Thursday, May 31, 2007

For a poet and a one man band...

Jessie and Dan Beyers mentioned this already, but I can too, right?

I'm writing to call your attention to the upcoming release of Little Patuxent Review June 2. The theme of this issue is "Columbia at 40" and it features a distinguished -- and home-grown -- array of talent. There will be readings by some of these authors and a reception at Oliver's Carriage House (5410 Leaf Treader Way, Columbia, MD) at 3 PM on June 3. An encore reading at the Glenwood Community Center in Cooksville June 19 will take place as part of this year's Columbia Festival of the Arts. Both events are free admission, but tickets must be reserved in advance for the June 19 event.

Little Patuxent Review was initially established in the late 1970's by a pair of Columbia poets but went out of publication in the mid-1980's. The first issue of the revived Little Patuxent Review came out this winter. For more information, please visit the Little Patuxent Review website.
As we rev up for Columbia's 40th, expect to see more posts like this. Also, if you've got events to share, don't hesitate to send announcements my way.

More information about all the activities for the big birthday celebration can be found here.

I get by with a little help...

I really don't want to turn this blog into a running diary about my home improvement projects, but I don't know where else to turn with this quandary other than the collective intelligence of my readers. Yes, you're a smart bunch. So here's the situation.

We're building a deck. Well, we're not yet building anything – we're just being told how big a bite out of our meager net worth will be required to have someone install a flat wooden platform. As part of this process, we're discussing details of the design with the experts, and this is where the problem comes in.

First, our house:

Thankfully, this depiction is pretty accurate (though the deck is actually flush with the rear line of the kitchen). What we want to do is basically cover the whole side yard (which is actually kind of the front yard because of the door's location) with a deck, from the carport to the existing deck's rear line and from the house to an existing privacy wall that stands approximately one foot from our property line (the "top" edge of our carport [according to the picture] is approximately three feet from the same property line).

Does that make sense?

Yesterday, a contractor brought up the setback issue (he was the first one to do this). He didn't know what the rules are for HoCo, and since I didn't either, I decided to call today to see if our dream deck will remain as such.

Here's what I was told by a somewhat helpful bureaucrat: The setback for side yard property lines in Columbia is 7.5 feet.

But, I said, our carport is only three feet from the side property line, well within the setback zone. He had no response to this.

Also, though I didn't bring it up to him, there are many house additions and decks in my neighborhood that are clearly less than seven feet from property lines.

What gives?

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Everything good always would remain...

If it isn't obvious enough, the answer to my "Guess where I rode my bike on Monday" question from yesterday is: Every village center.

I'm not quite sure what motivated me to do it, but I say that about a lot of things. It's cliché (and likely not true), but Mallory's "because it is there" works for me.

So, how about some trip details?

Total mileage: 37.

Starting and ending at my house in Oakland Mills, the path I took was basically a counterclockwise loop around Columbia, with Long Reach as my first stop (the pictures in the post below are in chronological order). I tried to stay on the paths as much as possible and because of this, a map is absolutely essential (and I still managed to take a couple wrong turns).

Total Time elapsed: Five hours.

Riding time: Three hours and 45 minutes.

Aside from stopping to take pictures and a half hour for lunch, I didn't really take many breaks. What killed my total time was the fact that I had to fix a flat after, of all things, a wood chip along the non-paved Wilde Lake lake path pierced through my rear tube. That was annoying.

So, I averaged about 10 miles per hour, which is less than I average when normally riding along Columbia's paths but more than my usual mountain biking average. And I'd like to remind all you road riders that that was 10 mph on a mountain bike with knobby tires along paved trails and roads.

Road mileage: 10.

This is how much of the trip required riding on roadways, almost all of which had sidewalks. If you subtract the long sidewalk-less trek along Grace Drive to get to River Hill, the total road mileage would only be about four or five miles. Not too shabby. (Cutting out River Hill entirely from the Tour des Villages puts the entire circuit at about 30 miles.)

Degree of tiredness (out of 10): 6.

I was actually surprised with how good I felt at the end of the day. Yes, I ride frequently and this one certainly wasn't the longest ride I've ever done, but I imagined myself being more worn out because of the hills, the relatively uncomfortable mountain bike riding position and the fact that I'm not as in shape now as I was when I went on longer rides in the past. On the whole, I'd say anyone in reasonably good shape with a decent bike could handle this ride in a day without any problems. Those in worse shape might want to pick a side (east or west) as a start.

New insights gained: A few.

First, Columbia is probably one of the best places in the country to be a bicyclist. Over 100 miles of pathways in and around our city make it possible to get almost anywhere without having to share pavement with cars.

Although I think it's something kids who've grown up here know intuitively, this needs to be repeated again and again to adults: A bicycle is a viable transportation alternative in Columbia. Sure, you can't live your life exactly as you do now, but minor changes can make cycling as efficient, if not more so, than driving (often, the paths offer shorter distances between destinations than roads, as is the case with my commute to work).

An example of a minor behavioral change: Buy one of those cheesy baskets for your bikes and make a few small trips to the grocery store each week rather than one big 'un. You'd be surprised how much stuff you can cram on the front of your handlebars.

Second, the trails on Columbia's east side are way better than those on the west side. This is not even worth arguing about.

Third, Hickory Ridge is an awesome village center. They got all kinds of neat restaurants. Too bad it's one of the worst from a connectivity-to-paths perspective. Might as well surround it with a moat.

Fourth, why is it that the fancy villages (River Hill and Dorsey's Search) are completely disconnected from the rest of Columbia? Also, since both lack Columbia mailing addresses, do they really count? That's a joke, but seriously, how do residents of those villages feel? Do they like the separation?

OK, now it's your turn to get out there. Don't forget your map!

In the middle of our street...

I don't really want to gripe about this story on affordable housing in Town Center from today's Sun. It's generally pretty good and includes a ton of quotes from one of the VPs at my organization. But it does have a few flaws (the first sentence, for instance).

Rather than nitpick, however, I want to make a general point about affordable housing in Columbia. The story mentions that the "obstacle" of "public resistance" to affordable housing doesn't exist in our city because of our shared values. Indeed, I would say two of the Founding Four Principles – "a complete city" and "a garden for growing people" – are directly related to the idea of a full spectrum of housing.

