Monday, December 11, 2006

All I want for Christmas...

...Is everything.

In a good and long post about Town Center development, Bill Santos wonders about our wish list.

Having read the Co Fo Co Do Executive Summary, the overall impression I get is that if downtown Columbia development were like a wish list for purchasing a car, Co Fo Co Do seems to want a car that gets the gas mileage of a Toyota Prius, the performance of a Dodge Magnum (with the SRT-6.1L Hemi engine), the people carrying capacity of a school bus, and the load hauling capacity of a Ford F-150 truck. This would of course be the ideal vehicle, but it does not exist.

…Rather than a conspiracy of pre-determined outcomes, I believe the folks running the Charrette looked at what people wanted, and tried their best to incorporate everything. The final plans showed increased density, but also more green space, and more public sculpture and art. Most of the problems with the Charrette outcome was in the conflicts between desires. An example would be that (in my opinion) most groups expressed a desire for more mass transit. One does not have to look very hard to determine that for mass transit (and funding for mass transit from the state and federal governments), medium to high density residency is required, and that is what subsequent Charrette plan reflected. Low density development does not allow for mass transit.

…Said another way, you can't tow a boat with a Prius, you are going to need a truck. It is my hope that Co Fo Co Do can come forward with an alternate funding program such that mass transit can be part of downtown Columbia. Otherwise, I would hope that they would reconsider their downtown density position; or in a worst case scenario, embrace low density as a priority and renounce mass transit.
I've gone down this path before with respect to a school site in Town Center, but the basics are the same.

We are, rightly, asking for a lot from the Town Center redevelopment. Certainly, there is no shortage of ideas for ways to make our downtown better and live up to the standards or ideals that were "promised" as part of the Columbia experiment.

But nothing's free. And though most seem to recognize that General Growth needs to make a profit in this endeavor, there is considerably disagreement regarding how much profit they should make and how much of it we're entitled to in the form of affordable housing, mass transit, cultural amenities, and so forth. Some of this disagreement, as Bill points out, is based on the flawed assumption that we can't have everything or, said another way, we can't force GGP to do acquiesce to all of our demands.

Although the issue of prioritization surfaced in the later sessions of the charrette and during the Focus Group meetings, it was not discussed during the first day of the charrette. And, when it was brought up at later times, the choices often lacked context, allowing for the simultaneous advocacy of both low density development and extension of the DC subway. Given the former, the latter is simply not feasible. This is not to say we can't have transit, but it would have to be Rapid Bus Transit or something similarly scaled-down (I'll preempt a regular commenter by saying, perhaps Personal Rapid Transit[?]).

As I said on Bill's blog, I've been thinking about a way to help visualize the trade offs inherent in our discussions about the future of Town Center. It seems to me that somewhere in the ether is a formula where we can plug in a series of assumptions or "desirable amenities" and see what level of development would be required to support them. Ideally, it would be a spreadsheet that allowed for easy manipulation of variables. The problem, of course, is how you go about quantifying everything. However, the goal would not be precision -- I strongly recommend against using such simple tools (like Excel) for such significant undertakings -- but rather a way to help guide us as we inevitably make the difficult decisions and trade offs that will dictate the final downtown master plan.

Bill has much more to say about the charrette in general and I urge you to read his post.


Howard said...

I tried to post something similar to this over at Bill Santos's blog but for some reason it won't let me post over there.

I am saddened to say that Bill's post is blatantly false. This really isn’t up to his standard. Bill claims this increased density will make possible mass transit, but there is no provision in the plan to do so or who pays for it. Bill claims that the plan creates more green space, but I challenge you to say where this new green space is? Bill claims that the plan will result in more public statues and art, but there is no provisions in the plan to do so or who maintains such amenities. In reality you are falling into the trap of listening to the grand declarations, rather than actually reading the details. Stop imagining into the plan things that are not there and actually read it.

After you read the plan, you also need to seriously look at current market conditions. The nature of the profits to be made off of building downtown Columbia (or really any residential construction in Howard County) considering our location between Baltimore and Washington, our superb school system, etc. means that developers will build anything we say they can build. It is entirely up to the county residents through our elected officials to set these terms. The developers have already used up their residential unit allotment for Columbia, so they cannot build the only thing that is selling right now (office space for example is not selling). The notion that some seem to be pushing that we have to limit our terms to some randomly sized set of items that then is a zero sum forcing different desired to compete against each other is not only false on the face of it, even worse it plays into the developers hands by dividing the community and making different desires compete. Anyone who plays this game is undermining both their own self interest, but more importantly the communities self interest. If you disagree with this you have to prove to me that developers in this market would say they will not build. There just is to much money to be made for them not to build. That means we, the community, through our elected officials set these terms. And for the record, the Coalition for Columbia’s Downtown has consistently said they support the developers making a big profit. Where they draw the line is they say that the developers cannot push their costs onto the tax-payers (including lien-payers) of Howard County and Columbia and that the developers who with a stroke of a zoning change without a single foundation being laid will make an immense profit of at least $1 billion will need to contribute back to the community by building according to the terms that the community decides are in its interests and reflect the values of mixed income housing, preservation of green-space, and planning adequately so that infrastructure meets the communities needs.

And please don’t get me started on how wrong you are on the scale of density we need for mass transit. Go drive down Connecticut Ave in DC and count building heights around metro stations and tell me we need the scale of density you are claiming. The truth is that the traffic consultant said that we could not build even approaching the scale of density in the plan without mass transit unless we change the standards to accept failing intersections worth than Rockville.

Bill, I really wish you had studied this plan as much as I have and sat through all those Focus Group meetings because I honestly think you would be as concerned as I am about the complete disconnect between the grand declarations and the substance of what the plan actually says and does. Watch out for being sold a bill of goods and start checking the details.

Howard said...

OK, that was screwy. That was me, Evan, but since it will only let me use by google account and not my blogger account and my google email is it is calling me Howard.


Hayduke said...

If you disagree with this you have to prove to me that developers in this market would say they will not build. There just is to much money to be made for them not to build.

If the choices GGP is given are 1600 units of residential with overly-onerous restrictions and demands or commerical space it is already entitled to (absent any changes to New Town Zoning), I would say that they'd probably choose the latter. Remember, the PB366 case -- the one calling for commercial, big-boxish development on the Crescent -- is still open. And I would say its a good bet tat if GGP doesn't buy into the master plan, they would challenge it in court. Whether they would win, I can't say for sure, but it certainly seems like they'd have a reasonable chance.

In a more abstract sense, what your saying troubles me. You've taken the position that we -- the citizens -- have the sole right to dictate exactly what development in TC looks like, that GGP is merely means to our own ends. Not only does this perpetuate divisivness when we should seek cooperation but it also presents the false scenerio that we have a limitless ability to require proffers. It's not a zero sum situation, but we do need to recognize the inherent trade offs in Town Center development and prioritize accordingly.

I completely agree that the costs imposed by new development should not be bourne by the existing community. Keep in mind, however, that as these costs add up, profit goes down.

(Cross posted at Columbia Compass and Evan's blog.)