Monday, June 30, 2008

Hold On A Minute Larry…

At least that’s what my buddy Jim Binckley says. Jim was taking exception at Larry Carsons depiction of Oakland Mills as Columbia’s “second oldest village.”

That distinction belongs to the Village of Harper’s Choice. Oakland Mills is actually the third oldest village in Columbia.In any event, I briefly stopped by the Oakland Mills birthday celebration this past weekend and snapped this shot. Recognize anyone?

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Festival Load Out

The 21st annual Columbia Festival of the Arts ended Saturday evening with a performance of the East Village Opera Company at The Jim Rouse Theatre.

Today it was time to pack up the remnants of the sixteen day arts celebration.

Each year the festival hosts a public art project. This year’s project was called “Taking Flight with the Arts, Create a Bird House. For 25 bucks anyone could pick up a bird house kit from the festival offices and create their own vision of a bird house. The completed bird houses were then put on display and sale, first at the three day Lake Fest and then in the Jim Rouse theatre for the ticketed events.Amongst the 50 or so bird house entries was this one that I carried back to the festival offices. It was submitted anonymously and it was the only one not given price for purchase. I thought it was a rather poignant statement on the deepening housing crisis in America right now.

The New, New City

This weekend I got caught up on some reading. I almost always save the magazine section of the Sunday New York Times but I don't always get enough time to read it. Consequently, it doesn’t take long for a collection of them to fill the magazine basket. To manage the process, I mentally assign some issues a higher must read priority. The June 8th issue fell into that category. It was the architecture issue and the topic was The Next City.

The first article that caught my eye was entitled “The New, New City.” Though the article is mostly about large real estate developments in Shenzhen and Dubai, it still provides a perspective on development that is relevant to the discussions about density and development in Town Center and perhaps Howard County in general.

One of the architects featured in the story is Steven Holl, the architect of Linked Hybrid in Beijing, which the writer described as having “a surprisingly open communal spirit. A series of massive portals lead from the street to an elaborate internal courtyard garden, a restaurant, a theater, and a kindergarten, integrating the complex into the surrounding neighborhood.”

“In America I could never do work like I do here. We’ve become too backward-looking. In China, they want to make everything look new. This is their moment in time. They want to make the 21st century their century. For some reason, our society wants to make everything old. I think we somehow lost our nerve.”

Ahem. While I don’t think we necessarily need to “make everything look new”, I still find wisdom in his words. He also goes on to explain that “what makes it possible is density.”

And there you have it.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Collateral Damage

The meltdown of residential real estate in the past two years has largely been the story of financial shenanigans in the mortgage business and troubled homeowners who, as a result of rising rates and falling values, have gotten upside down on their mortgage.

But there is collateral damage to this meltdown as well. Plumbers, electricians, dry wall guys and brick layers are all feeling the pinch.

Today I was reminded that realtors have taken a pretty big hit as well. Approximately three years ago this summer I was involved in the development and leasing of a building called Stevens Forest Green in the Hillcroft Executive Park in Columbia. That summer I negotiated a lease with Keller Williams Select Realtors for 7,000 square feet on the ground floor. This was a new office and a new venture for the veteran real estate brokers who were running this franchise, Randall Nash and Jim Fischetti.

Randall and Jim outfitted the office nicely. They had big plans to fill the space with high production agents.

One year later, the partnership that I was involved with sold the building to Core Plus Properties in Stamford, Connecticut. The sales price of the building briefly held a Columbia record for a Class A office project. The new guys got rid of me and so I lost touch with the project.
Today I drove by and decided to stop in and see how the building was holding up. The Keller Williams Select Realtors office was shuttered. The gold letters of the sign behind the reception desk were peeled off.

Timing was probably the killer here. This office opened just as the residential real estate market peaked and most likely did not have enough time to secure a firm footing before the bottom dropped out.

I’m sure that Randall and Jim are doing fine. They have both been around long enough to have seen a big slump before. Nonetheless I am sure that closing this office in less than three years was not easy to do. I wish them well.

Hope springs eternal in Columbia however. As I drove away from my old building I passed by the HT Brown Century 21 offices on Stevens Forest Road. They had this sandwich board sign out by the curb.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Hanging Shoes

After reading my post about the shoes in the power lines in Scene This Week In…, Jim Binckley sent me a link about “Sneakers on Power Lines.”

