Thursday, January 31, 2008

The hope of a skinny kid with a funny name...

The day after the 2004 presidential elections -- around the time I was called out for being a petulant ass by someone with whom I disagree often but have always respected -- I came home from work feeling horrible. 

Not only had my "guy" -- if you could even call him that -- lost, but our future seemed darker than ever for reasons that had nothing to do with the war, social security, or any other area where decent people can and should disagree.

I was upset with the stupid maps of the country showing blue states as the United States and red states as Jesusland; with the emails telling me how to move to Canada or just telling me to move to Canada; with the idiotic Bushitler and "Imagine No Liberals" t-shirts spreading like invasive weeds; and with all the petty proclimations of superiority and righteousness, from both sides. 

Yes, the divisiveness had fueled me for months, but on that day, the Day After, my tank was empty and I just wanted it all to stop, even though I knew it wouldn't.

So, I walked my dog and ate dinner with my wife. And then I went into my office, sat on the floor and listened to Barack Obama's speech from the Democratic National Convention three months prior. And, as with the first time I heard it, I cried.

Maybe I'm a naive, overly-emotional git who is easily persuaded by a positive message delivered by a once-in-a-lifetime orator, but I can't help feeling now, as I did then, that he really is the Real Deal; that we really are standing at the precipice of a profound transformation; that there really is such a thing as the "politics of hope;" that the true mark of a leader is not what he does, but how he does it; and that deep down, we -- all of us -- recognize that "there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America — there’s the United States of America."

And today, by virtue of an absentee ballot, I added my meager voice to the chorus of millions chanting "Yes We Can" and truly believing that "out of this long political darkness a brighter day will come."

The audacity of hope indeed.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

If I could only get there, then I could enjoy...

There's an interesting dynamic between people, neighborhoods and grocery stores that, had I more time or inclination, I would like to explore further. Perhaps another time.

Suffice to say, you can tell a lot about a community by its grocery store(s). And with all the fuss surrounding the Wegmans, now seems like a good time to take a closer look at the source of the fuss.

Determined to find out just what a Wegmans is and whether its worthy of Columbia (or is it vice versa?), I set out last Sunday for Hunt Valley to see first hand how -- in this day, in this community -- a big-box development could actually rouse as many supporters as opponents.

I'm certainly not one to shy away from hyperbolic love for grocery stores, but some of the odes to Wegmans I'm hearing are making even me blush.

So, here, with pictures, is my take on The Wegmans Experience.

Unfortunately for the Hunt Valley Wegmans, it's in Hunt Valley, which now has one of those vanilla Town Centers -- basically a mall without a roof or, perhaps more fittingly, Disneyworld's Main Street without large stuffed animals. To say these projects represent some great advancement in community/retail planning and development is kind of laughable, but hey, people seem to like them.

But in its favor, Hunt Valley's lifestyle center has transit.

So, there's that.

Anyway, I didn't go to look at stores that we have in Columbia. I went to see this:

Let's take a look inside.

Hey, a "Convenience Case" with milk and butter right up front. That's nice, if a bit silly in concept for a store like this.

Lots of prepared food in the "restaurant" part.

Bagged salads galore, always good for the health-conscious family on the go.

Plenty of fresh produce, too, and, as advertised, it all looked pretty good.

(That's the best picture of produce I got. Sorry.)

Although the size is a little overwhelming at first, Wegmans does a good job of clustering things to make the store feel like a collection of smaller, specialty shops. For instance:




Kosher stuff.

Cliff bars. (By the box!)

And this, which I dubbed the "Trader Joe's" section.

Navigation, at least on Sunday, was tricky. Not only was it super crowded with many folks wandering around, mouths open, soaking up the enormity of it, but the middle lane that breaks up each aisle served mainly as a traffic bottleneck. Which was frustrating at times.

The "traditional" section had everything you'd expect to find at your local grocer, including, importantly, a healthy selection of Utz.

Despite the crowds, check out was quick, with plenty of lanes open and many without any line whatsoever.

