Howard County Blog

A Blog on what is going on in Howard County

Friday, March 31, 2006

Watching Maryland Ladies in Final Four

Watch MD take on UNC in the Women's Basketball Finall Four:
Sunday, April 2nd at 6:45pm at the Hoff Theater at Stamp Student Union in College Park

Admission is free and popcorn is free.

Go Terps!

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Councilman David Rakes Will Resign Friday

County Councilman David Rakes, who represents the 2nd district, has announced he will resign Friday. You will remember Rakes switched control of the County Council to the Republicans when he was caught giving a liquor license to his campaign treasurer and failing to disclose that relationship. He got mad at his fellow Democrats when they refused to block an ethics investigation into the matter. The Republicans under the leadership of Chris Merdon then embraced Rakes’ corrupt ways and Rakes voted for Merdon to head the council. I thought this whole mess was rather sad. Sad to see elected official behave corruptly. Sad to see Chris Merdon embrace that corruption.

The question now arises who should fill Rakes’ seat until a new councilperson is elected in November. The Democratic Central Committee will get to pick the replacement. The clear choice is Calvin Ball, who came in a close second to Rakes in the last primary and who is already running for the seat with the backing of most of the counties Democratic activists who were using the primary as a means of showing the parties commitment to clean government by tossing out the corrupt Rakes. (Speaking of corruption, the best coverage of the corruption in DC is by investigative journalist Josh Marshall and with Jack Abramoff’s first sentencing today there will be a lot to cover.)

My letter to the Flier in 2002 about Calvin I think lays out why at the time I thought he stood head and shoulders above the other candidates then:

Shortly after I moved back to Howard County after completing grad school I met Calvin Ball at a community event. He impressed me with his vision for the future of Howard County. For a number of years I have watched with concern as the community I grew up in has seemed adrift. The visionary James Rouse had passed from the scene and new visionary leadership had yet to step forward.

After getting to know Calvin Ball, I believe he has the vision, energy and commitment to help lead Howard County forward. He will bring new ideas and a fresh perspective to the County Council and will be a strong voice in articulating the path forward for Howard County.

Though each of the candidates for County Council rightly focuses on issues of improving schools and public safety, Calvin Ball goes a step further and looks to issues of long-term planning. He realizes the importance of our location in the Baltimore-Washington Corridor and how our planning for the future must take this into account. He also presents a long-term vision for serving the transportation needs of Howard County residents, including ideas that have the potential of easing the commuting burden of Howard County residence.

Calvin Ball will be a strong voice on the County Council in formulating a clear vision to serve the long-term needs of Howard County and is the best choice for County Council District 2.

Those were my thoughts in 2002 and since then I have been impressed by Calvin’s hard work that have achieved amazing progress in revitalizing Oakland Mills.

Dennis Miller Resigns

Dennis Miller, General Growth Properties' point person for Columbia, resigns effective April 7th. I wonder how this will effect the plans for downtown Columbia? He is being replaced by Douglas M. Godine, who was the Rouse senior vice president who from 1961 to 1978 oversaw Rouse's leasing, marketing and land sales in Columbia. What do people know about him? How will he approach downtown Columbia issues and other issues of concern to the residents of Howard County? Post a comment or drop me an email.

Putting Things in Perspective

Check out this link. I think it speaks for itself and is a must read.

On the National Front

John McCain cowers before the far right extremists and makes a pilgrimage to Liberty University. Yes, that is the very same Liberty University created and run by extremist Jerry Falwell who has said:

I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won’t have any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them. What a happy day that will be!

It is truly sad to see how far McCain has fallen in the pursuit of his ambition to receive the Republican nomination in 2008.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Something Wicked This Way Comes, the most popular online gathering place for many high school and college students was just bought by Rupert Murdoch. Knowing Murdoch’s track record, this Australian turned American so he could satisfy US media ownership rules and thus could influence American media, will mine for voter preference data to be used to target young people to vote Republican. The following sentence buried at the bottom of this BBC article it the most important detail, especially when you consider how modern election targeting works and how Murdoch has chosen to act in his effort to influence American politics:

And most importantly, Myspace has detailed logs of its users' preferences, online behaviour and personal information.

