Tuesday, January 23, 2007

To density: the cause of and solution to all life's problems...

I’m going to kind of steal a point made by someone at a meeting last night.

There are two ways to look at Columbia: as a city or as a suburb. Where you stand on this issue significantly impacts your opinion about the future of Town Center – specifically with respect to density.

I think Columbia is a city; it’s the second largest collection of individuals under a common address in the state of Maryland, after all. More importantly, one can sustain their entire existence within its borders. This is perhaps the key point. You can live, work, play and do pretty much everything you need without leaving Columbia (indeed, I rarely venture outside of a two-mile radius from my house).

Those who see Columbia as a suburb, the speaker proposed, are in denial about its true nature, failing to recognize and appreciate its true size and scope of city-like amenities. Efforts to create a “real” downtown make the suburb-in-denial position less tenable, and are therefore resisted by those who want to see it as a suburb.

Now, I didn’t come up with this idea, but I’m repeating it and, obviously, give it some weight. But as a lover of nuance, I’m not trying to divide us along stark ideological lines. Rather, I’m just using this as a set-up to link to Bill Santos’s post from yesterday defining not what Columbia is (we collectively make that decision) but what it was intended to be. Among the quotes he unearths are:

“Downtown Columbia is meant to be a true downtown – not just the heart of Columbia, but the urban hub for a real city between Washington and Baltimore.”

“Allow me to list for you some of the ingredients necessary to attain the downtown we would all enjoy in Columbia:…Downtown needs apartments and condos: At high density within walking distance – on top of things like shops and offices. This is hard to accomplish, but HRD knows how. They may need help with zoning.”
You’ll have to read the whole post to see who said what (hint: neither was Rouse but you will find a Rouse quote there, as well).

Although my comments above show quite clearly my bias, I think it’s pretty evident that Columbia was always intended to be a city with an urban core. That it – on the whole – is also perceived by some as a suburb is a feature, not a bug.

And, no discussion of density this week would be complete without a link to Robert Turner’s great letter to the editor in the Flier.
We all know how expensive land and housing is in Howard County. We also know that restricting development drives costs higher. Simply put, height restrictions limit density and drive up housing costs. Without increased density, affordable and workforce housing will not be economically feasible in the downtown area. We will end up with far fewer housing choices and continue to lose the original vision of economic and racial inclusiveness that embodies Columbia.

Increasing the density of Town Center and allowing some high-rises to be built will be necessary in order to help our community with its affordable and workforce housing crisis. If the Plaza Residences, an attractive market project, is blocked, this will undoubtedly signal similar fates for future projects.
Supply and demand…


Anonymous said...

(Cross-posted at the original post site, too.)

[His] summary of Mr. Rouse's 1977 statement of the original four objectives from 1963:

(1) to build a better city – not just a better suburb, but a complete new city
Check - as confirmed by accolades from multiple national publications.

(2) to respect the land
Check - although we could do a better job, fulfilling previous county General Plans' calls for interconnected greenways/wildlife movement corridors in the eastern part of the county

(3) to provide the best possible environment for the growth of people
Check - with great schools (K-12 and beyond), good employment opportunities, and low crime. Room for improvement in pollutiion (but we could do better to minimize light-, noise-, runoff-, and air pollution) and transportation (mass transit?)

(4) to make a profit

[His] quote of Mr. Spears' 1978 take on Town Center commercial development said only about 1.5 million square feet of office and commercial space had been built as of 1978, and 6 or 7 million square feet were planned.

Here we are, 29 years later, and we are now somewhere over 4 million square feet of commercial space in Town Center (around 2/3 complete with commercial development of Town Center per Columbia's original plan). Between 1978 and now, the Mall was repeatedly expanded, HCC was repeatedly expanded, the hospital was repeatedly expanded, and multiple new office buildings were constructed inside the Mall loop and elsewhere in Town Center.

Mr. Scavo's coetaneous comments: “Downtown Columbia is meant to be a true downtown – not just the heart of Columbia, but the urban hub for a real city between Washington and Baltimore.”

Urban hub? A very nebulous, non-definitive term.

Real city? Columbia has certainly achieved that moniker, having all the amenities of a real city - unless a bona fide city government, traffic congestion, lots of street noise day and night, etc., are true requirements to attain 'real city' status. To quote the recent Money article that referenced Columbia as-is in high regard, "Americans are flocking to places that offer big-city opportunities and amenities -- with a lot more green space and a lot less stress."

Mr. Hoppenfeld's statement of that '78 timeframe: “Allow me to list for you some of the ingredients necessary to attain the downtown we would all enjoy in Columbia: …Downtown needs apartments and condos: At high density within walking distance – on top of things like shops and offices. This is hard to accomplish, but HRD knows how. They may need help with zoning.”

To me, that seems like his request, about 15 years after Columbia's original plan, to change the original plan. At that time, it probably could have been done, without changing Columbia's overall density, by reducing the intensity of development in then-unbuilt villages such as Clary's Forest and River Hill, and shifting some of those residences to create a higher density Town Center. That could have been a greener design overall for Columbia. But that apparently wasn't done.

Instead, those and other villages continued to be and were developed at about their original planned densities. Or was there even some more dense development requested, approved, and implemented during those high-inflation times than the original plan requested? Do[es he] have similar quotes of estimates and commitments from involved parties if additional density for New Town zoning was requested and approved during that same general period? If that was the case, it may be wise to evaluate these quotes of that period in the context of any trying fiscal waters in which the Rouse company may have found itself.

To now increase the population and building density of Town Center specifically and Columbia overall would, contrary to [his] post, be in discord with Mr. Rouse's original vision as implemented, not in agreement with it. How would you then rebalance the yang of increased density, congestion, pollution with the yin of ample greenspace, low stress, and uncrowded openess?

Here we are again, being asked by some for possibly yet another density increase (if one was granted in the late '70's-early '80's timeframe), further straying from Columbia's original plan, putting both greenspace and less stress at risk.

(end of cross-post)

Mr. Turner's premise that unless more density is granted in Town Center that racial inclusiveness will take a hit in Columbia is hard to accept. Over the past five of so years, property values have gone up considerably, but at no time in Columbia's history has it been as wonderfully racially diverse as it is today.

The premise that approving soaring luxury condo buildings in Town Center will somehow make workforce housing appear is another point that is hard to accept. What are the condos in that 22-story tower going for? $600,000 to somewhere way over a million, wasn't it?

numbers.girl said...

Yesterday, I would have agreed that Columbia is a city. After a trip into Silver Spring, I was reminded what a city truly is.

With that, I say that Columbia is a suburb. However, I believe that Columbia was meant to be a city and not meant to be a sprawling mix of strip malls.

I think there is an obvious disconnect between what Columbia is and what Columbia can and should be.

Anonymous said...

Those are indeed good questions, numbersgirl.
1. What is Columbia now?
2. What can it be?
3. What should it be?

I agree it wasn't meant to be a sprawling mix of strip malls. Those that sprung up along 175 certainly changed the appeal of that part of Columbia.

The push by some to create some kind of faux-Main Street along Little Patuxent Parkway could very well lead to an unfortunate similar strip mall feel in the heart of Columbia.

Columbia should be even more of what it was first designed to be - more balanced between environment and people, more inclusive for people of all incomes and backgrounds, and more innovative in fostering a healthy community.

Anonymous said...

Columbia is neither a city or a suburb. It is a town