Sunday, August 31, 2008

Long As I Remember the Rains Been Pouring Down

So why do we still have so many public buildings that fail to take that into consideration?

Take a look at this picture. There is no cover over the “transition area” from the road to the front door of the store. Target put its big red balls out there to keep the cars ff the sidewalk but they didn’t think about people coming in from the rain. I particularly like the irony of the person in the black hoodie. He or she sits on the concrete planter between two empty benches, supposedly provided by the store, instead of the benches. At least the planter area is partially covered by trees

The rains this past Friday got me thinking again about modern building design. As far as we have come in building design concerning accessibility and comfort systems, architects and building owners remain inconsistent in dealing with the rain and snow. Perhaps they believe that the building vestibule serves the purpose of providing a transition point between the outside elements and the inside elements. In my opinion, the common vestibule is just not up to this task. It is too small and too far removed from the street.

This has always been one of my pet peeves of newer buildings. This shortcoming is not limited to retail either. You can find it in office buildings, libraries and cultural facilities too. When you approach these buildings with an umbrella in rainstorm, you often have to close the umbrella while still in the rain before you enter a store. Inevitably this simple process can give you a decent soaking, somewhat negating the value of the umbrella in the first place.

Some modern buildings, such as this branch of The Columbia Bank, make an attempt to address this failing but even this effort comes up a bit short.

A better example is found in the old aluminum awning covering the sidewalk in front of Yates Market on Main Street in Ellicott City.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Town Center; the Stepchild of Columbia Villages

My recent post about the ongoing debate over the future of Wilde Lake Village Green got me thinking about the village of Town Center. With the current focus and debate on centered on the future of Town Center, it is instructive to look back at the Town Center village that Columbia’s original planners left us with.

Town Center does not have a grocery store. It never had one. It doesn’t have a pharmacy. It doesn’t have a convenience store.

Town Center does not have any neighborhood pools. Not one. The opponents of the Plaza Residences often decried the exclusivity of that buildings rooftop swimming pool but at least it had a pool.

Town Center has neighborhoods that are separated by another village. The Town Center neighborhoods of Amesbury Hill and Creighton’s Run are only accessed by driving through the Wilde Lake neighborhood of Running Brook.

It kind of makes you wonder whether the original Rouse planners had more of a concept than a real plan for Town Center beyond the mall and the office buildings that surround it.

In many ways, the residents of the village are fortunate that General Growth has come along to fill this void in the Columbia vision.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Sun Lite

The “new” print edition Baltimore Sun premiered this past Sunday. It is sad to see how far the paper of H.L. Mencken has fallen. It actually makes USA Today look good.

I guess this is just the inevitable result of shrinking newsrooms and declining newspaper readership.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Grocery Economics According to Kimco

At the Wilde Lake Village Board meeting on August 4th, Geoff Glazer, Kimco’s Development Director, laid out the economics of opening a new grocery store. According to Geoff, it costs $6 million to build a typical store (approximately 50-60,000 square feet), another $6 million to install fixtures and an additional $4 million for staffing and inventory. That brings the total to $16 million.

Within a mile and a half of Wilde Lake there is a Safeway at Harpers Choice, Giant at Hickory Ridge and Food Lion at Oakland Mills. The presence of these existing grocers combined with the lack of visibility of the village center (Twin Rivers Road is not a major artery) make it highly unlikely that a grocer would invest $16 million in a new store in Wilde Lake.

Traditional grocery stores are feeling the same competitive pressure as other retailers. They are now attracted to centers that offer much more than the old village center model. A prime example is the Long Gate Shopping Center in Ellicott City where a Safeway shares space with Target, Kohl’s, Barnes & Noble, an Old Navy, Staples, and Michaels.

As painful as it is for some older residents of the village to accept, it is time to accept this reality and move forward with a new model for Wilde Lake.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Victoria Slammed

It’s nice when one of our big city newspapers writes about a local establishment but alas that can also be a double edged sword.

Victoria Gastro Pub was reviewed in The Washington Post Magazine today. Out of a possible four stars, the locally owned Columbia restaurant received one.

The reviewer, Tom Sietsema, was especially hard on the Sunday brunch. The only thing he complimented was the “eye-opening bloody mary, topped off with Guiness.”