I was less impressed with the total cost, however. Even with a bunch of store brand products in my cart, I easily spent more than I would for a normal trip to Food Lion or Trader Joe's. But unlike those stores, I can complete my entire shopping trip at Wegmans. (Ah, if only Trader Joe's sold Coke and Gatorade.)

The million dollar question, then, is: Will I do my routine shopping at Wegmans once it opens in Columbia?

Unfortunately, I can't say. Sure, it's big and nice and full of good food. But it's size, in my opinion, is actually a drawback. One of the things I like most about Trader Joe's is that its small and manageable, though it, too, can get crowded.

That said, comparing the experience at Wegmans to Trader Joe's probably isn't fair to Wegmans. Trader Joe's has built its reputation, to an extent, on its quirkiness, which alone helps make for a more enjoyable and entertaining experience. Wegmans serves a different need, one that is perhaps less in line with what I'm looking for than with what others want.

Also, when it comes to food, I'm a creature of habit. Ask anyone who knows me and they'll tell you I have a very consistent diet. For instance, I've had the same lunch -- apple sauce, sugar snap peas (sometimes carrots), yogurt, crackers, chips, protein bar, pistachios, and some other random fruit (the wild card) -- for the past three years.

So, for me, what's the point of going somewhere that has everything I need and a million other things I don't? If I'm not saving money, am I at least saving time by making one lengthy stop instead of two shorter ones?

(Aside: An interesting anecdote that relates to elements of the controversy surrounding the Columbia Wegmans. Thrice, while eavesdropping on other shoppers (a bad habit of mine), I heard folks extolling Wegmans' treatment of its employees and how it is consistently ranked among the best places to work.)

Monday, January 28, 2008

The unobtrusive tones on the news tonight...

Perhaps you heard about this:

James T. Smith Jr. will report to work tomorrow in the county executive's office, but it won't be the one in Towson.

As the result of being on the losing end of a high school football wager, the Baltimore County executive will start his morning working as an assistant in Howard County Executive Ken Ulman's office in Ellicott City. Smith then will go to River Hill High School in Clarksville to speak to a government class, and the two executives will serve lunch to the River Hill football team's players and coaches, according to Smith's office.

Well, here's the video (with a fleeting shot of the back of my head!).

Thursday, January 24, 2008

You've got to give a little...

There hasn't been much discussion recently about Downtown. Is this the calm before the storm?

Or are we entering into a new era of community planning, one without acrimony and division?

Either way, General Growth seems to have heard the "more openness, more meetings" refrain from the community. Columbians, by nature, never seem to tire of meetings, but after the GGP Downtown blitz, even the most hardened meeting mavens may find themselves begging for mercy.

General Growth Properties Inc. will release the draft as part of a four-step public review of the plan that will include several meetings in which company officials will take input on the plan from residents before submitting it to Howard County officials for approval, according to a statement the company released Jan. 17.

…Prior to releasing the draft on April 28, General Growth officials will conduct two preliminary meetings designed to allow residents to question the heads of firms that are playing lead roles in designing the plan…

The firms are the Massachusetts-based Sasaki Associates Inc., which specializes in landscape architecture and will develop the pedestrian areas, and the New York-based Cooper Robertson and Partners, which is designing the plan for buildings and streets.

The meeting with Sasaki principal Alan Ward is slated for March 5, while the meeting with Jaquelin Robertson, a founding partner of Cooper Robertson, is scheduled for March 9.

The company also could add a public meeting with a transportation consultant before the draft plan is released, said Gregory Hamm, General Growth's regional vice president and general manager for Columbia.

…After releasing the draft April 28, General Growth officials will hold public meetings with each of Columbia's 10 villages to gauge residents' reactions to the plan and additional forums to collect reaction on specific aspects of the plan, including transportation, the environment, housing, and arts and cultural opportunities, according to company officials.

If my math is right, which it rarely is, I count at least 16 meetings (assuming one for each village). Wowser.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Time is the essence...Time is the season...

While in graduate school a few years back, I developed a strange fixation with oysters. 

Now, I've never eaten them and never plan to, but I found the story of the native Chesapeake Bay bivalves fascinating -- I mean, people fought wars over them! 