I hate to see such an online community used by such a Machiavellian. One of my favorite highlights of Murdoch’s manipulation of political behavior is his filling Fox News airtime with talking heads spewing tirades about the filth on TV, while through his selection of programming for Fox has done more to push the media market towards the more tawdry than any other network. It's a truly great example of creating an issue to distract the public from other issues such as corporate welfare, the destruction of the environment, political corruption, fiscal mismanagement, reductions in school loans, etc.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Terps in the Final Four

It feels good to write that title. :) The Women's Basketball team just got into the Final Four. Maybe the men's team can start getting their act together and follow their lead in a year or two. In the meantime, with my brackets destroyed, I am happy for George Mason.

For my fellow Terps fans here is an event that you might enjoy:


I have been encouraged recently to blog about extending Metro up to Howard County. This is a subject I have spent a lot of time exploring over the last couple years (after commuting 1.5 hours each way every day into DC it is hard not to think about while stuck in traffic) and in the next couple of weeks I will discuss some of my thoughts here.

I think the starting point of this discussion is how to do Metro right so that it has a ridership density to make it economically viable. The cost of building Metro can not be accessed in a vacuum. It must be accessed together with the cost savings of less roads needing construction or widening, less gas burned by drivers, less pollution needing to be cleaned up, and less congestion on the roads.

The Best Movie I have seen in a Long Time

I saw V for Vendetta this weekend and it is the best movie I have seen in a long time. It is thought provoking with the right spice of humor and action. Normally when movies try to be thought provoking they fail to live up to there potential, but V for Vendetta is both well thought out and hits its mark. It is one of those movies that supersedes its genre and is a must see movie no matter what types of movies you normally go for. It is based on a graphic novel, which itself is inspired by the Britain’s strangest holiday: Guy Fawkes Day, but the movie crafts the story to a spot on relevance to our time.

For those not familiar with the bizarre holiday of Guy Fawkes day it is when our British cousins set off fireworks to celebrate an attempt or the failure of an attempt (the British don’t seem to be sure which themselves) to blow up their Parliament. When I lived in London I tried to get a good explanation of it from my British friends. They seem to take pleasure in the uniquely British bizarreness of this holiday. To understand the perspective of celebrating the blowing up of Parliament one must understand that in Britain the majority acting through Parliament has the unchecked power to tyrannize over the rest of society, thus when tyranny and abuse of power occur in Britain it is done by Parliament. The American notions of checks and balances are unique institutions that have helped slow the loss of liberty here, though clearly Madison’s system is facing one of its worse challenges yet. In the 1930’s Madison’s checks and balances system prevented the concentration of absolute power when FDR tried and failed to stack the Supreme Court. A few brave Democratic Senators stood up to an overwhelmingly popular president of their own party to save liberty. One of the saddest things to me today is that there are no Republicans of that same caliber willing to stand up and prevent the courts to be filled with executive power deferential judges. Instead they fell in line and put two people on the Supreme Court (and many more on the lower courts) whose uniting judicial philosophy is a strong belief in executive power. When I was working on my graduate work in comparative constitutional design one of the things that stood out was that one of the main reasons why democracy succeeded in the US, but often failed in Latin America even though many of the Latin American countries that tried democracy borrowed their constitutional design from the US was that in the Latin American adaptations of the US constitution the executive branch was always the strongest branch while in the US for our first 150 years the legislature was the strongest branch. Will congress stop abdicating their role in our constitutional system and use their constitutionally granted tools to check abuse of executive power? Will congress preserve the judiciary from being filled with judges that defer to the executive at the expense of the legislature? Will congress stand up and perverse liberty? We choose our members of congress and if they won’t stand up and do their duty we will soon have an opportunity to elect those that will.

