Monday, March 31, 2008

Wegmans Saga Part Three

It appears that the grocery workers union and Giant and Safeway have reached a new labor contract and have averted a strike. Local resident, Buddy Mays, president of United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local Number 27 must be pleased. A strike right now would seem to be a very bad idea. This is no time to piss off any more consumers. Dave Wissing has a nice post about his recent trip to a union store.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no bone to chew with the union. I only ask that I have a choice of where I spend my dollars. I would suspect that any store staffed by paid union professionals would have to be better run than some store staffed by mere mortals. Surely the union can see that they have an advantage here.

Buddy Mays apparently doesn’t feel that way. He is behind the effort challenging the legality of Wegmans, a non union grocer planning to open a store at the intersection of McGaw Road and Snowden River Parkway. He has issues with the zoning amendment that allowed a grocery use in what was originally an industrial zone, albeit an industrial zone that already allowed for such “industrial” uses as gas stations, banks, restaurants and home improvement stores.

I’m with Dave. Wegmans can’t come soon enough. Let them have their clock tower too.

Wegmans Saga Part Two

click to enlarge
I am one of those dogs who can’t help but sniff out a zoning notice so when I spotted one at the proposed Wegmans site on Snowden River Parkway and McGaw Road I had to stop and check it out.

It appears that Wegmans is not taking “no” for an answer on their bid to include a 92 foot clock tower as part of their store.

I don’t see why the clock tower is a problem. It is not an advertising sign, it is an architectural feature. Since this proposed clock tower would be just down the road from a 120 foot (+/- ) water tower it would not exactly be ruining the skyline.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Jim Rouse Tribute

Mark Smith, the editor of The Business Monthly brought this YouTube video to my attention. I love the story about the muskrat.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Village Center Initiative

I dropped by Ken Ulman’s press conference at Wilde Lake Village Green yesterday. I stood with local activist Jud Malone and Bill Miller, the owner of Today’s Catch seafood market. Along with the three of us and the county executive, there were councilpersons Mary Kay Sigaty and Jen Terrasa.

Alan Klein was there of course, pontificating as usual. Steve Meskin was in attendance as well. Steve is running against Sue Waller for Columbia Council representing Town Center. You may recall that Steve was one of those who sued to stop the construction of the Plaza Tower condominiums. He was of course joined in that action by Lloyd Knowles who was also in attendance.

I also saw Tony Tringali. Tony was the first barber to open a shop in Columbia. He has been a tenant, in the exact same location, since the village center first opened. I believe he is the only original Columbia merchant that is still in business.

Just before the press conference started, Jud Malone quipped to me wondering if Ken would mention the “d” word (density) anywhere in his remarks.

He didn’t.

He did use the word “evolve” quite a bit though. Could that be the new euphemism for density?

Hayduke had a pretty good post about Ken’s speech here.

The gist of the press conference was the announcement of a legislative initiative to amend part of the New Town (NT) zoning regulations. As it now stands, only General Growth Properties (GGP), as the successor to The Rouse Company, can request changes to an existing use in the NT zone. This arrangement worked fine when The Rouse Company controlled the village centers as well as virtually all of the commercial property in Columbia.

Since The Rouse Company divested itself of the village centers several years ago it could be well argued that GGP has conflicting interests with the owners of the village centers, particularly when it comes to village center’s “evolving.”

All of this is positive and the county executive is to be commended for taking this initiative. If the village centers are to remain viable commercial centers they need greater flexibility to “evolve.”

Monday, March 24, 2008

Scene This Week In...

Last Thursday was the vernal equinox which marks the first day of spring. It actually occurred at 5:58 AM. In Ellicott City, this means that Rita’s on Frederick Road is open again. Rita’s celebrates the first day of spring by giving away free Italian ices. The cooler weather last week did not deter folks from stopping in and welcoming them back.

Of course Columbia has a Rita’s too at Harper’s Choice Village Center. Soon it will be joined by a second one in the Kings Contrivance Village Center.

In Town Center, the harbinger of warmer weather was the workmen readying the outside tables for Clyde’s. Soon these tables will be filled with folks enjoying the lakefront. Until GGP’s master plan for Town Center gets underway the outdoor dining at the lakefront will have to suffice for a “vibrant” Town Center.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Name That Wreck!