While some conjecture that this is some sort of gang symbol others have a different take on the shoes in the wires:

“Another folk belief holds that teenage boys who've just "scored" for the first time — i.e., lost their virginity — are wont to heave an old pair of sneakers over a power line to celebrate the moment and proclaim their conquest to the world (who says teenage boys aren't romantic?).”

I like that better than the gang theory.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Bye, Bye Bridget?

This past weekend as I was informed from two separate sources that the land plan video produced by the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning is going to be edited. The editing will result in the removal of the minute long piece featuring Bridget Mugane, the president of the Howard County Citizens Association. Her appearance in this video was the subject of two previous posts (How Did This Happen and How Did This Happen Follow Up) and my column in last months Business Monthly. Apparently Kim Flowers, the Deputy Director of Planning & Zoning announced shortly become the Business Monthly hit the streets that the video will be modified.

The question of course is when. For now, Ms Mugane still appears five minutes into the video. A friend of mine whose husband works for the county commented, “It's government. Probably only take another 6-9 months to change that minute!”

Stay tuned.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Scene This Week In...

The first thing that caught my eye was the color. A bright yellow car really stands out against a green landscaping and a blue sky. Then what really grabs you is the size. This is a small car, a very small car. It is smaller than a Mini Cooper for crying out loud!

I was looking at a smart fortwo, an interesting little car from a joint venture between Swatch, the Swiss watchmaker and Mercedes-Benz. The EPA gas mileage rating for this pod of a car is 33 city/41 highway mpg. Prices start around $14,000.00.

This smart fortwo was spotted in the parking lot of 6955 Oakland Mills Road (think Ledo’s Pizza and Sizars foodmarket) in Columbia.
It was my daughter who spotted these. We were driving up Frederick Road from downtown Ellicott City towards Rogers Avenue. My daughter was in the back seat.
“There are shoes in the wires daddy,” she comments, “what are they doing there?”

Of course I didn’t see them. I was focused on the road ahead among other things. Then again, I really didn't have to, I’ve seen shoes hanging from telephone wires before. I told her that sometimes people just toss a pair of shoes up into the wires for no good reason at all. That seemed to be a good enough answer for her.

Today, when I found myself heading up the same stretch of road, I looked for those shoes. I don’t know how they got there but I do know that at some point those laces will rot away and a pair of Nike hiking boots will return to earth. On the other hand, those are probably nylon laces so it could take awhile.

Friday, June 20, 2008

For the Film Buffs Out There

The Columbia Festival of the Arts is hosting an Independent Film Forum this Sunday at the Howard County Central Library. It’s free. More details here.

Traffic! What Traffic?

An anonymous commenter on my last post (They Just Keep Coming) wrote that it “is impossible to get near Town Center today…” He goes on to argue that Town Center can’t handle any more housing because of the traffic.

I thought of this anonymous commenter as I cruised through Town Center today. Fortunately I had my trusty camera with me so I decided to document the ease of travel this afternoon around 2:00 PM.

In order to somewhat limit my risk exposure from driving and filming, I can only offer these two brief clips. The traffic was moving so well that I wasn’t able to devote much energy to filming if you catch my drift.

This first clip is traveling west on Little Patuxent Parkway towards the Governor Warfield Parkway split.

This second clip is coming down Vantage Point Road to Little Patuxent Parkway.

And speaking of Town Center…

If you are interested in General Growths plans for Town Center, you might want to check out their Town Center website. You can also get to it by clicking the link “Columbia Town Center” under Links of Interest on the right hand side of this here blog. I had not checked it out in awhile and so I was pleasantly surprised to find videos and transcripts of the April 28th public meeting and the other public meetings that GGP has hosted with its various consultants.

In many ways the website is much better than that public meeting. Now you can download the power point presentation that they should have showed that night if everything had been working right.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

They Just Keep Coming…

My sources tell me that Carrolton Bank is moving it’s corporate offices to Columbia. Fittingly, the bank will be moving into part of the space that formerly housed the corporate offices of BGE Home. BGE Home moved to someplace like Essex last year.

This is yet another corporate headquarters deal for Columbia Gateway, arguably the premier office park in the Baltimore Washington corridor. It has also surpassed the Town Center area as the preferred corporate location. Columbia Gateway now has approximately 150,000 more square feet of office buildings than Town Center. That doesn’t include the 400,000 square feet of new space under construction in Gateway. There are no new office buildings underway in Town Center.