Anyway, as my college friends learned it is dangerous to get me talking constitutions at 2 am because I will talk all night. Go see V for Vendetta and let me know what you think. I loved it and highly recommend it.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Road to Enfranchisement

HB 1725, Liz Bobo’s bill (she started the process rolling and it is now a full Howard County delegation bill) to allow all residents of Town Center to vote in Columbia elections, passed the full House of Delegates unanimously on Saturday. Next it needs to be passed by the state Senate. With the elections coming up April 22nd time is pressing and I hope the Senate will quickly follow the House’s lead so everyone in Town Center will be able to vote.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Columbia Elections

As I mentioned a couple weeks ago the Columbia elections are coming up on April 22nd. I believe all the filing deadlines have passed so I was wondering if you new who was running in each village? With all the important decisions coming up regarding downtown Columbia these elections are very important and no where more so than for the Columbia Council Reps of each village and the Town Center Village Board (I think Wilde Lake and Kings Contrivance will also be very important as talk about changes to those village centers seems likely). One of the problems with Columbia Elections tends to be lack of coverage of these races and thus very few people are aware of them or much about the candidates. I think blogs can help change that, so I plan to provide some coverage of these races here at Howard County Blog. In order to do this I will need you to be my eyes and ears in the community. Please post comments or email me about anything you see or hear. I will probably have open threads on each village’s candidates forums so those there can share with the rest of us what happened and what they thought of the candidates. I would also love to see any campaign lit pieces or hear from those who run into candidates in their area. Feel free to scan and email me candidate lit.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

CA Media Matters Looking for Second Generation Columbians

This looks interesting:

CA's cable television program, Columbia Matters, is seeking second generation Columbians for a future show on that topic. Second generation Columbians are current residents in their twenties or older who spent all or a portion of their childhood in Columbia and have remained or returned after living elsewhere.
For more information, please contact 410-715-3210 or email

As a "second generation Columbian" myself I am always currious to hear about the experiences of others who grew up here. I have found that growing up in Columbia has shaped the world view of most of the people who grew up here. They look at people as individuals rather than stereotyped groups and are interested in finding other tolerant, well planned communities to live. Here is one of my earlier posts where I talk about the impact of growing up in Columbia.

If you are a "second generation Columbian" drop me an email.

Use this post as an open thread to share your experience growing up in Howard County if you did and how you think that has shaped your outlook.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Clean Campaigns Continued

Demos's post below about the need for clean campaigns got be thinking to this sad story I saw a couple days back about the one time champion of election finance reform John McCain. It seems Senator McCain recently signed up a key member of Tom DeLay's money laundering operation to be a senior advisor. I gave McCain $10 in 2000 in support of his campaign finance reform position and to help give him a fighting chance at the Republican nomination. I find it very sad watching the Senator today as he seems willing to sell his soul to get the current corrupt Republican establishments support for a 2008 Presidential run.

My take on campaign finance reform is that the only thing that will truly change the system is a change in the donor culture. If more regular people gave money in exchange for politicians fighting for the people then politicians will be less dependent on big money special interest donors. I know some will say that more donors will just push up the amounts of money spent by candidates, but I think that when we get to the point where the money available from normal people who care about the issues is substantially more that the money available from businesses seeing special deals and corporate welfare, then politicians will go where they can both get the money and not alienate votes. This in the end will lead politicians to choose to be fund by average people rather than special interests. And yes I know it will always be easier for a politician to get one $2000 contribution than one hundred $20 contributions, but if we had a culture where most voters thought it was worth $20 to get good people elected and would be willing to give it to candidates online when they do good things and thus reward good behavior, then it will become easier to get the one hundred $20 contributions and we can change politicians behavior.

There Goes That Popularity

Survey USA does a superb set of monthly tracking polls for the approval of Governors and Senators in their home state (they also do a monthly tracking poll of President Bush's approval in each state). Anyway, I noticed something interesting in this month's poll. For months South Dakota's Republican Governor Mike Rounds has been one of the most popular governors in the nation with his approval being consistently over 70%. Then this month Governor Rounds signed a new South Dakota law banning all abortion including in cases of rape and incest. It seems the people of South Dakota didn't like this extremist law:

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Mother's Milk of Politics is Sour

In an article titled Candidates Filling Their War Chest, Earl Eldridge wrote in the March 2nd, 2006 edition of the Howard County Times:

From Jan. 13, 2005 through Jan. 11, 2006, Christopher Merdon, a Republican member of the Howard County Council from Ellicott City, raised $173,658 in his bid to win the executive office. Merdon had $222,730 in his campaign war chest on Jan. 11, the latest date on which candidates were required to file finance reports with the Maryland State Board of Elections. . . Kenneth Ulman, a Democrat council member from West Columbia, raised $161,698 in his bid for the office during the same period. Ulman had $196,124 on hand as of Jan. 11. . . Both Merdon and Ulman have received significant donations from developers and residents outside Howard County. Each contributor can give no more than $4,000 to candidates, according to state election law.