So, it's pretty important, or should be anyway.

But I think there's a critical divide among us that doesn't come through in the piece. On one side you have Sherman Howell, who "has said that without the density now proposed, it is misleading to suggest the county can make an appreciable addition to the housing stock for low- and middle-income families."

On the other you have groups like the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown, which is described as having "demanded that the final master plan for the area include housing for moderate- and low-income families."

The groups could best be described as affordable housing advocates and Columbia-values advocates.

Howell sees an opportunity in Town Center to make "an appreciable" difference in the county's housing imbalance while adhering to the shared values of the community, and CCD sees affordable housing in Town Center as an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to our founding principles while providing housing for poor people.

Not so different on paper, but significantly so in practice.

Also, by the way, there is considerable public resistance to affordable housing in Columbia. Such sacrilege is generally not spoken of in public, however.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Those gentle voices I hear, explain it all with a sigh.

I took a vacation day today because, unlike my sister and brother (who are in China and Costa Rica, respectively), my vacation this year will consist of staying in Columbia and attending meetings (woo-hoo!). Today's mini-vacation is sponsored by the Commission on the Environment and Sustainability, for which I had an early morning and, soon, an early afternoon meeting.

Meetings aside, I planned to use this day to write a weekend travelogue and respond to some comments on this site and Dan Beyers' questions at Columbia Talk. Alas, I wasted much of the post-meeting morning watching Deadliest Catch and playing golf on the Wii. Hey, I'm on vacation!

So, further writing must wait for tomorrow. But in the interim, here are some pictures I took on my bike ride yesterday. Perhaps you can piece together the clues and guess what I did.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

We build them up, then knock them down...

Well, this is a surprise:

A little less than a year before developer James Rouse opened Columbia in 1967, he sought financial backing to construct what he called a "tower" between 300 and 500 feet tall in Columbia's Town Center, according to a letter in the Columbia Archives.

The letter, dated July 28, 1966, goes into few details about what the tower would feature, other than that it would offer a bird's-eye view of the Baltimore-Washington corridor and could feature a restaurant or gift shop.

The letter came to light this week, as the Howard County Planning Board was slated to hold a May 24 hearing on a proposed change in zoning law that would temporarily place height restrictions on new buildings in Columbia.

Hmm. That's an interesting new wrinkle, huh?

However, an opponent of the Plaza Residences countered that the tower Rouse described bears little resemblance to the Plaza. Instead, Rouse sounds as if he is describing a non-residential structure akin to the Space Needle in Seattle, said Lloyd Knowles, who is one of the residents challenging the Plaza in court.

"That kind of tower is not like a mundane residential structure," he added. "There is obviously a big difference in towers. He is not talking about the kind WCI is talking about."
This is true. The two towers are different. But this still doesn't account for the fact that Rouse was interested in having tall buildings in Town Center.

Here's more:
Alan Klein, a spokesman for the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown, a citizen's group that supports restricting building heights in Town Center, said Rouse and his associates had many ideas for Columbia that they later realized would not fly.

"We don't know whether by 1967-68 he determined, 'This does not work,' " Klein said of the tower proposal.
I would argue that it wasn't Rouse who decided it wouldn't work, but rather those who were deciding whether or not they should pay to build it. What the market wouldn't support in the 1906s it, apparently, seems ready to support now.

But what does all of this really mean? The Flier weighs in with an editorial:
People on all sides of the debate over the redevelopment of downtown Columbia -- and, in particular, plans for a 22-story condominium in Town Center -- have invoked the name of James Rouse, insisting that the town's founder would have supported their view, whatever their view happens to be.

There still is no definitive evidence on who's right about that. We would argue it's an increasingly moot point, regardless.

...Rouse couldn't sell Connecticut General on the idea, so he dropped it. But the letters would appear to refute the contemporary argument that he was dead set against tall buildings in his city.

This revelation by no means negates the entire argument against the Plaza Residences.

Details of what Rouse wanted are sketchy, but the structure he described might have been twice as tall as the controversial condo. However, it apparently wouldn't have had people living in it, using the roads and schools and water and sewer.

In terms of public-facilities impact, comparing what Rouse sought to the Plaza is apples and oranges.

But the discovery does change the landscape of the aesthetic argument, which, for many, is just as important.
I don't think that's right. The arguments against the Plaza take mainly two paths: 1. that it was allegedly approved illegally and, 2. that it's too tall.

(There is also Evan Coren's argument against the tower, which is that it's a "middle finger" to what Rouse stood for because it's full of expensive condos and has a private pool, but there are many apartment complexes that already have their own pools and Columbia is a place where anyone can live, even people who want to spend $2 million on a condo. A lack of mixed income housing within a single building does not imply an diminished commitment to affordable housing elsewhere, even next door. Also, the point can be made that supply restrictions are bigger impediments to realizing a truly economically diverse community than a luxury condo tower.)

Those concerned about overwhelming infrastructure present their case in the context of the entire Town Center master plan, the latest draft of which calls for more than 5,000 additional residential units.

If CCD is comfortable adding 1,600 housing units, what difference does it make on infrastructure capacity if these come in the form of 10 160-unit, 22-story towers, or 160 10-unit, three-story apartment buildings, or 1,600 townhouses? In fact, greater density of the same unit count could actually mitigate impacts.

Then, there's this:
Interpreting historical texts can be a tricky and often subjective business. Some will no doubt latch onto the Rouse letter as proof that the Plaza has the blessing of Columbia's lionized founder. That's a stretch.
Is it not also a stretch for some to reference a now-dismantled model of Town Center to claim the absence of tall buildings is definitive proof of Rouse's intentions? I understand this was just a letter to the editor, but as editors, if you chose to print it and paid to distribute it, shouldn't you bear at least some responsibility for allowing it to enter the dialogue?

That said, this is right:
In any case, the interested parties can advance the public discourse immeasurably by ceasing to play "the Rouse card."

Rouse's idealism about equal opportunity and community should always be the guiding principle of life in Columbia, but claiming his legacy in support or opposition of a given project is a red herring.

