Friday, May 12, 2006

Charrette update...

Time was spent this week at the charrette focus group meeting discussing what to do with the current gravel parking lots surrounding Merriweather Post; the land known as “The Crescent.” Surprisingly, I like much of what I hear.

A plan to create a miniature Central Park in downtown Columbia needs more attention paid to the arts, according to members of a focus group that is helping to plot downtown's redevelopment.

"Wouldn't it be nice if every office building and lobby had a place for artists to display artwork?" said Robert Tennenbaum, one of Columbia's original planners and a member of the focus group.

Tennenbaum spoke May 3 at a meeting in which Howard County planners floated a proposal to build a school, fire station, cultural and civic places, and residential and commercial development on a 51-acre plot bordering Merriweather Post called the "crescent site."
Central Park? Yup.

Public Art? You betcha.

Cultural and Civic Buildings? I’m right there with you.

School? No way.

Aside from the fact that there are several schools already within a few minutes of Town Center, I’m completely opposed to having a school site in Town Center because I think it’s a huge waste of land that could otherwise be used for something we want but currently don’t have.

Let’s face it: schools ain’t what they used to be, even just 30 years ago. Instead of nice, little neighborhood school buildings that double as community meeting places and ballfields for organized and non-organized play (something kids today should probably have more of), we have turned them into massive, unwelcoming, aesthetically-grotesque complexes that are more akin to penal institutions than educational ones (I more than partially owe that observation to a friend of mine).

They devour huge swaths of land -- more than 10 acres for just an elementary school (.pdf of school system policy). They’re surrounded by massive lots of surface parking. They’re built on shoestring budgets by governments (e.g. housing in the Soviet Union). All of this, it seems, runs counter to the walkable, visionary goals we have for Town Center. Why devote almost a quarter of the land in the Crescent to something that doesn’t fit with its surroundings and is easily substituted for existing resources within the county?

In fact, substitution is the right way to look at this. The amount of land in Town Center is limited, but our wants for that land, at least for the sake of argument, are not. If we choose to have a school, then we have to substitute it for something else we might like. But is a school site really close to the top of the priority list, considering the strong desires expressed for more civic buildings, more cultural buildings, more affordable housing, more entertainment, more restaurants, more retail, or more transportation? This is, after all, our downtown -- our urban core -- not the traditional neighborhoods in the rest of the county, where nearby schools are much more appropriate and desirable.

Of course, since I’m a noted wishy-washer, I can be convinced that we should dedicate a nice big chunk of land to a school. But before that ever happens, I need to know what we will be sacrificing and how such a land-intensive use will mesh with its more land-efficient neighbors.


Anonymous said...

Who can argue with more indoor artwork? Not I.

Yet, if General Growth wants to add many thousands of new residents to downtown Columbia, how can one imagine additional school capacity won't be needed in this area? And, if additional school capacity is needed, what is the alternative? Even more expansion of the nearest existing schools, furthering their departure from the neighborhood schools Columbia originally enjoyed and continuing their evolution into the educational/architectural equivalent of big-box stores? I don't believe town center can have a free lunch when it comes to adding lots more people without using some of the space for schools.

If General Growth wants more residential construction, ensuring nearby school capacity is a necessity. Otherwise, this remaining land in Columbia's heart should be stewarded perhaps in a manner more in accord with Rouse's agreement with the County when they last sought additional population density in the '80's.

Also, one slight correction, per the .pdf cited, elementary schools require a minimum of ~12½ acres (10 + 1 per 100 students), not 10. Interesting to note that that .pdf also mentions the ideal elementary school size is 510-660 students, but (per we have several now near or over 800 students.

As to the parking lots accompanying schools, this can and should be addressed/reduced by getting serious about modern public transit. Columbia's original plan called for communitywide public transit. It is puzzling that a progressive community like Columbia hasn't more fully implemented cost-effective, environmentally-responsible public transit and instead continues to rely on 19th century technology for a 30-year transportation plan stretching into the middle of the 21st century.

Regarding a miniature central park, doesn't Columbia already have one - Symphony Woods (obviously along with the lakefront and CA paths)? It seems proposals in this incarnation of the Columbia town center vision will diminish the park that is Symphony Woods, not enhance it. Why remove mature trees in Symphony Woods to construct an ice rink that will only be used for a few months a year? I think a more appropriate location for an ice rink would be adjacent to the Mall (where one has been in recent years), where it will be more well attended, more accessible, and occupy existing paved surface.

Why replace Symphony Woods' natural woods ground cover with masonrywork, fountains, brickwork, etc.? There are many fountains to be found elsewhere in towncenter - the Mall, the Lakefront, near the buildings along Little Patuxent Parkway.

I just hope the 30-year plan's many references to creating "naturalistic" spaces (basically replacing true nature with managed artificiality) won't require Symphony Woods be renamed an unfortunately more appropriate Symphoney Woods.

Hayduke said...

Aside from the school part, I think we pretty much agree. My understanding is that the plan for a mini Central Park involves a new parcel of land, and not Symphony Woods, which should and probably will always remain natural (to the extent that it currently is). The more active Central Park concept, I believe, would be placed somewhere amidst the future development. I also think we need a much better public transit system, but I'm not sure how we do it without lots and lots of money (which I would rather spend there than on expanding highways and other roads).

I'm writing a response to the school part now.

Anonymous said...

I hope you are right about the mini-Central Park being planned for somewhere other than Symphony Woods. Any pointers to additional info on this would be appreciated.

Traditional public transit systems have indeed been costly. Yet, desirable public transit systems can be done without lots and lots of money. (Ok, lots and lots may be relative here.) First, what are the attributes of a public transit system that would be welcomed and used? It should offer: convenience as close as possible to car travel, safety, energy efficiency, low environmental impact, minimal noise, speed, and economical construction and operation costs.

How about a system that has equivalent construction costs to a road, but has a much smaller footprint? A system that waits for you, not vice versa? A system that provides personal vehicles that drive themselves, chauffeuring you to your destination of choice? A system that quietly zips along on maglev rails at 100mph, 6x light rail speed, but costs 1/30th light rails construction costs? Is this system something we should pursue?