My question is this: what do these donors want from the candidates in exchange for their campaign contributions, especially developers, real estate agents and builders? Who really sets the priorities and plans for development in Howard County, the citizens or the campaign contributors?

The Howard County Times article goes on to state that:

[Merdon] received $3,500 from NAFA USA, a real estate management firm in Silver Spring. . . [He] also received $4,000 from Lundy Family Partners, which is connected to Harry "Chip" Lundy, president and CEO of Williamsburg Group, a Columbia-based builder . . . $6,500 from JP Bolduc and his wife, Evelyn Bolduc. Bolduc is CEO of JPB Enterprises, a venture capital and real estate investment firm in Columbia . . . On top of their individual contributions, JPB Enterprises and ETB Enterprises, both of which are controlled by the Bolduc family, gave Merdon $5,000, bringing the Bolducs' total contributions to $11,500, Merdon said. . . Ulman's top contributors [included]. . . $3,240 from Dorsey Family Homes in Woodstock; $3,000 from Hamilton Reed, LLC, a builder in Ellicott City; and $4,000 from Tucker Construction Group in Elkridge.

All of this is an indication of a much larger problem. The first sentence of the Howard County Times article:

The race for Howard County executive is on track to be the most expensive ever.

is what should most disturb the citizens of Howard County. The amount of money (the proverbial mother’s milk of politics) that it is going to cost the candidates to run for Howard County Executive (around $500,000), is a symptom of what is wrong with American politics today. If a candidate cannot win the “money primary”, they cannot run for office, no matter if they are Abe Lincoln, FDR and Reagan combined. Most of us have only one vote to give to a candidate. But wealthy individuals and corporations have many “votes” they can give, it is called money. Which phone call, office visit, email or letter is a politician going to attend to, the lowly citizen with one vote or the campaign contributor with the “money vote”? And this criticism is not aimed at any individual candidate (even though some Republicans of late are up to their necks in corruption), this is a criticism of our political system; a system that allows and abets corruption to masquerade in the disguise of “politics as usual” or “being competitive” or “free speech”. What is needed is campaign finance reform. We need “clean campaigns” in Maryland and we should start now, right here in Howard County.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Will the county use the Focus Group to help restore public trust?

In a letter to the editor in today's Sun Rebecca Johnson has some excellent suggestions on the focus group:

I would like to suggest that the focus group meetings be held in the evening, rather than during the workday, so that more citizens can attend. A commitment to an open process, in substance as well as in form, will go a long way toward restoring public trust in this process and its outcome.

I hope the county Department of Planning and Zoning listens.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Chicken and the Egg

Ken Ulman spoke at the Democracy for Howard County meeting on Monday, March 13th at the Elkridge Library. He was asked many questions about development in Howard County. I asked him about mass transit (or the lack thereof) in the county. His answer was that mass transit was expensive and a certain density of population was needed in order to justify the cost of building metro or light rail systems (I've lived in the county since 1991 and heard the same thing then). I think that is the WRONG approach. Howard County cannot wait for the whole county to be dense enough to justify a mass transit system. The eastern parts of the county are dense enough to get going with a rail transit system now. This system could provide intra-county transportation and inter-county connections with the existing mass transit systems (Baltimore's light rail and Montgomery's and Prince Georges' metro lines). By building mass transit we would get less traffic, save green space and direct development into appropriate areas of the county, get walkable neighborhoods, help all of us get some exercise, allow people who do not drive (the elderly, disabled, poor) to live in Howard County, cut down on pollution and cut down on our dependence on foreign oil; not to mention we just might meet our neighbor!

Friday, March 17, 2006

Let's Not Be a Florida

Alex Hekimian has a must read letter to the editor in this week's Howard County Times:

I just returned from a trip to the Fort Myers/Bonita Springs/Naples, Fla., area. It was supposed to be a pleasure trip, but what wasn't fun were the long traffic backups practically everywhere in the area. It stands as a sobering lesson for us here in Columbia.