We have to make such decisions in the here and now, without the benefit of his wisdom.
If only such good sense could have been shared earlier. Toot-toot. (Yeah, that's my horn.)

I got an average house, with a nice hardwood floor...

Sometimes I think I'm too arrogant about my house.

I take great pride in my diminutive abode, particularly in its diminutiveness. Yes, in this day of concern for expanding ecological footprints, sharing an 850 square foot house with Abbzug and the Mutt leaves me feeling, at times, faintly superior. Other times, it leaves me feeling a little cramped, but that's my fault, not the house's.

I'm just living the (ecologically-responsible) dream, I say.

But I get the sense that too much of this patting myself on the back tends to grate. Which may have been the source of some of my writing troubles yesterday, as I tried to balance a self-congratulatory tone with a bit of real, defensible outrage.

When I read stories proclaiming that Maryland is home to the second-highest concentration of McMansions in the country, regardless of my own living situation, I see things that are genuinely silly. Like this:

"We truly just grew out of it," Rich Arena, 45, said of the Columbia house where the family had lived for 13 years. Arena, who sells high-performance computers, said he and his wife moved primarily so their 8-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son could attend highly regarded western Howard schools.

There was nothing really wrong with the old house, Arena said, but there was no more land to add onto it. The new home is similar in layout, but each of the four main bedrooms has its own bath. At 5,600 square feet, not counting the finished basement, it's more than twice the size of their old home.
That's 1,400 square feet per person, not counting the finished basement. Yowser.

And here's the story's kicker:
"Affordability is a big issue in Maryland and just about everywhere in the country," Rachuba says, so his firm is building three-bedroom townhouses with a more modest 1,700 square feet of living space.

"We're not doing burnished nickel faucets anymore," he says. "We're going back to the basics of chrome and strip lighting." Granite countertops are out; Formica is back.

Asking prices start around $160,000, Rachuba says, and two units have sold, even before the model opens next month.

The location? Chambersburg, Pa.
You see, the surprise is supposed to be that the house is in a state where few people would willingly choose to live (I kid). But to me, the real surprise is that a 1,700 square foot townhouse is considered "modest."

OK, so I've tried and I've found I'm not really able to write about this without sounding like a total jerk. Sorry if I've offended you. Maybe I'm just upset that I don't have a house big enough to set aside rooms for very specific purposes (Here's the dog's room, and here's the room where I clip my toenails...).

Let me note, however, that I'm enough of a believer in capitalism and free markets to respect others' personal decisions and to not impose my beliefs on them. That said, I think more people would choose to "live smaller" if only the market provided them more options. But for many reasons related to the building industry, inefficiencies, unaccounted-for externalities of resource use, zoning and politics, it doesn't. Which is unfortunate.

Small houses are good for more than just the environment. They can help us address affordability issues, too. One wonders how many more families we could provide affordable homes to if we trimmed a few square feet from each.

(The post's title refers to me, not you or anyone else, big house or small.)

We won't get fooled again...

I really like reading stories like this one about Merriweather's resurgence, especially because it kind of validates what I and so many others were saying several years ago. Namely, Merriweather's viability (or lack thereof) was less related to the condition of the pavilion itself (as was argued by its owner) than it was to the competency of its management, at the time handled by Clear Channel, owners Merriweather's main competitor, Nissan Pavilion.

I mean, what would you expect to happen to Target if the Walton family was put in charge of running it?

Do you see what happens when you install competent managers who aren't faced with an egregious conflict of interest? You get a profitable venue where acts actually want to play. Wow, it's, like, magic!

I really can't say enough good things about IMP. It's time they were given a long term contract. Are you listening, GGP? Goodwill, and all that.

And, of course, all of this reminds me that I need to update the old website.

I walk alone...

The county budget was approved yesterday. Yippee!

My only question (and this isn't meant as a slam): Why did Greg Fox vote against it?

His vote isn't explained in the story and he seemed to be working in good faith on compromises. I thought the final budget votes were more perfunctory than anything else.

Was it a way to avoid being labeled as having voted for higher taxes?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The box with the view of the world...

You know what?

I've been sitting in front of this stupid computer* for the past hour wasting a perfectly good May evening trying to say something profound, witty or, short of those, coherent. And I can't. Not today.

Well, that felt good.

As much as I really want to write about excesses and idiots, they'll have to wait for my scorn (never put your life on hold for things you don't like).

I think I'll go hit some golf balls and try again tomorrow.

*It's not really stupid. I'm just frustrated.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Five feet high and risin'...

It's usually bad form for a blogger to admit ignorance; it destroys the pretense that we actually know what we're talking about.

Well, I've never been accused of having good form, so here's my admission: I don't know enough to actually provide informed comment on any of the stories I'm about to comment one.

First, there's the county budget, which is scheduled to be voted on by the council tomorrow. There appear to be two main sticking points: the fire tax and Belmont.

Three council members -- Republican Greg Fox and Democrats Courtney Watson and Mary Kay Sigaty -- expressed interest in lowering the increase Ulman proposed in the fire property tax, but they did not settle on what to cut to replace the $6 million in new revenue the tax increase would produce. Because the dedicated fire tax must fund only fire department items, any council move to cut the tax would require a companion cut in fire department funding, or an agreement with Ulman to shift funds from another place.

Ulman said he was open to discussion if a council majority desired, but no council member appeared interested in cutting the fire department budget.

Hmm. I wrote about this before and got some helpful feedback, but I'm still sort of in the dark. One thing I do know, however, is that our fire departments have some nice looking apparatuses, many of which were outside my office building yesterday. Sadly, they didn't offer free ladder rides.

The other budgetary issue is Belmont, which I think I know a little more about.

Another proposal to cut $5 million in county funding to allow Howard Community College to buy Belmont, the 18th-century Elkridge estate and conference center, and renovate two buildings had not attracted three votes despite a strong effort by Ellicott City Democrat Courtney Watson, who represents the area. The estate is owned by the college's foundation, which bought it in 2004. But the conference center is losing money and the college wants to eliminate the mortgage debt, while making it a profitable home for its hospitality curriculum.