Bill Harrison believes that the “50’s vintage” junk that was pictured in this recent post is a 1957 DeSoto.
Could be.

Reinventing Wilde Lake Village Green

This is kind of a good news bad news deal.

The good news is that Kimco, the owner of the Wilde Lake Village Center, is willing to make a $40 million investment to remake the oldest village center in Columbia.

The bad news, at least for some folks, is that the future center will not likely have a grocery store.

I think the good news outweighs the bad news in this instance. Kimco Realty Corporation owns interests in 1,973 retail properties in 45 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, Mexico and Chile. They have long standing relationships with just about every major food retailer in the country. If they are unable to attract a grocery store to Wilde Lake it is highly unlikely that anyone else could. They didn’t just rely on their chain store contacts either. They also attempted to get David’s Natural Market and Produce Galore to split the former Giant space giving each merchant an expanded store. Word has it that while David’s was interested, Produce Galore took a pass.

It’s probably time to accept the fact that a traditional grocery store will no longer be part of this village center and be grateful for the fact that at least someone is willing to make a major financial commitment to give the center a new life.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Belmont Stakes 2

Last August I wrote a post about the continuing saga of the Belmont Conference Center in Elkridge. Today there was an article in the Howard section of the Sun by Sandy Alexander about the end of the controversial relationship between local homebuilder Harry L. “Chip” Lundy and the college and the Belmont property. Just over three years ago, Chip lent the college $1.3 million dollars for the down payment on the 81 acre historic conference facility that borders the Patapsco State Park in Howard County.

Last week Chip and his partner David Adler were repaid the loan without interest which conservatively would have been around $200,000.

That is a far cry from what Chip had envisioned four years ago. In the original deal he had hoped to gain control of the 13 acre Dobbin property which is attached to Belmont but sits on a separately recorded parcel. He and his partner had hoped to construct senior housing there.

The fate of the Dobbin property remains in the air. According to the article, the county Department of Parks and Recreation offered $1.75 million for the property but the college turned down the offer.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

To set a proper tone for this day of all things Irish I offer a story from this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. It is an Irish tale, complete with an ailing mother, a starving widow, mermaids and scoundrels.


In honor of the patron saint of Ireland, our office will likely close around noon today. I expect, at some point in the day, to stop by Clyde’s. They have put on a pretty good St. Patrick’s Day celebration for as long as I can remember. I was four years out of college when I picked up this button. I know some folks in town have Clyde’s “Irish Power” buttons that are even older.

So…,if anyone comes up to me at Clyde’s today wearing a button older than this one, I’ll buy you a drink.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

What Would You Have Me Do Two

Earlier this week I posted about a sign that was nailed to a tree on College Avenue. The sign said that there was a “beautiful waterfall” next to an “open dump” just ahead in the woods. It called upon residents of Taylor Village to “wake up and unite.”

Whatever that meant.

In any event, I also wrote that, this weekend I would venture beyond this sign to see what it was all about.

The first thing I noticed was that the sign was down.

The next thing I noticed was this terrain is very hilly with many bramble patches. You cannot move “straight ahead” as the former sign suggested.
My daughter and I wound our way down the slope until I spotted an abandoned vehicle and a pile of rubbish. What was noteworthy about this “open dump” was it’s age. This is not a new or current dump. I can’t make out the model of the car but it is definitely a 50’s vintage.

The beautiful waterfall turns out to be a bit of an exaggeration. It is beautiful but it is also rather small.

The old dump was actually pretty interesting. At one time people lived back in here. We discovered a few old foundations and other evidence of the former inhabitants.

Again, I am not certain whether this is private property or part of the Patapsco State Park. As I mentioned in the original post, the boundaries are little fuzzy around here.

All in all, my daughter and I enjoyed our investigative hike. It was a great way to spend an early spring afternoon.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Jamming a Square Peg Into a Round Hole

Allow me to begin this post by stating that I happen to like our county executive, Ken Ulman. I voted for him and so far I think he has done a pretty good job for the citizens of Howard County.

That doesn’t mean I always agree with him.