WCI Communities Inc., the builder of the proposed 275-foot high Plaza Residences building in downtown Columbia, is based in the area of Florida I visited. I saw firsthand what a mess builders have made in that part of Florida. They are overbuilding and causing massive traffic jams throughout the area. According to the local newspapers, residents have been so upset about the unsustainable growth that they recently voted out of office all of the incumbents in the City Council of Bonita Springs, the city where WCI's headquarters is located.

Our challenge is to learn from Florida's experience and to prevent a downtown Columbia master plan that could allow so much development that it would cause the same potential mess right here in Columbia.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Focus Groups Return

So I guess we are back to the focus groups.

According to the Department of Planning and Zoning the next Focus Group Meeting is being scheduled for Wednesday, April 5, 2006, from 3:00 pm to 5:30 pm. It will be meeting in the Ballroom of Historic Oakland Manor at 5430 Vantage Point Road, courtesy of the Town Center Community Association and Village Manager Pat Laidig.

Glenelg Class of '86 Reunion

A while back I said as a public service I would post any info about upcoming Howard County high school reunions so that members of the Howard County community past and present can reconnect. At the time I posted info about the Oakland Mills Class of '96 Reunion.

A Howard County Blog reader has forwarded me this info about the Glenelg High School Class of '86 Reunion:

Date: Saturday, October 7th, 2006 (Columbus Day weekend)
Time: 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Location: Columbia Sheraton Wincopin room

If there are any lost grads out there that aren’t listed with, if they should contact:
Melissa Ridgely Covolesky
1125 Shaffersville Rd.
Airy, MD 21771

Or they can register with to make sure they are contacted.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Let's Talk Solutions

OK as I have listened to the community over the last couple of months I have heard a number of concerns about the current plan that could be fixed by a creative solution so I wanted to throw it out for discussion. Though some of these concerns on their own are not some people top concerns I do think the plan would be better if they were addressed. Here are the particular concerns that this particular solution would address:

1) Wincopin Street South cutting through the Hug Statue Park and over the top edge of the grass amphitheater

2) The elevation drop from the Mall/Merriweather area to the Lakefront that makes walkability difficult

3) The main walking axis being through the Mall

4) The phasing of the plan
5) The lack of small retail places heavily subsidized and available to artists, craftsmen, and musicians
6) The lack of workforce housing
7) What happens to the economic draw to the Lakefront while Clyde’s is gone if they renovate or tear down the CA Building?
8) How do we make sure we get amenities before we give away everything the developer wants?

Answering this last question goes to the issue of building trust back into the process. It is pretty clear to me that trust is gone from the process because of General Growth behavior thus far and the approval of the 22 story Tower, which robbed the community of the believe the government would stand on their side, while also proving that developers left to do what they want don’t - despite everything Dick Talkin says during the focus groups – look out for the communities interests.

OK so what is the solution to these concerns? It is to have the first part of downtown to be built be on the current Spear Center parking lot and have what is built there be an elevation transition building that serves as a South Lake Pavilion and then turn Wincopin Street South into a pedestrian only street. I know that is not very clear so let me walk you through the parts:

1) The elevation drop from the Mall/Merriweather area to the Lakefront is very steep and thus not very walkable. In Wellington, New Zealand they have parallel roads that are 3 stories higher than each other. To address this they use a cascade of shops inside buildings like Gallery Place at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor to transition people from one level to the next. If we built a similar building on the current parking lot south of the Spear Center and make it a South Lake Pavilion modeled in content after Faneuil Hall in Boston or Pike Place Market in Seattle, then we create an elevation transition building that will transition people from the end of Corporate Boulevard to the Lakefront and added an economic draw to the Lakefront that will keep the Lakefront alive during any remodeling of the CA Building.

2) This new South Lake Pavilion, combined with some (maybe 20%) residential in Corporate Boulevard creates an east-west axis that complements the Mall to Merriweather Promenade and thus makes the main east-west axis not be through the Mall. We could even make Corporate Boulevard into a new Main Street.