Watson and critics of the college's program at Belmont want the county to seek state funding and ownership using Program Open Space funds that would restrict what can be built on the historic site.

These arguments seemed compelling until I read this article saying the state wants the county to use it's own money to buy the conference center. What gives?

And since we're on the topic of historic estates, it appears the easements protecting Doughoregan are up and just about anything is on the table.
The end of the agreement with the Maryland Historic Trust, known as a historic easement, allows descendants of Carroll, the Declaration's only Catholic signer, to follow through on plans to develop some of the land to pay for the restoration of their 20-room mansion and 30 other historic buildings while preserving family ownership.

The land covered by the easement is zoned for about 450 homes, and nearby residents say they worry that such development would increase traffic and crowd schools.

"This will probably be the most high-profile easement that ever expired," said Richard Brand, chief financial officer of the Maryland Historic Trust in Annapolis. "Every superlative you can imagine can be used on this property."
It appears there are a few options for the land:
  1. Develop according to existing zoning and infrastructure -- roughly 450 homes, each with well and septic.
  2. Extend public water and sewer to the property and develop the same amount of houses (I think) but cluster them as far as possible from the manor itself (clustering would not be possible without public infrastructure).
  3. Sell the development rights to the county for up to $40,000 per acre.
  4. Some combination of development and preservation.
Now, the story says that "[c]ounty officials have said the family wants to raise at least $20 million," which is certainly possible if the Carrolls get the maximum preservation rate. But, surely, $36 million is less than what they could get from developers.

Such calculations, however, fail to account for the myriad other issues involved in this story. And something tells me there's more to this than what we're reading in the papers.

I'll leave it to you to fill in the blanks.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Now I'm gonna pass the mic...

Rather than writing something of my own today, I'm posting a piece written by a friend of mine. It's an interesting take on what makes Columbia Columbia and is particularly relevant to ongoing discussions about change in our city.

I grew up in Columbia and loved it. When comparing my childhood to my brother's (who was still rather young when we moved away) or any of my non-Columbian friends, I have to say that I had it better.

I was a shy kid, which may be the understatement of the century, but had the comfort of living in a neighborhood full of kids my age. I had the privilege of walking to school with a large group, picking up more walkers along the way. When I came home, I had at least a half a dozen kids ready to play in the cul-de-sac or at the totlot. We didn't spend much time in front of the TV or playing Atari.

When we moved to rural Western Howard, it was a rude awakening. There was no one in my neighborhood my age. There was no place to play or meet people. When I met friends at school, we had to contend with finding parents to drive us one way or another and work around parents' work schedules. As a result, I came home and watched TV and read books. I listened to music. I talked on the phone. I didn't socialize much outside of school until friends started to drive.

This past weekend, I was reminded of all the reasons I always loved Columbia. I thought it was just perhaps me idealizing a childhood free of drama and responsibility. Then, hubby and I went biking around Lake Elkhorn and Oakland Mills. We spent a good hour and a half doing laps around the lake, then riding to the first main stretch we came across, picked up another path, wound through a couple of neighborhoods and made it back to the lake. The entire ride was free of car traffic, in close contact with nature, passing families enjoying the same amenities. I can't believe how much I've missed having neighbors.

I love where we live now. I love our house and I am especially grateful for the luxuries it has provided, namely, our gazillion animals. At the same time, I miss feeling connected to other people. I miss having options such as riding my bike to the village center or lake.

About 8 years ago, I had the opportunity to take a peek at my childhood home. I took a tour from the real estate agent who was listing it for sale for the people who had bought it from my parents (of course I kept this info from the agent). I'd always imagined the house to be totally different from when I lived there. I expected different walls, different colors. I walked in and nothing had changed. Same colors. Same carpet in the living room. Same homemade curtains in the basement. 13 years, different family, and the house hadn't changed.

When hubby and I were done biking, we were famished and looking for food. For old times' sake, we went to Vennari's pizza, where my mom used to treat me to a slice of pizza while she was checking out of the SuperThrift. It had always been my favorite.

It tasted just the same.

It's the same with Columbia. Columbia hasn't changed. The demographics may be changing. There may be new houses and new shopping centers. But Columbia is still Columbia. It still offers connections to people. It still has some of the best amenities the region has to offer, with its open space and community facilities. All this talk and arguing over whether or not a 23 story building will destroy the character of the city that Rouse built is a waste of time.

A lot has changed in the 18 years since I left Columbia. But Columbia hasn't changed. And I don't think it ever will.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Can anybody find me somebody to... and build a deck?

It's actually going to be a bit more than just a deck. We've got a tricky space (a large tree, carport, entryway and privacy wall) and too many varied ideas, which make the design aspect so important.

Obviously, it would be nice to hire someone who does really good work at a really good rate, but if I had to choose between cheap and good, I'll take good. Someone who will let us do some of the work ourselves (with a commensurate discount) would be nice, too.

Any suggestions?

Recommendations earn a cold beer and a veggie burger (or something comparable) at the first party.

And it always goes on and on and on and on and on...and on and on it goes...

Yeah, so I started the day in a pretty grumpy mood. Which is strange because it wasn't humid.

Perhaps I should have stayed away from the sports section of the paper. Though the Orioles' annual tank job is already well underway, what really upset me was the Spurs-Suns playoff game last night. As much as I try to resist non-Wizards NBA basketball, each year after March Madness, it pulls me back, even though I know it'll annoy me for myriad reasons (bad officiating, extremely late game times [10:30 pm!], flopping.)

I'd managed to keep my cool this playoff season, probably because the Wizards were out before things even started. Alas, when one of the league's most loathsome players on one of the most boring teams committed a loathsome act resulting in one of the most loathsome punishment decisions, my outrage returned. Seeing the Suns lose last night (or, rather, seeing them keep a lead through the half and reading about them lose this morning) brought back painful memories all the sports injustices I've ever felt, starting with Jeffrey Maier.

Anyway, as the day went on my mood changed and the blogging below reflects the happy me more so than the grumpy me. Normally, I would have condensed all the pithy posts into a Round Up, but since I'm wildly swinging for 756, I need the stats.