What’s the attraction?

The availability of new Class A space is the main thing. In Columbia Gateway, The Rouse Company and now General Growth Properties have been content with selling land to third party developers who in turn built the office projects. With prime real estate abutting I-95 in the middle of the Baltimore Washington corridor, there was no shortage of developers ready to put up speculative office buildings.

In Town Center, office development stopped in 1992 with the completion of 11000 Broken Land Parkway which was then the headquarters of the Ryland Group before they moved to California. The last third party office development in Town Center was the Merrill Lynch building in 1982. All of the remaining office development land in Town Center is owned by GGP.

GGP needs to make Town Center successful. They are now competing with a monster that they created. They have to make a pretty compelling argument to lure potential prospects down the road from Gateway.

And sooner, rather than later, they really need to build something.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Scene This Week In...

I was driving into the Wal-Mart on Ridge Road in Ellicott City when this sign caught my eye. I can’t figure out whether it means a ban on overturned trucks or that entering the lot upside down is prohibited. In any event, it seemed worthy of recognition for Scene This Week In Ellicott City.

The Columbia scene is of Tony Walker and Icarus One. Tony was one of the entries in today’s Kinetic Art parade at the 21st Annual Columbia Festival of the Arts. Tony is a Pediatric Operating Room nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital. His Icarus One bike is powered by both a solar cell and a wind turbine. According to Tony, the bike “was created entirely from discarded items bound for the landfill. You can learn more about him at
He is pictured here with Columbia attorney Chris Tien.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The 21st Annual Columbia Festival of the Arts

This weekend the Columbia Festival of the Arts kicks off it’s 16 day community celebration of the arts with the three day LakeFest in Town Center. There will be a “juried and invitational” Art Park with over 50 artisans, and two stages with continuous entertainment beginning this evening at 5:00 PM with the Rhodes Tavern Troubadours and ending on Sunday evening 5:00 PM with Deanna Bogart and the Glenelg High School Jazz Ensemble.

Tomorrow, the festivities get started at 11:00 am with a Kinetic Art Parade in Town Center.

Be sure to pick up one of the festival programs when you go and look on Page 14. There you will find the names of your neighbors who have given monetary support to make this festival happen. It is interesting to note that while you will find the names of Liz Bobo and Lloyd Knowles (thank you very much), you won’t find Alan Klein, Bridget Mugane or Angela Beltram or some of the other folks who claim to speak for the citizens of Howard County.

Most importantly, look at the names on pages 18 and 19.These are the all important festival volunteers. The festival would not happen at all without the dedication and hard work of these people and for that this old dog is most appreciative.

Let the festivities begin!

Score Another Corporate HQ for Columbia

In today’s Baltimore Sun, Tricia Bishop reports that Integral Systems is moving its corporate headquarters from Lanham to Columbia. The company will move into the Gateway Exchange III building at 6721 Columbia Gateway Drive. The building, which is being developed by Columbia based Corporate Properties Office Trust, is scheduled to be completed this November and Integral is expected to move in “early next year.”

This is the second recent corporate headquarters relocation from Lanham. Last month, Merkle moved its corporate headquarters from Lanham into a new building in Columbia Gateway. Merkle bought 450 employees to Columbia and Integral will add 230 employees.

Anytime a new corporate headquarters moves to town, it is a very good day.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

It Was A Dark And Stormy Night…And I Liked It!

Okay, the whole “open thread” thing was really just a lazy way of getting something up on the blog today. Ever since Gordon Mumpower put the word out that I wasn’t posting enough I’ve felt compelled to post more regularly. It is not that Gordon holds some kind of power over me or anything like that. It’s just that when I hear something like that, be it Gordon or some other acquaintance, I often hear my mother’s voice in the background.

Alright already mom, I hear ya. I’ll write a real post today.

My real post is about is last nights storm. It was a dandy. I should note here that I love a summer thunderstorm. Last night I stood just inside my open garage door and watched it roll into from the west. As the storm approached and the winds kicked up I could feel the air charged with electricity. Someone once told me something about the negative ion thing but all I know is that it just felt rejuvenating.