3) At the end of this new Main Street would be a giant arched entry to the South Lake Pavilion that would then have a cascade of shops leading down to the Lakefront with a giant glass wall looking out at the lake. On one of the mid-levels would be an exit on the north side leading to a pedestrian only boulevard leading to the Hug Statue Park lined on the side away from the lake by cafes, restaurants, and small retail places heavily subsidized and available to artists, craftsmen, and musicians in 4 to 6 story buildings maybe looking like this:

4) North of the Hug Statue Park Wincopin Street would start.

5) In the area off of Little Patuxent Parkway would be a free public parking garage for this area with a walkway from the parking to the walking boulevard like downtown Silver Spring has. On top of the parking will be some office space and residential units so that the combined height of the structure is 8 to 10 stories and the upper stories are staggered enough away from the lake to ensure the lake and the walking boulevard are not crowded by tall buildings.

6) The residential units above the parking and maybe even some on the upper stories of the South Lake Pavilion could include some units that are co-rented with retail space on the walking boulevard and in the pavilion so that the owners, managers, or workers in the shops can live near work at an affordable price. These units would be sprinkled in with other non shop-connected units whose cost reflects the full range of incomes in the county.

7) Walking bridges over Little Patuxent Parkway could connect a building in the Main Street zone and another near the Mall with this area.

Having this project done as the first part of the redevelopment of downtown provides the community with a nice pedestrian friendly area with small shops and workforce housing up front and it removes any need to run a road through the Hug Statue Park and over the top edge of the grass amphitheater. It also addresses the elevation transition between the Mall/Merriweather area and the Lakefront. It adds economic draws to the Lakefront and it creates a focal point of economic activity for future development to work out from down the new Main Street, up the Lakefront, down to the walking bridge over Rt. 29, and around the apartments near the Central Library to the Crescent zone. It also has the added plus of starting on an area that does not require tearing down any buildings first.

I know this plan doesn’t solve all of the concerns with downtown Columbia. Personally one of my top concerns – having mixed income housing throughout – is not solved by it, nor is the traffic flow problem north of the Mall. However it does address some of the other concerns out there and might be part of the solution to many of these problems.

Let me know what you think.

Milosevic Is Dead

I know this is not Howard County related, but since I wrote my Master’s thesis on the Bosnian constitution that came out of the Dayton Peace Accords and have spent many years studying the Balkans and the brutality Milosevic instigated I thought I would share the news of Milosevic’s death. It is good riddance. Milosevic decided to stir up ethnic conflict for political advantage. He consolidated the media under his control and used it to push stereotypes, fear, and hate.

As I was working on my research a common question I was asked by those who enquired about my research was why did the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans happen? Despite the stereotypes common in America, Yugoslavia was a modern, highly educated country and, with the exception of Kosovo, had no long history of ethnic violence (that is none going back more than one hundred years). The Yugoslavs thought they had an independent press since they were part of the Nonaligned Movement and their press was critical of both the Warsaw Block and NATO. So as Milosevic consolidated the media and used it to spread stereotypes, fear, and hate the people were susceptible. My studies of the destruction of Yugoslavia convinced me more than ever before on the importance of teaching critical think (something that can not be measure with standardized tests) in the school system. Only through teaching people to challenge their sources of information and to think for themselves can we inoculated ourselves from hatemongers using the media to play one group in society against another. Sadly No Child Left Behind has significantly shifted our education system away from critical thinking and to the recall left stuff that a standardized test can measure.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Comments and Emailing Blog Posts

I know many readers of this blog are new to blogs, so I wanted to point out a couple of the features of blogs. First one of the great features of most blogs is they allow readers to comment on and discuss the posts. This is a lot more interactive than most other news/editorial media and it also allows for more refining of ideas as the community put their collective mind together and develops innovative solutions to the issues under discussion. This is one of the reasons why I think blogs are a very useful tool as we talk about issues like downtown Columbia and I hope to see a growing discussion in the comments section (something I think has already been started by some readers).

Another feature of this blog is I have set it up so that if you click the envelope after each post you can easily email that post to those you think might be interested in reading it.

Have fun and use the comments section of this post as an open thread to talk about blogs, blogging or anything else you might be interested in.

