Howard County Blog

A Blog on what is going on in Howard County

Monday, January 30, 2006

Affordable Housing

The Interfaith Coalition of Affordable Housing will be meeting from 9am to 10:30am at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center. I highly encourage all who can make it to stop by.

The Focus Group will be discussing MIHU (Moderate Income Housing Units) at its meeting on Wednesday from 3pm to 5:30pm also at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center.

I wrote on January 26th that the starting point for discussing affordable housing should be what are the incomes of the people who work in our community. The median income, which is currently used in these discussions, only gives us the middle point of the distribution, but tells us nothing else about the nature of the income distribution. The most recent census data I have been able to find is 1999 household income distribution from the 2000 Census:

Household Income__Number of Households__% of County Households
Less than $10,000__________2,802___________________3.1
$10,000 to $14,999_________1,598____________________1.8
$15,000 to $24,999_________4,594___________________5.1
$25,000 to $34,999_________6,404___________________7.1
$35,000 to $49,999_________10,756__________________11.9
$50,000 to $74,999_________19,397__________________21.5
$75,000 to $99,999_________15,821__________________17.6
$100,000 to $149,999_______17,661___________________19.6
$150,000 to $199,999________6,524___________________7.2
$200,000 or more___________4,545___________________5.0

The flaw in this data is that it records county residents and not county workers, so there may be teachers, police, firefighters, and service sector employees that have already been forced to live outside the county by housing prices so they are not reflected. Despite that I think this data should be eye opening that the $74,000 median income number that is being used is not very reflective of our community’s needs.

The other part of this equation is that if we use the standard that a person can afford a mortgage or a rent equal to a mortgage on a housing unit worth three times their anual income, then the household making $74,000 in a year could afford a housing unit costing $222,000. Considering that a one bedroom one bath condo in Kings Contrivance went for $205,000 a couple months ago, the problem of affordable housing is very pressing.

Gas Prices

Exxon reported $10.7 billion dollars (yes that is billion with a B) in profits in the fourth quarter for more than $36 billion of profits for the year. To put that in perspective:

[That $36 billion is] bigger than the economies of 125 of the 184 countries ranked by the World Bank. Profit rose 42 percent from 2004, largely due to soaring oil and gas prices.

Something to think about next time you are at the gas pump or there is talk of the corporate welfare stuffed Energy Bill passed by our Congress.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Focus Group Meeting this Week

The next Focus Group meeting on Columbia's downtown will be this Wednesday. The Focus Group meetings will now be held at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center from 3 pm to 5:30 pm. It is unfortunate that they have these meetings during the work day when many residents cannot make it, but I highly encourage anyone who can to come and bring friends and neighbors who may be interested. Here is the agenda.

New Guest Blogger

I am pleased to welcome a new blogger, who will be posting here at Howard County Blog. His name is Ken Stevens and he follows local politics closer than anyone else I know. He is a retiree and new to this blogging thing, so bear with him as he learns how to post.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Teacher's Pay and Middle Income Housing

Meredith L. Jaffe of Ellicott City has a great letter to the editor in the Howard County Times:

In his Jan. 12 column ("Is affordable-housing issue one we can afford to ignore?"), Doug Miller asserts that middle-income housing, i.e. housing for people making 80 to 110 percent of the county median income, will help the county's teachers and police officers. As the median salary in Howard County is almost $75,000 per household, 80 percent is just over $59,000 per year. The median salary for a teacher in the school system is $45,426, or 61 percent of the median.

A teacher with a master's degree would need to have been teaching for 13 years in order to be considered middle-income.

This raises an important question:

How should we determine the income mix in the mixed income housing desired by about 90% of the people at the charrette?

I have heard a lot of people talking about percentages of the median income in the county, but this strikes me as an irrelevant number. The median income finds the middle of the income distribution and doesn't tell us very much about the full distribution. To truly have mixed income housing you need housing for the entire range, preferably in proportions matching what people in the community can afford. Thus the starting point for mixed income housing needs to be: what are the incomes earned by the jobs in the community?