The Meridian Square issue is a case in point. Ken has proposed that the county purchase 15,000 of office space in a 60,000 square foot office condominium building being developed by Metroventures in the Oakland Mills Village Center on the site of a former Exxon gas station. County Councilperson Calvin Ball and the village board believe this project is crucial to the revitalization efforts in the village. Ken recently defended this proposal in this article by Larry Carson that appeared the Howard section of the Sun this week.

While I agree that the county can be an important catalyst for rejuvenating the village center this is not, in my opinion, a very good vehicle for doing it.

Why do I think that?

The main reason is that no market exists for a 60,000 square foot office condominium building in the Oakland Mills Village Center. Oakland Mills is not an office market and a 60,000 square foot building is a pretty big building. It is twice the size of the Columbia Association building in Town Center (where Clyde’s is located). The Stevens Forest Professional Building (9650 Santiago Road) located right next to the site for this proposed building struggled for years to attract tenants. This 25,000 square foot office building was built in 1984 and it took until 1997 before it finally reached 100% occupancy. Today there is a 1,100 square foot office suite available that has been vacant for two years.

When The Rouse Company redeveloped the village center for Food Lion they eliminated the office component for just this reason. There are just too many good alternatives for office tenants in nearby Town Center and around Columbia in the established office parks. If the county moves forward with this plan they run the risk of being the only tenant in the building for years. What happens then?

Does the county then feel compelled to buy the remaining floors in order to protect their investment?

A better solution would be for the county to buy the site from the developer and put up whatever building best fits the needs of the agencies that it wants to be located there. That is a much better approach than having the county be the only tenant in a building that is simply too big for that area.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Produce Galore No More

It appears that once again the blame for the demise of yet another local retailer is being laid at the doorstep of “the developers.” Delegate Liz Bobo has even gone so far as to suggest that “with the support from the local government, we could prevent something like this.”

What kind of support does Liz envision that to be?

I remember when Produce Galore first opened in Wilde Lake Village Green. At the time I was working for The Rouse Company and my boss, Kemper Sullivan was approached by Kent Pendleton who at that time wanted to set up a roadside fruit and vegetable stand in Columbia. Of course there was no room in the Columbia “plan” for a roadside stand so Kemper convinced Kent that a better alternative would be to open a simple fruit and vegetable stand in the Lynx Lane annex of the Wilde Lake shopping center. Kent soon opened a bare bones operation in approximately 1,500 square feet in a space that is now part of David’s Natural Market. It was the smallest retail space available in the center at that time.

It wasn’t long before Columbians discovered how much fresher his produce was than the produce found in the Giant grocery store across the parking lot. Produce Galore soon expanded when the adjacent retail space became available. The business continued to grow and prosper. Before long, Kent made the big jump and took over the space that was originally occupied by Columbia Hardware which went under soon after Hechinger’s opened in Dobbin Center (in a building now occupied by a Havertys furniture store). Columbia Hardware was a local retailer.

About ten years ago, Kent decided he’d like to get out of the business. He enlisted Darrell Nevin, a local commercial real estate agent, to help him find a buyer. The word on the street was that the stores labor costs were too high to justify the price he was seeking. Though Darrell was unsuccessful in finding a buyer, it was widely understood that Kent remained interested in selling.

So now the end game is here. Unable to find a buyer he has opted instead to throw in the towel. I don’t blame him but he should not be blaming the loss of Giant and the arrival of other new retailers as the reasons for his stores declining sales. Much like Bun Penny, Produce Galore did not adjust well to the demographic changes in Columbia. New competition will either make a store better or it cause its demise.

The people in Columbia and Howard County have many choices as to where they spend their money. Every day shoppers make decisions as to where they will shop. Mama Wordbones and I discussed this last night. I had stopped by the grocery store on my way home to pick up a few items including fresh fruit. The most convenient grocery store to my office on Dobbin Road was the Safeway in the Long Reach Village Center. I drove right past it on my way to the Giant on Centre Park Drive.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Scene This Week In...

