all the readers of Tales of Two Cities!

Last night, Mama Wordbones and I celebrated quietly in our home in Ellicott City after a nice little dinner at Strapazza. We got a little freaked out however when, at the stroke of midnight as we watched the ball drop in Times Square, the power went out in our neighborhood. For awhile there we wondered if this was some sort of terrorist attack but by 1:30 AM the power came back on. Mama Wordbones was fast asleep by then.

Anyone else care to share a New Years Eve experience?