Around 8:30 PM our lights went out. Out came the flashlights and candles. I dutifully dialed the BGE Power Outage hotline and a live, real honest to god person answered and told me they were aware of the problem and that a crew had already been dispatched to fix it. No problem, the same thing happened a couple of weeks ago and the power came back on at 4:00 AM.

I got up at 5:30 AM to go for a run. It was a gorgeous morning. We still did not have power. The talk at the bus stop was all about the power failure. Several of the parents had phoned BGE numerous times. A few were getting agitated. That made me think of this article I read in the Washington Post this past weekend. Life without electric power takes an adjustment period for some I suppose. The latest word was that BGE expected to resume service around noon.

Perfect. I had to come back today at noon anyway. Today is one of three half days the HCPSS tacks on at the end of the school year. I drove to my office in Columbia, charged up my laptop and my mobile phone just in case and then left at 12:30 PM.

When I arrived back at the bus stop I quickly learned that the power still was not back on. I was even asked if I had heard anything. No, I hadn’t.

It is now 3:00 PM in the afternoon. I am sitting in my screened in porch. My daughter is across the street playing with her friends. It is quiet, sunny and there is even a gentle breeze. There is still no electric service so I can’t get on the internet but my laptop is fully charged so I can write. I’ll just post it whenever I can.

My mobile phone is also fully charged so I can call my sister Nancy in Raleigh, North Carolina. Yesterday was her birthday.

I think mom would like that too.

Post Script: The power came back on at 7:30 PM, approximately 7,000 customers of BGE were still without power at that time, down from a total of 78,000 last night. BGE expects to have everyone reconnected by 7:00 AM tomorrow.

Open Thread

This blog has never hosted an “open thread” before so I figured it was time to give it a try. Much like open phones on talk radio programs, an open thread is a chance for the readers of Tales of Two Cities to weigh in on any topic.

Also, recently I made a few minor changes to the layout of Tales of Two Cities. One of those changes was the addition of a daily dose of the Dilbert comic strip by Scott Adams. I have always been a fan of the strip and his humor. You can find Dilbert by scrolling down the right side of the page.

I have also added a widget that tracks the stock markets from all over the world. It provides an interesting snapshot of our global economy and I’ve titled it “Follow The Money.” You can also find it by scrolling down the right side of this page.

So please, feel free to post a comment about these changes or anything else that’s on your mind.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Man It’s Hot Out There!

I’ll bet the students at Howard High and Marriotts Ridge High School aren’t complaining though. Both schools ended their days early today due to “malfunctioning air conditioning.”

Not bad for a school week that already has half days on Wednesday, Thursday and finally, the last day of school, Friday.

For all intents and purposes, come on now; sing it with me….schools...out...for...summer….

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Ping Pong Balls Are a Seasonal Item

Last night my stepdaughter played hostess to five of her college aged female friends for a sleepover. One of the requisite activities for a gathering of young adults these days is the game of Beer Pong. Though I have witnessed the game being played on other occasions I was mostly unfamiliar with how the game is actually played and it’s myriad of rules.

As with any college drinking game, the rules appear to be subject to regional interpretation and can be fluidly applied, so to speak.

In any event, as we were preparing for the arrival of her guests, we belatedly discovered that we had no ping pong balls in the house. Mama Wordbones had ditched the old ping pong table before we moved into our new home two years ago and with it went the stockpile of ping pong balls. I volunteered to make a quick run down to the Target store at the Long Gate Shopping Center in Ellicott City to get some.

After three or four passes through the sporting goods aisles failed to reveal any ping pong balls I sought out the assistance of one of the red shirted employees. The Target guy went back over the same turf I had exhaustedly examined and reached the same conclusion that there were not any ping pong balls in the sporting goods section.

He reached for his walkie talkie and called in for assistance, “Does anyone know if we carry ping pong balls?”

“It’s a seasonal item, we only carry them in the winter season.”

Interesting. While I can understand that the game of ping pong is more likely to be played indoors in the winter, it still occurred to me that on a day when the heat index soars over 100 degrees, ping pong playing indoors in a cool basement could be a welcome respite from the heat.

It is also likely that across this fair county of ours, in the homes where college students have returned for the summer, beer pong players will be practicing their game to stay in shape for the return to college in the fall.