All of this is a long way of saying, keep my chipper mood in mind while you read. It's a beautiful, lighthearted May day, after all.

Better leave her behind with the kids...

Here's a great story about the Columbia Foundation's Next Generation Initiative kick-off event, which took place on Monday at Trapeze in Maple Lawn.

Naturally, Ken Ulman and his minions hog the coverage and there's no mention of the critical role yours truly played in the evening (namely, that guy -- there's always one).

If I can be serious for a minute (I don't know, can you?), the event was a great success and I have very high hopes for the initiative, which aims to promote philanthropy, volunteerism and a stronger sense of community among Howard County's 25 - 49 year-olds.

Much thanks to Candace Dodson Reed and Priscilla Reaver at the Foundation for their work in making this happen, as well as my fellow committee members, all of whom make attending the meetings enjoyable (I know, "enjoyable meetings" is somewhat oxymoronic, but it's true!).

Stay tuned for more information about the initiative and what you can do to get involved.

Why did they cover over the hole I punched in the wall...

Preservation Howard County's list of endangered buildings is out and all three of Frank Gehry's Columbia projects made the cut.

If you remember, when the list was still being discussed a few months ago, Merriweather Post was not included. I like to think my compelling arguments contributed to the ultimate decision to include our beloved concert venue. And, as always, nothing you can say will convince me otherwise.

My life is not a non-stop shopping spree...

We haven't really talked about the budget on this blog, but here's your chance.

As is often the case in the weeks leading up to approval, various officials are debating various cuts. A primary target seems to be the planned county office complex. Because I'm contractually obligated to say only nice things about the current administration, I agree with the position that funding for the project should remain.

But, then, I've spent enough time in the building to know it's a dump.

Who could hang a name on you...

A Ruby Tuesday for River Hill?

The chains are multiplying. Clearly, you can never have too much of a good thing.

Sit on the park bench like bookends...

The Columbia Association sniping continues on the Flier's letters page today, including some pointed remarks about the council's new chair, Barbara Russell, from Owen Brown's Pearl Atkinson-Stewart.

Yes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Here I am, once again at the other end of the spectrum...

For a variety of reasons, the Planning Board is contemplating changing some of its procedures:

The Planning Board is considering enacting a series of proposals that would alter, in some cases significantly, how it functions.

Many of the changes represent little more than housecleaning, but several members of the public urged the board to proceed cautiously.

"You are the voice and face of the public," said Alan Klein, a founder of the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown.

While several proposed revisions were endorsed by the public during a hearing last week, other changes raised concerns.

Klein said it is vital that the board not embrace revisions that make it more difficult for people to challenge proposed development and zoning changes.

Lloyd Knowles, a former member of the board and County Council, said the changes should be deferred until others have reviewed them.

The board in November initiated the examination of its rules and procedures, and the proposed changes were developed by the county Office of Law.

Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, said the intent is to obtain "greater clarity on a number of points," and to have conformity in the board's policies with those of the Board of Appeals and Zoning Board.

"It appears that the Office of Law believes the problem is the community has been too involved," Klein said.

The most troubling changes, according to those who testified, include:

• Eliminating the right of the public at a Planning Board hearing to question witnesses for a developer or person seeking approval of a project or zoning change.

• Reducing to 30 days the time in which the board could revise a decision if "fraud, mistake or irregularity" is later known or suspected.

• Ending the board's biweekly meetings and instead scheduling them as needed.

I can't really speak to the second two bulleted points, but I brought up the first one on the Howard County Citizens Association listserv today. And because I'm lazy, here's what I said:
With respect to the planning board's proposed changes, there seems to be much grandstanding but little actual argument against the proposals. I'm not trying to defend the planning board or even influence their or your decisions, but I would like to know what, specifically, is so bad about these proposals and how, specifically, they shut citizens out of the process.

Reading through the changes and...[the] emails on this listserv, it appears that one of the main points of contention is the idea of limiting who can ask questions of the petitioner's witnesses. I don't see how in any meaningful sense this limits the questions that can be asked and who can offer questions. Citizens can still ask any relevant question they like -- they just have to do so through a representative or spokesperson.

This perhaps holds the prospect of expedited and more efficient meetings. I understand that dragging proceedings out is often an opposition tactic, but doing so (I think) also has the effect of keeping the less hardy (but no less thoughtful) away from such proceedings. That is, people who otherwise might be interested in participating in public processes don't do so because the processes themselves are too onerous and time consuming. The extent that such failure-to-engage occurs is unknown and not-quantifiable, but I have no doubt that it exists.

Regarding blanket denouncements of these changes: I would urge you to read the entire document [note: I can't find the proposal online but if you want it, send me an email]. There are some parts that actually make the process more accessible to citizens -- namely, the provision allowing them to sign up to testify up to the end of the petitioner's case (you currently must sign up on the first day of the hearing in order to testify).
Any thoughts?

Yes, I realize this is a lame attempt to get more content up. Eh, it's almost Friday.

Get on your bikes and ride!

Tomorrow, Friday, May 18, is Bike to Work Day, which is fortuitous for me, as Abbzug's car is in the shop and she'll be driving the Red Dragon. Biking, for her, is not an option, but if it is for you, I strongly urge you to join the fun.

Uh, oh. The weather looks to be questionable. But you know what they say: Biking ain't easy.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone...

It seems the tower won't rise after all... Baltimore.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The postman is about to deliver...

Nine minutes!

That's how long it took after Abbzug's phone call for Columbia's Best Pizza, Vennari's, to arrive piping hot at my door.

Yes, we got it good in Oakland Mills.

Same old story, not much to say...

There's a belief among some (many?) that development in the central Maryland region is akin to a zero-sum game. That is, more development in one area (e.g. Howard County) leads to less development in another (e.g. Baltimore City).

This may be true, to a small extent, but what the idea fails to adequeatly account for are the vast differences between various parts of the region and the complexity of consumer tastes.

Nevertheless, arguments based on this assumption are made against additional development in Howard County and Columbia, because Baltimore City, with it's dwindling population and decaying housing stock, "needs" development.

Rarely, however, is the question asked: Does Baltimore want development?