Open Meetings

The Columbia Association Board of Directors/Columbia Council (what is in a name? I think in the future I will refer to it as the Columbia Council because in fact they are the elected representatives of the lien payers of Columbia) voted tonight to continue to have open meetings on the creation of the downtown partnership between CA, the county, and General Growth. I applaud those on the Columbia Council who stood up for open meetings and allowing the public to observe such an important process that is crucial to the future of downtown Columbia and Howard County as a whole (the first time there was a public meeting on the creation of the downtown partnership I am told 13 members of the public showed up).

Here is a review of the final vote:

The vote was on a proposal to allow closed meetings.

Voting for open meetings were:

  • Henry F. Dagenais, Long Reach
  • Josh Feldmark, Wilde Lake
  • Phil Marcos, Kings Contrivance
  • Wolfger Schneider, Harper’s Choice

Voting to allow closed meetings were:

  • Miles Coffman, Hickory Ridge
  • Jud Malone, Town Center
  • Tom O’Connor, Dorsey’s Search
  • Patrick von Schlag, River Hill

Because the vote was tied the effort to allow closed meetings failed.

The irony of the evening was supplied by Jud Malone expressing concern about the creating of distrust while advocating for closing the meetings. I mean lets be real, a good part of the reason the public has been losing trust in the process has been a concern that decisions are being made behind closed doors and the public’s concerns are not being addressed. Most people I have talked to who attended the charrette thought the first day was great and they were thrilled by how much in agreement the public is, but then they felt that what they said was not reflected in the plan.

Anyway, back to open meetings. The way trust is built is by having a process that is open and where the plan is a true product of community input. I want to applaud Phil Marcos and Josh Feldmark in particular in being vocal advocates for keeping the meetings open. And while we are at it I think a lot of credit is due Ken Ulman for opening the whole downtown Columbia redevelopment process up by pushing to have the charrette.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Mall to Merriweather Promenade

To refresh peoples memory it is here:

Looking through the Department of Planning and Zoning’s presentation from two Monday’s back I noted this interesting slide showing an example of a promenade:

As I look at it I am reminded that at the charrette there was a clear public view that the promenade from the Mall to Merriweather needed to be wider that “just a median”. In fact, one participant suggested it be wide enough to throw a Frisbee width-wise and another suggested it be 80 feet wide. This example from the Department of Planning and Zoning clearly doesn’t indicate that width. In addition the sketches of the street framework that the Department of Planning and Zoning presented designate the roads within the promenade as a “two lane road with a median”:

Though there are many ways to do the promenade it is clear that the public wants it wider than the median that is in the plan. Two ideas that might be interesting to look at are:

Prague, Czech Republic

Edmonton, Canada

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

2 Different Items About the Same Place

1) I stopped by the East Columbia Library tonight and saw a great crowd from the Howard Astronomical League joined by a number of library patrons enjoying tonight's clear sky and some great views of Saturn and the Moon. Check out their website to see when they meet (obviously it depends on weather). They are one of the great examples of fun local groups worth taking a break from the rush of our normal lives to enjoy.

2) While I was at the library it got me thinking about this story in the Sun on Sunday about a program for 10 to 14 year olds at East Columbia Library whose funds (all one time grants) are about to run out. Here is some background from the Sun article:

A highly praised after-school program at the east Columbia library has helped dozens of pupils from nearby Cradlerock School and reduced library disruptions, but officials have no money to keep it operating beyond June.

Teen Time organizer Contobia Adams created so much excitement over the program among middle school pupils that she has a waiting list for the free, four-afternoon-a-week sessions, and parents and local leaders love it.

But two grants that produce $33,500 for a small part-time staff, snacks and field trips for 35 children are due to run out after this school year, and library Director Valerie Gross said she has no firm financing for the fall.

"The kids would like it [to continue] through the summer, and parents want it to operate on Fridays, too," Gross said. "What we are hoping for is funding from some source."

Horizon Foundation provided a $15,000 grant, and the Friends of Howard County Library pitched in $18,500 on a one-time basis. The library contributes space, material and staff time.

The program "has been successful beyond our dreams," Gross said. "We're eaching the students to understand they are in control of their decisions, and every decision has a consequence. It was not working with them simply being in the library."