A lot of people in our community work for the Federal Government so this could be a good starting point. The government pay scale in our area is:

Grade 1 Step 1 - $19,214
Grade 2 Step 1 - $21,602
Grade 3 Step 1 - $23,571
Grade 4 Step 1 - $26,460
Grade 5 Step 1 - $29,604
Grade 6 Step 1 - $33,000
Grade 7 Step 1 - $36,671
Grade 8 Step 1 - $40,612
Grade 9 Step 1 - $44,856
Grade 10 Step 1 - $49,397
Grade 11 Step 1 - $54,272
Grade 12 Step 1 - $65,048
Grade 13 Step 1 - $77,353
Grade 14 Step 1 - $91,407
Grade 15 Step 1 - $107,521

If you are starting with a college degree you are probably starting at a GS 5 Step 1 or a GS 7 Step 1 and if you are starting with a Masters degree you are probably starting with either a GS 7 Step 1 or a GS 9 Step 1. This means that many young professional in our area will have salaries in the $30,000 to $45,000 range. If the calculation of what a person can afford to purchase is three times their annual income, then these young professionals would be looking for properties in the $90,000 to $135,000 range. You currently cannot find a condo in Howard County in that range, nor are there very many apartments that could be rented by people making this range of income. When I bought my one bedroom one bath condo 2.5 years ago I bought it for $110,500. A couple months ago an identical unit went for $205,000.

To figure out what income-level mix in housing units we need it is important to get a better sense of the income ranges. How many jobs in the area pay less that $25,000 a year? How many pay $25,001 to $35,000? How many pay $35,001 to $45,000? How many pay $45,001 to $55,000? How many pay $55,001 to $65,000? How many pay $65,001 to $75,000? How many pay $75,001 to $100,000? How many pay over $100,000?

So we have looked a the federal pay scale, what are the other income levels of common employment groups in the area? Let's make this a collective research project. Please post in the comments or email me salaries for the jobs in the region. What do teachers make? What do fire fighters make? What do policemen make? What do nurses make? What do service industry workers make? What do facorty workers make? What do construction workers make? What do small business owners make? What do barbers and hair stylists make? Let me know about any profession you can think of that we have in this area.

Howard County Population Growth

Some food for thought. Here are the US Census population totals for Howard County for the last century:

2005 Estimate: 269,457
2000: 247,842
1990: 187,328
1980: 118,572
1970: 61,911
1960: 36,152
1950: 23,119
1940: 17,175
1930: 16,169
1920: 15,826
1910: 16,106
1900: 16,715

The population size was relatively constant around 16,000 people until the 1940s. Starting in the 1950s the population started to climb. From 1950 to 2000 the population increased more than tenfold. In 1980 the population of the county as a whole was only slightly larger than Columbia is today (Columbia’s population is currently about 100,000).

Terps Win!

Final score MD 86 - GA Tech 74. Go Terps!

They have a couple games against unranked teams to get use to playing without McCray. What do people think of their prospects this season?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Terps Fans

The Howard County Terrapin Club and University of Maryland Alumni Club will be hosting a game watch for the MD vs. GA Tech men's college basketball game tonight (Wednesday, Jan. 25th). There is no cover charge or RSVP to attend. Wear your red and white and bring all of your Terrapin Spirit and friends!

Date: Wednesday January 25, 2006 at 7 pm Tip-off
Location: The Champps Restaurant next to The Columbia Mall

For more details, contact Denise Del Vecchio Collins at

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Focus Group Meetings

I just got an email from the Department of Planning and Zoning saying that the Columbia Downtown Focus Group meetings' location has been changed. The Focus Group meetings will now be held at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center. The last two planned Focus Group meetings will be from 3 pm to 5 pm on February 1st and February 15th. It is unfortunate that they have these meetings during the work day when many residents cannot make it, but I highly encourage anyone who can to come.

Mall to Merriweather Promenade

One of the good things in the proposal for downtown Columbia is a wide promenade from the food court exit of the Mall to Merriweather/Symphony Woods.

This should create a great walking axis if done correctly. If it is just a wide median in a road between office buildings it will fail, but if it is a well done urban park between fully mixed use buildings with restaurants and retail on the ground floor and BOTH office space and residential above then it will create a superb walking axis. Unfortunately the current plan excludes residential from the Corporate Boulevard zone (blue zone in above graphic). This will kill this area at night, by removing eyes from the street and thus making it more likely that crime will occur. Of course the easy fix is to integrate residential units into the buildings in the Corporate Boulevard. The residential units can even have separate entrances from the building if corporate users don't want to share. The developer should love this idea because there is a high demand for residential units right now and no market demand for office space. I would think that the same type of resident that would want to live in the Crescent zone would like to live between Merriweather and the Mall.

