Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Downtown lowdown...

At Monday's candidate forum in Harper's Choice, the discussion predictably centered around development in Columbia's Town Center. For those of you playing at home, you can update your scorecards here.

For those of you more interested in a lengthier discussion of the issue, this article in the Sun is a much better place to go. In it, Douglas Godine, the General Growth executive overseeing Columbia operations, discusses his surprise that downtown remains relatively undeveloped and how GGP is affecting the process and the resultant master plan.

Like the politicians at the candidates forum, Godine is saying the right, if not novel, things: Town Center should be a great place to live, work and play; citizens must support the plan in order for it to succeed; GGP needs to build the trust of residents; the plan must be comprehensive; etc.

Beyond the platitudes, however, Godine reiterates a point he's made in the past, one that I've applauded him for.

By the public, Godine does not simply mean those people who attended last year's charrette on downtown or the members of the focus group. It is vital, he says, that the process involve younger people, whom he describes as the future of Columbia.

"How do you get to those people and understand what they want? How do you get them involved?" he asks. I don't know. I don't have the answer on how you get to that young group."

And here's what I said when he last mentioned this topic to a reporter:

Thus far, whether we care to admit it or not, the the voices of Howard County's tomorrow have been mostly silent in the discussions over Town Center. Although the initial process was open to all, something -- apathy, disengagement, ignorance, lack of time, different priorities -- kept the younger people away; meanwhile, the current process has made things worse, actively marginalizing citizens under 35 -- even those sitting right its nose -- because not enough of them showed up for the auditions.

Reading his quote today within the context of a story that is largely about getting the public to trust his company, a question popped in my head: Is he engaging in a little strategery to help his cause?

Assuming that young(er) people are, on average, more open to change and more likely to enjoy city life, is his courting of their support something he believes will lead to a denser, more urban Town Center? If the assumptions about the preference of young people hold, would greater participation from this demographic counter-balance the voices pushing for less-intensive development?

Growing up in Columbia, the oft-heard refrain was "there's nothing to do here." And, indeed, for those between the ages of 16 and Parenthood, it's largely true. Sure, there's the mall, some bars (a few of which even have live music) and Merriweather, but the range of activities hardly compares to what one finds in Baltimore or even Annapolis. If given the chance, tomorrow's Town Center could fill this void.

Whether Godine's courting the youth movement for honest or financial reasons is really just a tangential matter. What's most important is that we have a plan that includes input from all residents, even those whose voices have thus far been quiet.

1 comment:

Evan said...

As the guy you mention as sitting right under their nose, I guess I should say that the way the new "moderator" of the focus group created new rules today saying those of us in the audience couldn't participate in the conversation and had to hold our comments to the end of the meeting when they were no longer in the context of what prompted them further enphasizes this exclusion and makes it a more purposeful and active exclussion.

Also I have seen quite a few young people passionate in this process and wanting to contribute. Many who follow it have a hard time getting off work and school to attend meetings, but regularly ask me about it.

As for your analysis of Mr. Godine's motives I think you analysis is right on the money.