With the move of our offices from the airport area to Columbia I have settled into a new commute pattern. I always stop for coffee somewhere along the route because the decaf stuff in our offices doesn’t quite cut it. On my old route my preferred stop was the Dunkin Donuts at Route 1 and Montgomery Road in Elkridge. With my new route I pass a Dunkin Donuts, Donnas, Riverside, and Orinoco. So far I’ve made Orinoco my new regular stop. I really like their coffee.
When I was coming out the coffee shop earlier this week I was stuck by a the sight of these birds all nicely lined up along the roof line of 8830 Stanford Boulevard. I decided to make this aviary hangout my Scene This Week in Columbia.
Driving through Ellicott City the other day, the red caboose that is part of the B&O Railroad Museum: Ellicott City Station, stood out in the crisp March afternoon sun. This little museum is well worth a visit whether you are a train buff or not. This was first caboose I ever climbed inside of. It is this weeks Scene In Ellicott City.

Enough Is Enough!

Appropriately enough, that is the cover headline on today’s Howard section of the Sun. The article discusses Barbara Russell’s decision not to run for reelection to the Columbia Council. I could not have said it better.

I usually put aside my differences when someone announces that they are retiring from public service and thank them for their service to the community. In Barbara’s case I make an exception. Enough is certainly enough.

The article cites Barbara’s proudest accomplishments during her eight year tenure as establishing a cap on assessments and preventing the community of Emerson from becoming Columbia’s eleventh village. The legacy of those “accomplishments” is the sad state of affairs of Columbia’s public spaces. She also led the charge to remove Maggie Brown as the Columbia Association president which will create a serious leadership vacuum just as she leaves office. Barbara’s tenure on the CA board has been divisive and highly detrimental to the health and well being of Columbia.

Her departure does not mean that things are likely to get better either. Alex Hekimian, the president for life of the Alliance for a Better Columbia (or as Jud Malone calls it “The Alliance of Bitter Columbians”) is running for her council seat in the village of Oakland Mills. That is akin to jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

Monday, March 10, 2008

What Would You Have Me Do?

I came upon this sign on College Avenue in Ellicott City last week. It is`nailed about eight feet up on tree at the intersection of High Castle Road and College Avenue. The boundaries of Patapsco State Park are little fuzzy through this stretch of road so I am not certain whether or not this sign and the “beautiful waterfall” it refers to are on park land or private property.

That is almost beside the point. What gets me is that someone went through a good deal of effort to create and post this sign that is essentially meaningless. If the poster wants to gain support for rectifying this situation this is not a very effective way to do it. This is merely a shout in the wilderness not a call to action. A call to action would have a name to contact or directions on who to contact. It calls to mind the logic of certain anonymous blog commenter’s.

In any case, I hope to take a hike behind this sign this weekend with my camera to see what it is all about.

Stay tuned.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Dispatch 2 from Spring Training

I meant to post this picture with my earlier post about my "spring training" trip with my college buddies. This is a shot from Thursdays drubbing of the Orioles by Minnesota Twins here in Naples.

Dispatch from Spring Training

I blew out of town Tuesday for five days of “spring training” with nine of my buddies from college. We have held this annual gathering for at least twenty years.

Our spring training is only marginally about baseball but we do take in a game. Yesterday we saw the Minnesota Twins take on the Baltimore Orioles. The hometown boys lost to the Twins 8 to 7.

The rest of the time is spent golfing, boating, eating, and drinking. The boys come from Milwaukee, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, New York, Charlestown and Baltimore. It is not easy to carve time away from family, work and other obligations but I would not miss it for all the tea in China.

For the record, it is partly sunny today, current temperature is 76, the high will be around 85.

In This Months Business Monthly

The title “General Manager of Columbia” has always intrigued me. Some towns have a city manager, some have mayors but Columbia is the only town I know of that has a general manager. Of course it is a little misleading. The general manager of Columbia is not an elected position and the only thing the general manager manages in Columbia is private real estate owned by General Growth Properties. The Columbia general manager is essentially a development director.

Since Columbia is a town that was conceived by a real estate development company the towns’ main development person has always been a pretty high profile position. Each general manager has dealt with a unique set of challenges over the towns forty year history. Greg Hamm will certainly be no exception. I thought it would be fun to dedicate a column to welcoming him.