In addition to adding residential to keep the zone alive after work hours the promenade will need to have the right landscaping, street art, and benches to draw people to spend time there. Here are some examples:

This is Edmonton, Canada:

This is Prague, Czech Republic:

Both are lively promenades with street art and landscaping that draws people out to enjoy them and are in fully mixed use areas.

As always it is the details that determine the success or failure of the plan.

Sunday, January 22, 2006


During the charrette the consultant tried to make a case for having a grid road network downtown. The idea they tried to sell was that by creating a grid you increase routes people can take, thus spreading out traffic and allowing the road system to handle a higher volume of traffic. Sounds like a great theory, but like everything else in life the details matter. To plop a bunch of intersecting roads down on a map to create a block structure does not create a grid system that accomplishes the theory’s desired expedited traffic. People are always going to take the easiest route between where they are and where they want to go. Roads that don’t connect car destinations will not be desirable to drivers. Roads that force drivers to zigzag from road to road to cut through will not be used by drivers.

Let’s look at the proposed “Urban Design Plan Street Framework”:

Look at the number of zigzags and dead end streets are on the north end of downtown under the plan:

How will a driver navigate these interchanges and many others (if I added green circles for each problem intersection they would block out the street framework)?

The more changes of roads a driver must make the harder it is for drivers not familiar with the area to find their way to where they are going. As we all know people from outside Columbia are constantly complaining of getting lost in Columbia. Will a grid system fix this? Not if it is made up of short non-through streets that people have to zigzag. I count at least a dozen streets that are only one block long and that doesn’t count the two or three block long streets. Then there are the Y-shaped intersections that will confuse drivers.

Little Patuxent Parkway is still the only north-south road that doesn’t require additional turns.

The only new east-west through street is the Corporate Boulevard.

Will this plan really satisfy the “grid” concept to achieve the results of the consultant’s theory?

Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Canvas on Which We Live Our Lives

One of the decisions with the most impact on our day to day lives is where buildings and roads are built, how they are designed, and what they contain. These decisions are the canvas on which we live our lives. How easy is it to get from home to work or the store? Do we have places to gather as a community, enjoy time with friends, make new friends if we want, and to collect our thoughts in peace? Do we spend all of our time in traffic or searching for parking?

The location and design of buildings and roads are not accidents, but planned developments. Buildings and roads cost a lot of money and when they are built a community is generally stuck with them for a long time. Thus a community must make sure that when buildings are built they are built in the best way for both long term economic viability and to promote and not detract from the quality of life in the community.

It is on these grounds that I am gravely concerned about the new 22 story building that the Planning Board just approved. The nature of a condo building is a developer builds it and then sells off its units to individuals. Thus the financial interest of the developer is only for short term sales. In a housing market like the one we are currently in, the interests of the developer is simply to build it fast because they know that anything they build will sell. Thus the developer has no market incentive not to leave the community with a blight.

Nowhere is this problem in the 22 story building more apparent than in parking. The developer is building only 1.5 parking spaces per residential unit and many of these spaces are tandem parking (where cars park behind each other blocking each other in). Anyone who has ever parked in an underground garage in DC knows how cramped and hard to maneuver in garages can be. Now imagine the strains of constantly moving cars in such a cramped space puts on everyday life. Imagine the additional cost of nicks and scratches cars will inevitably get in such a place. Now imagine someone who has bought a half million to a million dollar condo putting up with this parking situation for long. If the housing market declines it is just such units as these that will be the first to decline. And if that happens the developer will have gotten their money and be long gone and the community will be left with a blight.

This is why new construction must be well thought through. This is why the community’s interests must have the final say. This is why our elected officials and those they appoint must look out for the community’s long term interests. This is why who we elect matters so much because it has such a major impact on the canvas on which we live our lives and we have a power through our vote shape that canvas.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Planning Board Approves 22 Story Building

On Wednesday the Planning Board approved the 22 story building in the Lakefront zone of Columbia's downtown. Here is an image of the building that was published in the Washington Post:

(Photo Credit: WCI Communities Inc. And WDG Architecture)

Note the private pool on the roof. Note that the Post article says the condos will be priced: "from $500,000 to more than $1 million". So now we are talking about condos worth over $1 millions.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

At Wednesday’s Focus Group

There was a number of interesting issues discussed at Wednesday’s Focus Group meeting. Here are a couple, tell me what you think:

  • The current plan has the Mall existing in a donut hole that is not covered by any of the zones. How should the Mall be dealt with? Should it be left out to be dealt with later? Should future redevelopment of each side of the Mall reflect the characteristics of the zone it borders?
  • What happens to the parking decks that currently are also in the Mall donut hole?
  • How do we guarantee mixed uses?
  • Does mixed use imply within buildings or within a zone? Dennis Miller representing General Growth (the developer that bought Rouse) said that his understanding was that buildings could have a single use within a mixed use zone. (Editorial Note: The most commonly expressed thing I heard at the charrette was that the community wanted all of downtown to be mixed use. I understood this to mean mixed within buildings. If a building is not fully mixed it means that there is a dead street in front of the building during parts of the day and thus less eyes on the street and more likelihood for crime to occur when there is no witnesses.)
  • There was some discussion of the relationship between market forces and community needs. (Editorial Note: I am going to write a future blog post on this topic.)
  • Bob Tennenbaum asked if school sites would be counted as open space and Marsha McLaughlin answered that “schools are considered open space”. (Editorial Note: This raises the question of where the school sites would be? If that statement means (and I hope I am wrong about this) that schools would be built on the marked open space lands like Symphony Woods, which is really the only large open space plot in the plan, then this raises a large number of concerns. I will try to get an answer from the Department of Planning and Zoning and post it here. {Update: I had a chance to talk to Bill Mackey at the Department of Planning and Zoning on Jan. 24th and he told me that schools would not be built on designated open space. This is good, but it still doesn’t answer where schools will be built.})
  • There was some discussion on whether the path around the lake should go all the way around the north edge or should cross a bridge at the current island in the middle.

  • There was discussion of the need to expand the “Core Area” at the lakefront one block north and along the entire lake’s edge and west to Little Patuxent Parkway.

  • There was discussion of the elevation change from the intersection of Little Patuxent Parkway - Brokenland Parkway and Twin Rivers Road - Brokenland Parkway and how walkability will be affected by that.
  • There was discussion of the need for connectivity and transition from the Warfield Triangle Zone and the Crescent Zone which are currently cut off from each other by the Corporate Boulevard Zone. (Editorial Note: To me this is made more concerning by the fact that the Corporate Boulevard is not planned to have any residential units and as a result will be a dead area at night where crime is more likely to occur.)
  • The Focus Group members also requested more discussion of affordable housing, density, community/civic spaces, and traffic. (Editorial Note: After the meeting I mentioned to Steve Lafferty that I thought parking should also have further discussion, but since I am not on the Focus Group I am not sure if this will be added to the list for further discussion.)

There were a number of other issues discussed (some I plan to get to in future posts), but in the meantime if anyone else who was at the Focus Group meeting wants to add anything I missed or correct me if I got something wrong please use the comments section to do so and disclose who you are so other readers know. If I made an error that you do not want to comment on yourself please email me and I will update with the appropriate correction.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Wednesday's Focus Group Meeting on Columbia's Downtown

You can view the agenda for the Focus Group meeting here and check out the Draft Urban Design Guidelines (Part 1) and the Draft Urban Design Plan that will be discussed at the Focus Group. Let me know what you think in the comments or email me at

One thing I notice is that the Street Framework in the Draft Urban Design Plan has Wincopin Street that would run through the Hug statue area with its trees and benches and on the top edge of the grass amphitheater is marked as a primary road.

The Next Focus Group Meeting will be on Wednesday

The next Focus Group meeting on Columbia's downtown planning will be on Wednesday, January 18th from 3 pm to 5 pm in the Ellicott Room of the George Howard Building, 3430 Court House Drive, Ellicott City, MD 21043. They don't have an agenda posted as of Monday night, but the topic is suppose to be "Review of Design Guidelines". At past Focus Group meetings the public has been welcome to sit and observe the meetings, though not to comment. If you don't have to be at work Wednesday afternoon, you should come by. I will post a link to the Design Guidelines as soon as the county posts them.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Martin Luther King Day

In honor of Martin Luther King Day it might be worth noting how far we have come and how the planning of Columbia moved King’s dream forward. The hardest thing for me to comprehend growing up was that my parents had lived during a time when there was segregation. I grew up in what my peers and I call the “Columbumble”. It is that little utopia of Rouse’s creation that among its features encourages people to interact with people of all backgrounds and by getting to know each other as individuals breakdowns stereotypes. Through all the housing being mixed income and using community design concepts that bring people together Rouse encouraged people to interact with each other. Now we may complain and joke about some of these community design concept, such as not allowing private swimming pools, but how many friendships grew as kids played together at the community pools. And yes, the cluster mailboxes only brought people together when people’s mail ends up in each other boxes and neighbors have to bring the misdirected mail to each other. But other concepts like the fenceless yards encouraged some great neighborhood football games and movement and interaction of people. And of course one of the most successful of concepts of the Interfaith Meeting Houses, that welcomed and encouraged the interaction of people of different faiths. These are all small items, but together Rouse used them to build an experience that encouraged kids to interact and growing up knowing people as individuals and weakening stereotypes.