It might be time for Target to rethink the seasonality of this product.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Fowl Play

I’ve just learned that McDonald’s has submitted a Site Development Plan for a 3,886 square foot restaurant with a drive-thru on the site that is currently occupied by Boston Market at Snowden Square. The 1.15 acre property changed hands two years ago for $1,725,000.

Though it is still open, it appears that the Boston Markets days are numbered in Columbia, for awhile anyway.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

A Hurdle Too High?

At the tail end of an article by Larry Carson in yesterday’s Howard section of The Sun, I learned that County Council added a little caveat to the approval of the purchase of a full floor at the proposed Meridian Square office building in Oakland Mills Village Center in Columbia. The County Council is now requiring that Metroventures, the developer, must “sell or lease at least forty five percent of the 60,000 square foot building before the county makes a purchase.”

That is a very high hurdle for Metroventures. In today’s financing climate most lenders are looking for a significant preleasing or presales commitment on a speculative office project before they’ll release the funds for construction. This means that Metroventures will need to get someone, besides the county, to commit to the project before it comes out of the ground. The difficulty for Metroventures lies in the fact that there is plenty of existing or already under construction office projects that a prospective tenant or purchaser can consider without waiting for Meridian Square to get started. Columbia never has been a very strong preleasing/presales office market…it is more like “build it and they will come.”

I actually think this was a prudent move on the council’s part. As I wrote in a previous post, the Merdian Square office building is really too big for this location. Judging from prior history of office leasing and sales in the Oakland Mills Village Center area coupled with the ready availability of similar office space in other nearby locations in Columbia it will likely take more than two years (following shell building completion) to reach profitability. I have serious concerns as to whether the developer can wait out the length of time it will take to get there. A typical office building development pro forma in this market usually anticipates lease up to profitability in eighteen months.

And that’s in a good market. Right now, the office market in Columbia is somewhat sluggish which is causing existing landlords and developers to get very aggressive in making deals with the few office tenants that are actually in the market. That does not bode well for new development in marginal locations.

I’d give this project less than a 50% chance of starting in the next year…if at all.

Monday, June 02, 2008

In This Months Business Monthly

In case you hadn’t noticed, I sometimes get my inspiration for my column in The Business Monthly from one of my posts here. That was certainly the case this month. My discovery of Bridget Mugane in a starring role in the DPZ video on the county land development process gave me a topic I knew I could have a little fun with.

I also figured it wouldn’t hurt to shine a little light on Ms. Muganes growing influence in the DPZ.

Though I built the story around the notion that Kim Flowers would call me back and tell me how this came to be I never really expected to hear back from her on this. It doesn’t really matter anyway. My objective was to draw attention to the long reach of the tentacles of the HCCA. It also gave me the opportunity to question just how representative of the county HCCA is.

No doubt some will take issue with my calculations and I admittedly took some liberties but I stand by the offer of a free lunch at Clyde’s to the first person that can prove to me that a cross check of the membership lists of the Howard County Citizens Association, The Coalition for Columbia’s Downtown and the Alliance for a Better Columbia would not show that at least a third of the members belong to all three organizations.

That could be an interesting lunch.

You can find this month’s column here.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Sales Are Humming Along Nicely Now

Last night Mama Wordbones and I were sitting at the outdoor tables at Clyde’s with a couple I’ll refer to as Mary and Ted. I agreed to protect their anonymity in return for sharing a funny story they told us. Mary told us about a recent shopping excursion to Spencer’s Gifts in the Mall in Columbia. She had gone there to pick up some gag gifts for Teds fiftieth birthday party. Spencer’s is a great place for gag gifts.

Apparently it is a good place to shop for other “hard to find” items as well.

As Mary was perusing the aisles of the store she came across a selection of vibrators. She was a little surprised and so when got to the register she said to the sales clerk “I didn’t know y’all carried dildos.”

“Those are personal massagers” the female clerk corrected her. At this point the clerk directed Mary to a display behind the counter of what she described as high end personal massagers and added “We also have these if you are interested.”

Mary asked the clerk how long they have selling these items since she been in the store before and did not recall seeing them.

She was told that when The Rouse Company owned the mall they were not permitted to carry these items. “We used to send customers over to the Arundel Mills store” where there was no restriction on the sale of personal massagers. Once General Growth Properties took over the mall, the restriction was lifted from the Columbia store as well.

“Sales have been very brisk since then,” the clerk said.