He did have nice words about the bar and its beer and wine selection though. You can read the complete review here.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Owen Brown Village Center Sold

Nellis Corp, a developer based in Rockville, Maryland, recently purchased the Owen Brown Village Center from Winthrop Realty Trust, a New York based publicly traded (FUR) real estate investment trust.

This village center, originally opened in 1979, was originally developed by the real estate division of Giant Foods and is the only village center in Columbia that was not developed by The Rouse Company.

The purchase price was $5 million dollars for the 73,380 square foot shopping center, which seems to be a bargain price ($68.00 per square foot) considering that most commercial buildings in Columbia now trade for well over $200.00 per square foot.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Historic or Just another Old House

Another new subdivision has sprouted on College Avenue just up the hill from downtown Ellicott City. The subdivision, dubbed Maple Cliffe, consists of 21 homesites surrounding a home built in 1912 and commonly referred to as the Hogg home. The builders’ property brochure identifies the home as an “existing historic home.” When I visited the onsite sales trailer I was told by the sales agent that the home is a “registered historic property.”

That is not quite true. According to the folks at the Howard County Historical Society, the Hogg home is an interesting old home but it is not on the Maryland Historical Trust registry or on the National Register of Historic Properties. In the context of historic Ellicott City, 1912 just isn’t that old.

Still, it is an interesting old house. According to an article from the Sun dated May 1, 2005, the developer of the Hogg property told the Howard County Planning Board that “each home would be custom-designed and would reflect the architecture of the historic house.”
This is what Dorsey Family Homes has built so far in the development. Does it “reflect the architecture of the historic house?”

I dunno about that, your call.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Ducking Traffic

Yesterday I convinced Mama Wordbones that it was just too beautiful to spend at home working on the yard. I mean, how may August days do you get in Maryland when the temperature stays below 90 and there is a slight breeze?

In order to entice her further I suggested we check out the Patuxent Branch Trail that connects Lake Elkhorn to Savage. This trail is a unique collaboration between the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks and the Columbia Association. Part of it follows an abandoned B&O rail bed that connected the old quarry’s in Guilford with the branch serving Savage Mill. If you want to know the full railroad history of this trail you can find it here.

The trail passes under Broken Land Parkway, Route 32, Broken Land Parkway South, Guilford Road, and Interstate 95. There is something otherworldly about riding your bike through a bucolic stream valley with the continuous roar of traffic high above on the interstate.

After the approximately 5 mile trek down from Columbia, you can stop in for a nice cold brew at the Rams Head Tavern in Savage Mill before heading back.

We are already planning on making a return visit in the fall. It sure beats doing yard work anyway.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Blandair Blues

When Nancy Smith died on February 16, 1997, her 300 acre Blandair farm in the middle of Columbia went up for grabs. Over the years Ms Smith had been approached by many developers, including The Rouse Company, to sell her property. She rebuffed them all. She even refused to negotiate with the State of Maryland for the land needed to extend MD 175 (Rouse Parkway) through her property. The state eventually resorted to condemnation proceedings in order to secure the land. The state sent her a check for the land which she never cashed.

Since she died without a will, her heirs were free to dispose of the property as they saw fit. Fortunately, the county and the state stepped in to purchase the farm for county parkland and prevent it from being developed with new homes.

The county appointed a 23 member citizen Blandair Planning Committee to develop a master plan for the park. After 19 months and three public meetings a master plan was approved in 2003.

Since that time, restoration work has commenced on the Blandair manor house and refinements have been made to the master plan. The revised master plan is shown in this post. Not surprisingly, this plan has generated some strong objections from the parks neighbors.

There will be a public meeting to discuss this revised plan on Thursday, September 11th at 7pm at Oakland Mills High School.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Another Hotel Deal in Limbo?

The news of the stalled hotel deal in Columbia Gateway reminded me of another large local hotel project that may be in jeopardy. The Crosswinds Resort at the BWI Thurgood Marshall airport is a $450 million planned development that includes 1,100 hotel rooms, a 125,000 square foot indoor aquatic park (think larger than Lifetime Fitness), a 90,000 square foot conference center and 100,000 square feet of retail off Winterson Road in the Airport Square Tech Park.

