Monday, October 17, 2005

Charrette recap

Here it is, my recap of my charrette experience on Saturday. If you haven't done so, you can look at some pictures here.

County Executive Jim Robey started the day off with some introductory remarks, followed by Marsha McLaughlin from the county Department of Planning and Zoning and Matt D'Amico from Design Collective. The speakers all stressed the need to think about the history of Columbia and what it can/should be in 30 years. D'Amico, in particular, offered some inspiring words about why Columbia is special and why this Charrette is special as well.

Before we got started at our tables, D'Amico showed several slides comparing walkable streets to non-walkable streets, open space quality versus quantity, and livable streets versus...well, what we have now in Town Center. He finished the pep talk portion of the day by quoting Jim Rouse. Unfortunately, I don't have the exact quote (it's not my job to be the reporter), but it was one I have heard before and it is basically about not being constrained by feasibility. Think big.

And with that, we were off.

Several tables around mine seemed to really take the words to heart and started drafting "big" plans. Meanwhile, the tables fell off at my table almost immediately. It became clear that there were two irreconcilable positions: No Growth and Some Growth. The No Growth contingent, just one guy really, would not budge from its position, even while the Some Growth folks would try to offer compromises. Despite having a "trained" facilitator, there was no coming to mutually agreeable terms; we were stuck, and by the time we started to draw on our map, the Charrette was being called to order and individual groups were being asked to put the finishing touches on their work. So, we scrambled together a few small points that we could agree on and avoided the bigger issues.

Needless to say, I was disappointed with this outcome, for many reasons. While I understand why someone would fall into the No Growth group, one does not arrive at this position with the use of logic and rational thought. It is a position of emotion and fear. Our No Growth guy was scared that development would bring crime and that, god forbid, Columbia would actually look like a city. No body wants crime, but we're not proposing to build West Baltimore. Saying that more growth in Columbia will cause a large upswing in crime is also insulting to the strength of this community. But, my biggest beef with the No Growth position is that those who hold it offer no chance for compromise, which it seems the Charrette was all about. No Growth folks are anchored to one end of the spectrum, while the rest of us are somewhat in the middle (I don't think anyone is all the way pro-Growth, except for perhaps Julian Simon). The No Growth position is horribly weak, short-sighted, and offers no solutions, other than Not-in-my-backyard. Thank god the folks who lived in Howard County in the mid-1960s weren't so foolish.

Despite the problems I had with my table, I was pleasantly surprised to see the outcomes from the other tables. Clearly, these people had not become bogged down in the pettiness that my table experienced. All of the important things that turn Anywhere, USA into somewhere were listed as amenities the new Town Center needs to offer: walkability, mixed uses, cultural spaces, good transportation, interesting design/architecture, a mix of housing (affordable and otherwise), public spaces, signage, great streets, and so on. In short, all of the things that Rouse envisioned but were never built for myriad reasons.

I left feeling hopeful about the outcome, but still somewhat reserved. I don't know, there's something about the best laid plans that keeps coming to mind.

Anyway, I don't have time to get into what happened at the Monday meeting. Basically, we looked a bunch of maps and rough sketches, and a lot of people asked questions. The beginning of something good, however, is in there. We just need to whittle away the junk first. For updates on the Charrette, visit the county's Charrette website here. If you'd like to send in comments during the week, send them to this address.

More to come...

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Anonymous said...

"Thank god the folks who lived in Howard County in the mid-1960s weren't so foolish."

I lived in HOCO in the 60's as a teen. I heard the fear then but people weren't sure what was happening as Mr. R. was buying the land in the guise of dummy corporations. Don't think there wasn't a no growth sentiment then there was - they just moved to Carroll Co.