My oyster obsession led to several papers on the topic of their restoration -- which after over half a century of effort has actually left them worse off than before intervention -- and ultimately culminated in a policy memo arguing not for or against any specific polices, but rather a new approach to policy. To wit:
Despite the insistence of many intelligent individuals to the contrary, the problem plaguing oyster recovery efforts is not an inability to overcome the diseases; rather, the problem is an inability to overcome our dogmatic approach to issues of ecology and economics. The first question posed above asks what we have done wrong, and the answer is simple: we have mistaken the oyster situation for a single problem and therefore have generated single-minded policies to address it. In reality, we are faced with two distinct problems, one involving oysters and one involving watermen. And, to define these problems only in their joint context fails to account for the broader range of issues involved in both. The perfect example of our outmoded framework for addressing these issues is the current debate over the introduction of the non-native oyster Crassostrea ariakensis (Chinese Oyster). Proponents of the plan stress that these oysters would be able to supply watermen with a viable livelihood, while also increasing the Bay’s water quality; it sounds too good to be true because it is. When freed of the desire to find a single panacea for these two problems, we can finally begin to individually address the real needs of maintaining the oysters’ water filtration capacity and improving the sustainability of the watermen and their harvests by creating adequate levels resource stock, oysters or otherwise.
Of course, I was writing this to get a grade and not so much to change policy, but prior to my ill-fated stint with the State Department of Natural Resources, the memo found its way into the hands of policy makers, who at the time weren't too keen on taking advice from some Longhair with a nebulous job title.

Nevertheless, despite its glacial pace, State government has proven me prescient.
Maryland should move toward an aquaculture-based oyster industry while at the same time trying to restore natural oyster bars for ecological benefits, according to a task force report.

The Maryland Oyster Commission's 2007 interim report does not call for a moratorium on the harvest of oysters nor for an end to public subsidies for harvest programs. Rather, it says the state should over the next two decades change how it manages oysters.

"People understand that what we've done in the past is not working, and that we do have to take some dramatic steps," said Bill Eichbaum, commission chairman and vice president of the World Wildlife Fund. "We have at least put down benchmarks that are different from what's been done in the past."

The state has convened numerous panels to discuss oyster restoration over the years, and each has tried to balance the ecological benefits of keeping oysters in the water with the economic interests of watermen. The new report says economic and ecological goals for oysters are "mutually incompatible." The oyster population is at 1 percent of its historic levels.
(Bolding mine.)

I'm not trying to claim credit or even pat myself on the back (well, maybe a little). Perhaps I'm just proving the cliche about a broken clock being right twice a day -- personally, I prefer "the sun even shines on a dog's ass some days," but that's neither here nor there.

What is here, however, is the fact that with a new approach to oyster recovery we might finally start seeing some real progress, which, no matter how you shuck it, is very good thing.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Mama I'm coming home...

Back in the good old days of this blog, an editorial like the one in today's Examiner was pure gold.

Seriously, it has more holes than a donut shop and my previous, more antagonistic self would have loved the opportunity to point out every single one.

In today's climate, however, I should probably take a more conservative tack.


Alas, this is the path I've chosen and the price I must pay for the wealth fame power…uh, benefits of my job.

Anyway, the editorial in question attacks Howard County's inclusionary zoning policy, also known as the Moderate Income Housing Unit program. This program is nearly identical to many others around the country, so in reality, the editorial's target seems to be inclusionary zoning itself.

The Examiner's problem with inclusionary zoning seems to be that "it discriminates against everyone else as it drives prices up on other homes."
In Howard County, a family of four with a household income of $75,408 qualifies to apply for the moderate-income housing program. Once approved, that family can purchase a condo or town home for a discounted rate in area developments.

At Ryan Homes' Elkridge Crossing, the moderate-income housing condos sell for $178,067 and town homes for $204,044. Regularly, those properties sell for about $260,000 to $330,000. Any way you slice it, that is a huge discount on a luxury home. Condos at Elkridge include a sun room, two full baths, an open kitchen and patio.

This is patently unfair to other county residents. How would you feel If you were a family of four with a household income of $94,260 — the median household income in the county? Why should the extra $18,852 you make each year force you to sometimes pay more than $100,000 more for the same property?