The website projects a late 2007 construction start with project completion in late 2009. The photo above was taken last month. Aside from this sign, there was no evidence of any other construction activity. A subsequent email sent to the ASHA Companies in Clarksville requesting an update on the development went unanswered.

I suspect that the current constriction in the capital markets has adversely affected this hotel deal too.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Private Showing

I took the day off yesterday to spend a summer afternoon with my ten year old daughter. She had been bugging me to take her to see Journey to the Center of the Earth so we made plans to catch the 2:45 PM show at Snowden Square.

One of the attractions of this film is that it is shown in Real 3D. Unfortunately for us, the Regal Cinemas at Snowden Square were not showing the Real 3D version. If I had read the fine print I would have seen that it had advised that you call the theatre beforehand to see if they are showing it in Real 3D. Of course I didn’t do that so it wasn’t until I got to the ticket window that I found out that this was one of the theatres that wasn’t showing it in 3D. I stood there wondering why a theatre would not show a movie that was especially made for 3D in 3D.

As it turns out, my daughter didn’t care. She really just wanted to see the dinosaurs and she really didn’t care that it was or wasn’t in 3D. In fact, she isn’t a big fan of wearing those glasses anyway.

So we bought the tickets and entered the near empty lobby. There was no wait at the concession stand. When we entered the theatre we were also the only ones there. In all my years of going to movies, this is the first time that I have been in a movie theatre where we were the only patrons. It was our own private showing.

This morning, as I was reading the Sun, I came across this story about a protest that was held that same morning at Snowden. Judging from the lack of crowds that we witnessed, we both would have been better off at the other Columbia theatre.

Gateway Hotel Plan Stalls

According this story in this weeks Baltimore Business Journal, the response to General Growths Request for Proposals for a new hotel in Columbia Gateway was underwhelming. Approximately a year ago, GGP sent out the RFP to hotel developers for a 300 room hotel on a recently cleared ten acre site directly across MD 175 from the new Gateway Overlook shopping center. GGP had previously envisioned a conference center hotel on this site to service the growing business community in the park.

GGP is also proposing a 340 conference hotel in the plans for the Symphony Overlook neighborhood in the new Columbia Town Center plans. It is unclear if the lack of response to the Gateway hotel site will have an impact on the hotel plans in the first phase of the town center redevelopment plans.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Home For Old Yearbooks

“Bring us your old yearbook.”


“Seriously!” Apparently they make a nice local resource for historians. I was having this conversation with one of the volunteers at the Howard County Historical Society library in Ellicott City a few weeks ago. I had dropped by to do a little research on another post that I am working on. They were super helpful and pleasant.

When he mentioned the yearbook thing, I immediately knew exactly where my copy of the 1972-1973 edition of The Glass Hour was. As it happens, we had recently built a new bookcase in my home office. In the process of selecting which books would stay and and which ones would be relegated to the donation box bound for the library, I uncovered my Wilde Lake High School yearbook. It has survived numerous moves over the years, some of which was spent in musty basement storage bins. It has a certain smell now. I guess it kind of smells like history.

Anyway, the conversation with the guy at the Historical Society (I am afraid I have forgotten his name) resulted in my retrieving the old book for another look. It had been awhile since I had last paged through it. One of the pages that caught my eye was this one. It lists the speakers that tried to enlighten us during our senior year. In a way it captures what the vibe was in Columbia back then.

Of course the question is now can I part with my old yearbook? I mean we’ve come so far already, how could I let it go now? Then again, this is kind of like sending it off to an assisted living facility.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

In This Months Business Monthly

Every so often I’ll write a column, sit on it for day or so, then tear it up and start all over. That was the story with my August column in The Business Monthly.

The August column started out being narrative of sorts about the July meeting of Columbia Association Board of Directors. This was the meeting where a motion, put forward by the boards Planning and Strategy Committee, was to be discussed and voted on. The motion was intended to lay out ground rules for the Columbia Association staff before they sat down with representatives of General Growth Properties to discuss the company’s draft master plan for town center. A key element of the motion was the stipulation that no new roads or buildings would be allowed in Symphony Woods Park. This stipulation was in response to GGP’s suggestion that the park become a more widely used and accessible amenity and a gateway to a renovated Merriweather Post Pavilion. GGP is also proposing that this ‘gateway” would also be an ideal place to locate a new headquarters for the association and possibly a new and larger central library.