Yet, how will future development plans affect the further progress of the breaking down of stereotypes? The proposed 22 story condo building for the Lakefront is proposed to have half million to a million dollar condos and a private pool on the top level. Not only is this not mixed income, but by including a private pool it further breaks down one of the traditional mixing devises Rouse used to breakdown stereotypes and build community.

Let us continue to plan our community to reach Martin Luther King’s dream:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Where would the southern extention of Wincopin Street go?

Part of the current proposal for downtown Columbia is to turn Wincopin Circle into Wincopin Street, which would be a north-south parallel to Little Patuxent Parkway between Little Patuxent and the lake. Here is a picture of where Wincopin Street would go:

This picture is taken from the southern end of the current Wincopin Circle (where it ends in front of the CA Builds) looking south. On the right is the American Cities Building. Straight ahead where the road would go is the trees, benches, and Hug statue. If you look to the left while standing in these trees this would be your view:

The proposed road would run along the top edge of the grass amphitheater.

An alternative would be to have the road end where it currently does and then leave the trees, benches, and Hug statue, then south of the trees have a pedestrian only street. Pedestrian only streets are very common in European cities and create wonderful urban parks and gathering places. Here is an example of a pedestrian only street:

Next Planning Board Work Session on 22 Story Condo Building Proposed for Lakefront Zone

The Planning Board will hold a work session on Wednesday, January 18th at 10 am on the proposed 22 story condo building to be located off Wincopin Circle in the Lakefront zone. Though the public will not be able to speak at the meeting, those who are interested and don't have to work during the day can observe the meeting.

The current proposal for the building is for half million to a million dollar condos. This seems completely out of character with the mixed income housing the community said they wanted at the charrette. The community said they wanted all of downtown to be mixed income. If we do not do mixed income at the building level, then the buildings that are lower income will have a harder time raising the money necessary for maintenance and the potential for blighted buildings increases. It is in the community's interests to have all downtown buildings be mixed income and certainly a building of this size that will be kicking off the redevelopment of downtown should including mixed income.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Liz's Meeting Today

Thank you to those who came out to Liz Bobo's meeting this afternoon. We had a great turnout. Let me know in the comments section what you thought or email me at

The Current Proposed Plan

The specs for the diverent zones are:

* 4 to 6 stories along lake with 8 to 20 stories in rest of zone (It is unclear where the lines between these height areas will be. In addition, a 22 story condo building to go where Wincopin Circle currently is containing half million to a million dollar condos is already in the approval process though not yet approved. )
* 1,500 to 2,500 Residential Units
* 150,000 to 275,000 sq feet of retail
* 200,000 to 500,000 sq feet of office space

Warfield Triangle
* 4 to 6 stories
* 200 to 500 Residential Units
* 200,000 to 300,000 sq feet of retail
* 50,000 to100,000 sq feet of office space

Corporate Boulevard
* 10 to 20 stories
* No Residential Units
* 50,000 to 100,000 sq feet of retail
* 2,000,000 to 4,000,000 sq feet of office space

The Crescent
* 8 to 20 stories
* 1,500 to 2,500 Residential Units
* 25,000 to 75,000 sq feet of retail
* 300,000 to 600,000 sq feet of office space

Liz Bobo's meeting on Downtown Columbia Planning Today

Delegate Liz Bobo will be having a meeting on the redevelopment plans for downtown Columbia today at Slayton House in Wilde Lake Village Center in Columbia from 2 pm to 4 pm. Everyone is welcome to come out and find out what has been going on with the plans and how the community can impact the process.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Welcome to "Howard County Blog"

Welcome to "Howard County Blog". The blog of Howard County, Maryland. We will try to be a resource to follow what is going on in Howard County and we encourage you to share your thoughts with us by commenting to our posts.

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