The program has other repercussions. A number of studies, including one from the California-based Reason Foundation, find that inclusionary housing policies, like rent control policies, reduce the supply of housing — driving demand up with prices.
(Huh. No mention of the patently unfair nature of the biggest housing boondoggle of them all and a bigger cause of increased home prices, the mortgage interest deduction?)

Rather than untangle the arguments from the outrage in this editorial, I'm going to focus on the source of its claims. In this case, the Reason Foundation and its free market dogma.

Reason has long been an opponent of affordable housing policies. The study mentioned by the Examiner is one of several produced by the libertarian think tank criticizing inclusionary zoning because, mainly, it distorts the "free market." These studies throw around numbers detailing the supposed costs of inclusionary zoning, which are always -- surprise! -- frighteningly high.

But what, then do you do when the market is clearly failing to provide the optimal outcome -- in this case an adequate mix of housing for people of all incomes  -- like the textbook says it always does? 

Thankfully, Reason has a bunch of recommendations in their handy report New Approaches to Affordable Housing: Overview of the Housing Affordability Problem (PDF). Here they are:

  • Modify explicit and implicit land use and growth controls to allow homebuilders and developers the opportunity to meet demand quicker.
  • Increase civil service compensa tion in select areas where incomes do not reflect high housing costs.
  • Encourage the use of market innovations such as location-efficient mortgages.
  • Assist and leverage grassroot, volun teer organizations such as Habitat for Humanity (HFH).
  • Use local flexible housing vouch ers to EITC (Earned Income Tax Credit) eligible households.

I don't know whether to laugh or cry: Several of those recommendations demonstrate a stunningly poor understanding of economics, markets and development.

For instance, while the basis for the first – that land use and growth controls raise the cost of housing – is true, removing such controls would then cause another, perhaps worse market distortion.


Because growth imposes costs on existing communities, and as everyone who has ever taken Econ 101 knows, actions that impose costs on others are known as "negative externalities." In order for markets to work as wonderfully as they do in theory, the costs of these externalities need to be paid for both those who create them. The report singles out "impact fees" as a problem, but such fees are perhaps the perfect example of compensation for negative externalities, yet Reason doesn't like them because they screw up the market. I don't get it.

But why don't we just raise civil service pay to bring it in line with housing prices? That's a solution I can get behind, but it probably won't help the affordable housing situation because…because…throwing more money into the economy causes inflation ( i.e. increase in prices). Oh, well.

There is also the location-efficient mortgages idea, which would allow higher income-to-debt-payment ratios in certain high cost areas. Right, because screwing with mortgage practices hasn't contributed to any housing bubbles or problems in the credit market.

As for leveraging volunteer groups like Habitat to build more affordable housing, I'm all for it. Habitat does great work – 50,000 houses in 30 years across the U.S. I'm not sure how much of an impact it can have on prices, however, when for-profit residential builders knock out just shy of 2 million houses…each year.

I'm not even going to comment on the last one, because, well, I didn't really bother reading about it. But I think I've made a point in here somewhere…


Oh, yeah…This affordable housing stuff is hard. Drawing supply and demand curves helps illustrate basic points, but in our complex reality, "X" rarely marks the spot.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Hey, monkey, where you been...

Happy New Year!


First post of the new year. Sad, I know.


So, I'm sitting here at my kitchen table, writing what's going to be a pretty lame post, when I hear a loud bang coming from the deck. Just in time, I turn my head to see a hawk flying from our new bird feeder towards a pine tree just beyond the fence with a much smaller bird in its talon. After a quick stop on one of the pine branches, the hawk flies off to find a less exposed place to enjoy its lunch. 

Needless to say, the feeder, which had been covered with birds all day, is now wanting for patrons.

Here's a picture of the scene of the attack. If you look close enough you might be able to see a few downy feathers still floating in the air.

Anyway, the real point of this post was to explain the lack of posts over the past couple weeks. I've been consumed with a project at work, which will come to fruition on Tuesday. Until then, here's a picture I was able to snap with my new camera (woo-hoo! thanks, Abbzug) during a brief respite from the grind last weekend.