Unlike most CA board meetings which are lucky to attract more than ten people, this particular meeting was packed. By the time the meeting got underway it was standing room only. Interestingly, the audience seemed to be evenly split between those who supported the motion and those who felt that it was too constraining and counter productive. The resident testimony ran the gamut from the absurd with comments like “When I moved here I was told that nothing more would be built in town center” to the comical “New roads and buildings in the park would be illegal.”

The attendees also shared a common characteristic. They were mostly boomers. The only young person I saw was a guy named Matt Petr. I told him I was heartened to see a young face in the crowd. He explained to me that he was there to get CA to sign off on some utility easements. In other words, he was working. He didn’t have a clue about the big debate of the evening but he was profoundly affected by it. Matt didn’t get to go before the board until just before 11:00 PM. I guess he got to know Columbia pretty well that night.

At the end of the meeting the motion was modified to allow staff to consider “limited new roadways or buildings of a park related scale.” That sounds ambiguous enough for me.

So I wrote about the meeting. I included all the good quotes I had collected. Then I put it aside and went for a ride. I drove into Town Center, parked in Symphony Woods and looked around. That’s when it hit me.

What happened to the Columbia I used to know?

I went back to my computer and started all over. You can find this month’s column here.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Spotted Today @ Rouse Parkway & Tamar

...then again what do you expect from a Steelers fan.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Seeing the Forest from the Trees

click to enlarge

Some people have been raising a fuss about “the removal of two fifths of the trees in Symphony Woods in order to accommodate buildings.” It's pretty easy to get folks all riled up with statements like that.

I don’t know where the two fifths calculation came from but since Liz Bobo mentioned it in her op-ed piece in the Sun last month it seems to have become gospel.

This exhibit from General Growths draft master plan for Town Center puts the tree removal issue into perspective. When you look at it this way the impact of the new buildings and roads on the park just doesn’t seem that significant.

If the “two fifths” cry is gaining traction in the court of public opinion it is partially GGP’s fault. The graphic depiction shown here is found towards the end of the “Vision in Focus: Sustainability / Environment” presentation that can be downloaded from their town center website. The problem is that this presentation downloads very slowly, even with a good high speed connection. Many people will give up viewing this critical presentation long before they get to this particular exhibit. It’s much easier to hang on to a politician’s sound bite than to wade through a slow loading power point presentation for the real story.

I think someone in tech support at GGP should take a look at this.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Water We Going to Do?

Two days ago we received this water cut off notice in the mail from the county. I asked Mama Wordbones if I should start filling the bathtubs and all available containers while we still had service. Mama Wordbones takes care of the household bills in our household. She did not share my humor in this matter.

“I just the paid that bill and it isn’t even due yet,” she told me. I was instructed to call the the next day to find out what was going on.

It turns out that we were not only ones who received a cutoff notice. According to this story in today’s Sun, 1,047 other customers got them as well.

The woman I spoke with in the Water and Sewer Division of the Department of Finance apologized. She told me they were using a new computer program and they apparently were still going through a learning curve with it. She said she had spent most of the day talking to some very irate people.

I wasn’t irate but Mama Wordbones was. I was just relieved.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Scene This Week In...

Driving by the Howard County Off Leash Park on Hillsborough Road in Ellicott City today I spotted these colorful piles of trash. Being the curious type and it being a lovely day I decided to check it out.
There were three or four loosely scattered piles of what are often referred to as “bandit” signs. Bandit signs are temporary real estate signs. I believe they are only allowed to be used over the weekends and that the owners are responsible for seeing to it that the signs are removed by sometime on Monday.

It looks to me as if somebody was policing that policy today.
From the dog park I scooted down 29 to the Wilde Lake Village Center. I needed to stop in at that particular branch of the Columbia Bank. At 2:30 in the afternoon the village center was a ghost town.

Tonight the Wilde Lake Village Board will meet at 7:00 PM. One the guests will be Kevin Allen from Kimco. He will presumably be there to discuss the proposed revitalization of the village center. A number of people are opposed to the plans which include adding 500 residential units to the property. Kimcos plan will also greatly reduce the amount of retail space in the center. This of course, upsets those Wilde Lake residents who stubbornly cling to the notion that another grocery store will come if only Kimco would just try a little harder.