Just as we can't assume that development is development is development in this region, we can't assume that that is true for Baltimore City, too. Not to sound like a marketing campaign, but Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods. Some really nice. Some... not so much.

Unfortunately (and not to sound cliche) the city is only as strong as its weakest neighborhoods. These are the places where revitalization is truly needed and, in many cases, where it is ongoing, albeit at a slow pace and, regrettably, without resounding success.

The neighborhoods where large-scale, profitable and effective redevelopment projects are being built are precisely the places where it probably isn't "needed" -- like Canton and Federal Hill. These are also, however, neighborhoods where significant development (or, rather, development similar to what has been proposed for Columbia) isn't wanted, either.

Who among the hundreds of people who packed City Hall recently to debate the ever-divisive Icon tower proposal left satisfied?

Certainly not the developer, who hoped the $75 million high-rise he's pushed for two years would inch closer to approval.

Certainly not Canton activists, who wished the City Council committee would vote down the condominium plan they've fought since Day One.

But maybe the politicians, who, by not voting at all, seemed to sidestep a sticky issue with potential for repercussions in an election year.

The council's silence, however, appears to be backfiring. The developer and the Canton community - who seemingly agree on nothing else - are demanding a vote. Both sides want a final answer on the project that has weighed on the waterfront neighborhood for nearly two years.

As a result, a vote could come as soon as tomorrow, officials said late last week.

"It's a head-scratcher for us because it seems like there are people who just don't want the debate to happen," says Marco Greenberg, vice president of Cignal Corp., the Timonium-based firm behind the Icon. "It seems like there's been this effort to hold it back, to delay, to sit on it, and that's what's happening again.

"There's a little bit of gamesmanship being played."

Adds Nancy A. Braymer, a Canton Square resident and Icon opponent: "I think it's important that the elected officials make it absolutely clear what their position on this is."

The Icon faced steep odds going into the April 18 hearing before the council's land use committee. Not only did the councilman representing Canton oppose it, so did Mayor Sheila Dixon.

Dixon and Councilman James B. Kraft had repeatedly said they would follow Canton's lead on the Icon. In other words, if the people who would have to live near the tower didn't want it, they would support them.

The Icon's prospects were so bleak, committee members discussed canceling the hearing altogether. Instead, they just nixed the voting part - a long-favored political tactic that allows officials to essentially shelve unpopular legislation without having to go on the record.

But this time the council didn't just skip the vote - they announced that they were "delaying" it so the city's Transportation Department could finish a report on traffic problems in the southeastern part of town.

...The Icon, a condominium and retail project, would rise about 260 feet, or 23 stories, from what is now a parking lot for the Lighthouse Point shopping center, a nondescript waterfront plaza anchored by a Blockbuster video store.
I'm not quite sure what the point of this now-rambling post is. You could probably say I'm just cherry picking an example of NIMBYism in Baltimore that closely mirrors what we see in Howard County in order to make some snarky point. But that's not the whole story.

I want Baltimore to be a great city and I also want the same for Columbia. Columbia's already great, but it can be better. Baltimore has a long way to go, however.

Which is not to say that it's impossible to turn the city around, but the problems are so much deeper than a lack of development in certain areas and white flight. The problems are as entrenched and interrelated as any we face as a society -- drugs, poverty, crime, deindustrialization (or creative destruction, if you're an overly optimistic and insensitive economist) and, the culmination of them all, a lack of hope. There are parts of Baltimore and other cities that are so fundamentally disconnected from mainstream America and from the typical dreams, goals and opportunities most of us (i.e. suburban folk) share that books are written about kids who simply go to college.

And saying that development in Columbia robs Baltimore of its opportunity for renewal fails to do the situation any justice. Just as housing alone fails to solve any of its problems.

We’ve been searching for decades for a solution to this mess, and although programs have been started, money has been allocated, needles exchanged, houses built, clinics opened, schools chartered, streets patrolled and, naturally, fingers pointed, we’ve accomplished little. Our well-meaning but ineffective policies, like the well-meaning but ineffective politicians who create them, may sometimes pay credence to the scale of the problems but fail to fully acknowledge their scope.

David Simon, creator of The Wire and other fantastic works about Baltimore, has a great take the plight of our cities. He told Reason magazine about a panel discussion he participated in at some think tank:
…I spoke at one of those groups. There came this point where a guy said, "Well, what is the solution? Give me the paragraph; give me the lede. What’s the solution, if not drug prohibition?"

I very painstakingly said: "Look. For 35 years, you’ve systematically deindustrialized these cities. You’ve rendered them inhospitable to the working class, economically. You have marginalized a certain percentage of your population, most of them minority, and placed them in a situation where the only viable economic engine in their hypersegregated neighborhoods is the drug trade. Then you’ve alienated them further by fighting this draconian war in their neighborhoods, and not being able to distinguish between friend or foe and between that which is truly dangerous or that which is just illegal. And you want to sit across the table from me and say ‘What’s the solution?’ and get it in a paragraph? The solution is to undo the last 35 years, brick by brick. How long is that going to take? I don’t know, but until you start it’s only going to get worse."

And the guy looked at me and went, "But what’s the solution?" He said it again. [The Wire co-creator] Ed Burns restrained me.

Monday, May 14, 2007


This is the 700th post on this blog.

The challenge before me, I guess, is to reach 756 posts before Barry Bonds hits his 756th home run, an event I am actually looking forward to.

I love baseball as much as the next curmudgeon/right-wing pundit (deep down I love it more than football -- just don't tell Ray Lewis), but I refuse to get exorcised about Bonds and steroids or to bloviate about the "sanctity of the game" or some such nonsense.

Bonds may be a jerk. He may have used steroids which may or may not have been against the rules at the time. Whatever.

He's just doing what we ask of him: hit baseballs.

For an eminently sane take on performance enhancers in sports, Chuck Klosterman pretty much nails it (PDF).

That's all I'm going to say about that. See below.

Anyway, 700! Woo-hoo!

Where everybody knows your name...

I have lots of thoughts on all sorts of things -- coffee shops, for one. I usually don't share many of such thoughts on this blog, opting instead to offer only those relevant to this little HoCo niche we've created.

Blog-worthy source material, however, has been lacking recently. And rather than just expound on something totally random, I'll just link to an already-written story that includes my thoughts on one sort of thing -- namely, coffee shops.

I really like the story for two reasons: it includes a funny anecdote about my Columbia Council race; and the accompanying picture shows off my extremely large hands.

And, yes, the paper I'm reading in the photo is work related. The smoothie, however, is not.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The grass is always green; it's just the fence that's being mean...

Did you do your homework?

Located on the waterfront in Victoria, British Columbia, Dockside Green is slated to be the first LEED platinum-rated development in the world, which basically means it is as environmentally-friendly as you can get. Comprised of 26 buildings on 15 acres near the city's harbor, the project will include 1,000 apartments, condos and townhouses, in addition to over half a million square feet of commercial and retail space.

The project's list of environmental sustainability features is enough to make even the greenest Green blush. To wit:

Targeting LEED™ Platinum certification and striving to be greenhouse gas neutral, Dockside Green will showcase a variety of sustainable innovations including biomass energy cogeneration, on-site stormwater and sewage treatment, exciting alternative modes of transportation, and a host of other environmental commitments.
In case you don't feel like clicking the links, here are some specific details. First, biomass energy cogeneration:
Rather than burning wood waste, we'll use a thermochemical gasification process to create a synthetic gas that will in turn fuel the engines of Dockside Green's power generator. The input “chemicals” for thermochemical gasification – wood, water and air – are heated in a low-air environment until the wood undergoes gaseous decomposition. The resulting gaseous products are then scrubbed and cleaned before entering the engines, so no smoke is produced – just green electrical energy and clean, odourless flue gases. To avoid noise disturbances, the gasification plant and the engines will be housed in an acoustically isolated building.
The process will be responsible for producing heat for the buildings, with excess being sold to off-site customers. What's more, the use of solar power for hot water and electricity, combined with high efficiency appliances and fixtures, will help Dockside achieve it's goal of being greenhouse gas neutral.

Also interesting is the project's water management system. All sewage will be treated on-site and reused in toilets and irrigation, saving nearly 70 million gallons of water each year (roughly 60 percent less water usage than traditional developments). Moreover, stormwater will be captured by green roofs, cisterns, bioswales and bio-filtration and channeled to a man-made stream running through the middle of the property (something like this was recently discussed on the HCCA listserv). The developers promise that "post development rain event conditions will not exceed the rate and quantity of predevelopment conditions..."

But it doesn't stop there, Dockside's developers also promise to incorporate social and economic sustainability measures, each of which is accounted for in their Triple Bottom Line approach:
Our development plan emphasizes the creation of a healthy and inclusive community that supports new economic opportunities and a high quality of life with minimal impact to the environment.

Our strategy recognizes that triple bottom line components should never be treated as separate targets, independent of one another. Instead, we believe in taking an integrated approach; intertwining economic, environmental and social objectives so that each enhances the attributes of the others, making it difficult to distinguish which specific TBL component a particular tactic is addressing.

Many believe that economics determine what can be done from an environmental or social perspective (the more money you have, the more you can do). While this is true to a certain extent, our approach is to select design features that embrace all the triple bottom line components demonstrating how a commitment to the environment and sustainable New Urbanism pays off in the long run through factors like job creation, improved marketability and energy cost savings.
Among the specific social and economic sustainability features are live/work spaces, affordable housing set asides totaling $3 million, a permanent community liaison group and (my favorite) a provision to keep out chain establishments.

Lest you think these lofty goals are only marketing gimmicks (or "greenwashing"), the developer has promised to set up an ongoing monitoring system to ensure Dockside adheres to this vision and, get this, will pay the city $1 million if it fails to achieve LEED platinum certification for the entire project.

Now, the list of amenities is certainly extensive, but what I really like about the project is its philosophical foundation.

We've talked a lot in Columbia about how to make Town Center development "work" with respect to traffic, infrastructure and whatever definition of community "values" we each hold. But with its focus on creating a complete ecosystem, of sorts, Dockside does us one better.

The project is being designed with a systematic, integrated and closed-loop approach. It's not enough for a variety of pieces to play well together, each building, public space and amenity serves to complement the others and helps create a more holistic, um, whole.

When I look at the Town Center master plan, I don't see this level of thinking. I see a plan overly-constrained by short-sighted feasibility and politics. Of course, our situation is only loosely analogous to Dockside, but the point is still there.

If we want Town Center development to serve as a model of forward thinking and community sustainability, we need to look at the example of Dockside and others like it and ask ourselves how we can raise an already-high bar.

I certainly don't have the answers, but I'll still ask the question.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

In this corner, weighing in at almost every weight imaginable...

I hope to write more about this tomorrow, but in preperation for the discussion, please look at this amazing development project on 15 acres in Victoria, British Columbia.

Here's a snippet from the website:

Situated in the heart of the City of Victoria, Dockside Green is being developed on fifteen acres of former industrial land adjacent to the Upper Harbour and downtown, between the Johnson and Bay Street bridges. With a planned total of 1.3 million square feet of mixed residential, office, retail and industrial space, Dockside Green represents the biggest development of city land in Victoria's history.

Dockside Green will function as a total environmental system in which form, structure, materials, mechanical and electrical systems will be interrelated and interdependent – a self-sufficient, sustainable community where waste from one area will provide fuel for another.
And here's a picture:

But no one ever seems to be digging...

I know at least one person who's expressed "Tower fatigue," but in the absence of other blog-worthy material, I'll draw once more from this dependable well.

In light of the pending proposals to limit height limits in Town Center, which would retroactively apply to the already-approved Tower project, the Sun today describes the ongoing legal debate about such legislation.

The presumption against retroactive laws, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul E. Pfeifer observed, "embodies a legal doctrine centuries older than our Republic."

Even children, he wrote in 2002, "understand this concept - they know, as we all instinctively did, that it isn't fair to change the rules in the middle of a game."

That doctrine, though, is being challenged in Howard County by proposals aimed at the plan for a multimillion-dollar residential and retail tower in Columbia.