I know Kevin Allen. He’s a nice guy. I think he’s going to have a rough time tonight.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Down but Not Out

In a previous post I wrote that it appeared as if Altieri Homes was closing up shop. That conclusion may have been a bit premature. According to this story in this weeks’ Baltimore Business Journal, the Columbia based homebuilder is still hoping to avoid bankruptcy. According to story reported by Daniel Sernovitz “the company has been forced to slash its staff from 105 to seven employees, eliminate several communities from its pipeline and turn over much of its construction and marketing work to outside firms. Even with those efforts, Altieri said, the company does not expect to reach firm financial footing for at least another year or more.”

Baugher Update

About a year ago I wrote a little post about a roadside farm stand on New Cut Road in Ellicott City. What I did not share at the time was the ongoing deliberations as to the status of this portion of New Cut Road.

The intersection of New Cut and Montgomery Road has always been a little tricky. Cars looking to exit New Cut on to Montgomery often have a difficult time.

The construction of the new Glen Mar United Methodist Church accross the road from Baughers includes a rerouting of a portion of New Cut Road. This new alignment bypasses the little farm stand. Last year the county was contemplating “dead ending” the section of New Cut that runs in front of the stand. This plan did not sit well with the Baughers who have operated this farm stand for over 70 years.

Yesterday, when I stopped to buy some fresh picked corn, Joan Baugher informed me that the road will now be restricted to turn ins only from Montgomery Road when the road work is completed. The family is pleased with this plan. The little stretch of road that runs in front of the farm stand will be renamed “Baugher Farm Road.”

It remains unclear when this work will be completed and these changes put in place.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Excess Capacity

I met a colleague for lunch today at Sushi Sono. It was an absolutely gorgeous afternoon with a slight breeze, picture perfect day at the lakefront in Columbia. There was only one thing missing…people.

Now I can understand that this time of year lots of folks are on vacation so traffic might be expected to be light but this was striking. Town Center at noon on a beautiful Friday in the summertime was dead.

As I walked towards the restaurant I ran into Barbara Lawson. She was sitting at an outdoor table at the Tomato Palace waiting for Mary Ellen Duncan to arrive. She had the same observation. Barbara told me that she recently hosted a family from Columbia’s sister city, Tres Cantos, in Spain. One night, one of her guests asked if they could take a walk to the lakefront. Barbara lives in the Bryant Woods neighborhood near the lake so this was theoretically easy to do. Theoretically easy perhaps but in practicality it turned out to be a bit challenging. She described racing across Governor Warfield Parkway before the crossing light turn red while hoping that nobody ran that light. She then described navigating through the mall ring road and parking lots.. The light was out at Sterrett Place and Little Patuxent Parkway so that crossing was a little dicey too. When they finally arrived at the lakefront it was much like this afternoon…dead.

They walked out to pier and were looking back at the pretty but empty lakefront plaza when one of her guests uttered “Such a pity.”

The Hand of Hamm

click to enlarge
I’ve been going over the numerous exhibits on the Columbia Town Center website put up by GGP. I enjoy it when I uncover a little detail that I missed when I first started seeing these drawings a few months ago.

My latest discovery is the “Hug” statue park. In the first pubic presentation of GGP’s town center draft plan, a new “street” was shown running through the little park between the American City Building. This immediately raised the ire of CoFoDoCo among others.

One month later, Doug Godine was replaced as the General Manager of Columbia with Greg Hamm. Greg arrived in his new post just as the poinsettia tree dust up was going on at the mall. In one of his first official acts as the new sheriff in town, Greg restored the poinsettia tree tradition and immediately earned himself some serious Columbia brownie points.

The poinsettia tree was saved by the hand of Hamm.

Now it appears that the Hug park has been saved by the same hand.

If you look close at the drawing, you will see that a street no longer runs through the little park. Compare this drawing with the one that Doug Godine showed back in November.

True, there are many more changes from that earlier version as well. This one just seems to have a strikingly familiar “community gesture of goodwill” feel like the poinsettia tree decision. I’m calling it another save by the hand of Hamm.

And, in all fairness, the saving of this little park should also be attributed to CoFoDoCo.