The proposals have created a debate on numerous levels, ranging from claims that they are so egregious they would render the county's rules and regulations unpredictable to damaging its business climate to diminishing economic growth to crippling efforts to provide housing to low- and moderate-income families.

One question, though, supersedes all: Would the revisions, if enacted and imposed retroactively, be legal?

What follows is a chorus of yes's and no's from various players involved in this debate. Having not attended law school -- Maryland, Georgetown or otherwise -- I can't speak to the legality of such legislation, though I can say that it strikes me as patently unfair.

But I've said as much before. What I find interesting (and why I'm bringing it up now) is how the second paragraph quoted above complements this, from Cindy V:
1) If the best argument the developers can make “for” the size of the tower is “but you already said we could!” (picture a 12 year old who managed to get you to agree to something which you immediately regretted but are hesitant to renege on because you value your credibility) - which seems to me to be the only valid argument — then the answer needs to be “no”. However, it is important to behave like adults and negotiate a compromise that acknowledges the original error and “gives” a little something extra for the “inconvenience”.
I don't think anyone is using that argument "for" the Tower. They are, however, using it rightly to oppose the legislation.

The arguments for (and for that matter, against) the Tower specifically and tall buildings generally encompass a range of issues -- aesthetics, infrastructure, economics, etc.

The retroactive height limits and the debate surrounding them, however, center on essentially one issue: fairness, one of the most basic and intuitively understood principles of our society.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

It's been one week since you looked at me...

Next Monday promises to be quite a night of fun in Howard County, depending, of course, on your definition of fun.

First, the Columbia Foundation is hosting its first "Next Generation" event from 5:30 to 7:30 pm at Trapeze in Maple Lawn. In addition to the company of many fine people and me, you'll get to hear remarks from County Executive Ken Ulman (no word on what his mode of transportation will be -- I'm guessing helicopter). I'd say more about the Next Generation initiative, but as a member of the Foundation's committee on this matter, I'm obligated to stick to the talking points, something I'm not very good at doing. But you can read more about the event (including RSVP information) and the initiative here.

As one event winds down, another will be ramping up. The Howard County Citizens Association's annual meeting -- Monday, 7:30 pm at the Hawthorn Community Center -- will feature at least six of Howard County's state legislators (a seventh is currently a maybe). See HCCA's website for more information.

And, sadly, that's it for now.

Monday, May 07, 2007

...we'll share this lifetime, you and I...

This was Abbzug and I exactly two years ago this minute.

In case it isn't obvious, today is my second wedding anniversary. And for that reason, I'm going to make this brief.

I know I've been a blog slacker the past few days (while others have been posting up a storm), but between business trips, anniversary activities and the beginning of Extreme Makeover: Yard Edition, writing had to a back seat. Nevertheless, I want to pass on a few links.

First, a new blog has bubbled to the surface: Columbia Talk, written by Dan Beyers, who actually writes for a living (well, how about that?). Welcome to our strange universe, Dan.

Second, Bill Santos writes so I don't have to. Honestly, at this point, I'm just trying to look ahead.

Finally, since weddings are on the brain, Slate has a great piece about the racket that is the wedding business and how easy it is to get caught up in all the spending. As much as I didn't want to spend a lot on our wedding (relatively speaking), I'm glad we didn't cheap-out on the important things -- mainly, the location and food. That said, we are fortunate to have very talented siblings and friends, whose contributions to our nuptials made the day truly special... and a little bit cheaper.

OK, enough with the mush. Blogging time is up.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

I will be your tootsie wootsie...

Round Up time! St. Louis style...

Remember that guy who broke into The Wire's studio in Columbia? Well, it turns out it was all an accident. Kinda. See, he wasn't an obsessed fanboy trying to score Omar's duster jacket (not that I've considered breaking the law, but whenever I pass their studio I think longingly about all the treasures inside); No, he was on an "urban adventure," in which kids (these days!) break into old, usually-vacant buildings just to look around. Back in my day, we didn't need some highfalutin title or lame attempts at quasi-legitimacy for our curiosity-driven trespasses; we just found a creepy, interesting or nearby building...

By "we" I mean "people I knew," naturally.

Ask and it will be yours: Calls for an ombudsman in the Department of Planning and Zoning have been answered. It'll be interesting to see how, if at all, this new position changes the dynamics between citizens and the government.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Having to spend each day the color of the leaves...

Wait, maybe it's easier than we think:

It takes 17 percent of the fossil fuel consumed in the United States to produce the food we eat. The result is three-quarters of a ton of carbon dioxide emissions per person, according to researchers at the University of Chicago. And that doesn't account for the fuel it takes to get the products to market. Food travels an average 1,500 miles before it's bought and eaten. Even carbon-friendly organic food comes with an emissions price tag—the CO2 given off by processing, packaging, and transportation. As organic food becomes mass-produced, there's increasing debate about whether the movement is losing its soul and its ethic of sustainability. Whatever the upside of big organic, there's no question that eating locally grown foods and shopping at your farmers' market help reduce CO2 emissions by cutting down on transport.

Whether you're a carnivore or herbivore also has CO2 consequences. We don't blame you for enjoying the occasional filet mignon. But the average meat eater causes a ton and a half more carbon dioxide emissions for food production than the average vegetarian. Like it or not, your diet can have just as much effect on your carbon emissions as your choice of car. It's like the difference between a Camry, say, and a Prius.

Changes in agricultural practices could reduce U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions by one-fifth, according to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. But until farmers, lobbyists, and Congress get their act together, here are a few things you can do to eat a little greener:

• Buy locally grown food—at the farmers market and in the grocery store. Read labels, especially on produce, to find out where your food is coming from. If you don't see much that's local and you're feeling bold, ask your grocer to stock more produce from the region. (Click here to find a farmers' market near you.)

The Slate article linked at the top has several additional suggestions on how to go green.

Which is a good way of letting you know that this Sunday is opening day of the Oakland Mills Farmers' Market, the only one in Columbia that takes place on a weekend. Whether you're looking for good food, a way to reduce your environmental impact or something fun to do on a Sunday morning, the Farmers' Market is the way to go.