Adams, who started the program a year ago after creating a similar one for the Woodlawn library in Baltimore County, said her idea was to create a program designed to excite middle school pupils who otherwise might prefer to be unsupervised between 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., the hours of the program.

She enrolls every child who shows an interest, she said, and then, using an interview process every six weeks, weeds out those who are not as committed or willing to follow the rules.

During the year, some children leave, and others on the list are admitted.

But the effect of the interviews is to build a bit of exclusivity that makes the program more desirable to the 10- through 14-year-olds the program serves.

"I get them in to find out how fun and rewarding it is," Adams said. "Then we back off and find out the true soldiers who really want to be there. I'm a hard person. I'm not an easy person."

The Lazarus Foundation provided laptop computers to help with homework, and Cradlerock School has worked with the program to enrich it with books and staff support, said Principal Jason McCoy.

This program sounds like a great program that gets a big bang for its buck. I remember back to when they first built East Columbia library and there were a lot of complaints about middle school students hanging out in the library and disrupting other library users. Personally I thought it was great that middle school students were spending their time in the library and I am a strong advocate for allowing kids to have fun, but I also saw a couple occations when the students were disrupting other library users. This program sounds like a great solution and something society should want to invest in anyways: the teaching of the consequences of actions and the encouragement of critical thinking. I hope the money can be found for keeping this successful program going and hopefully expanding it to other libraries.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Pedestrian Oriented, Walkable Streets?

One of the big arguments that has been used to sell the current plan is that it will create pedestrian oriented, walkable streets that will have retail and restaurants on the ground floor of buildings drawing walkers from one area to the next. Yet take a look at this slide from the county Department of Planning and Zoning Presentation last Monday:

All of retail activities concentrations are only connected to each other through the Mall. This is yet another example of the details of the plan not matching the declared goals.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Maryland's Teachers Pension Crisis

Maryland's Teachers Pensions are the lowest in the nation. That's right they are behind Missippi, Alabama, Arkansas. The current pension is 38% of average final salary minus state taxes. A retired school employee in Pennsylvania's pension benefits are 75% of their average final salary and are state tax-free. A friend of mine who is a teacher wrote me in an email tonight:

For an Educational Service Provider (ESP), that's about $9,000 per year. For a teacher with 30 years experience, that's about $23,000.

That is pathetic. If we want to get quality people to provide America's future a quality education then we need to give them a pension they can live on in retirement.

We can each do something very important to end Maryland's worst in the nation status and provide our hard working teachers a pension that can support them after the long hours they put in so current students have the skills they need in life. To make a difference go use this tool the MSTA has set up to make it easy for you to send a letter to your state legislators to encourage them to vote to fix the pension system.

Columbia Association Elections

So the mess with the disenfranchisement of Town Center residents got me thinking about the Columbia Association elections coming up April 22nd. Each village runs their elections a little different. Anyone know who is up in each village and which village reps on the CA Board of Directions (a.k.a. the Columbia Council) are up for election? I think most of the filing deadlines are coming up soon in mid March, do you know the filing deadlines in any of the village? The Town Center candidates forum is April 11th, anyone know when the other candidates forums for other villages are?

County Executive and County Council Candidates Forum Wednesday, March 8th

Here is a great opportunity to meet the candidates who are running for county government. Come out, ask questions and get involved! The candidates forum is sponsored by the Columbia Democratic Club. It will take place at the Jeffers Hill Neighborhood Center which is south of Route 175 on Tamar Drive. The date of the forum is Wednesday, March 8th beginning at 7 pm.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Howard County Times Asks a Good Question

The Howard County Times asks a good question:

What's another few months when we're talking about the shape downtown Columbia will take over the next 30 years?

Let's get this plan right. We will be living with the consequences of the downtown Columbia plan for decades to come and it will be infinitely more difficult to fix the problems in the plan after it is passed. There is no need to rush and a couple months to get it right cannot hurt. As I have told many people before, I don't care when it is done as long as it is done right. Right now the plan looks no where near being ready. Let's get the mixed income housing guaranteed. Let's get Wincopin Street South fixed so that it is pedestrian only from Hug Statue Park south and thus save the grass amphitheater. Let's find a solution to make sure future tenants of the area around Merriweather don't complain about the noise and try to create political pressure for Merriweather to be closed down or restricted to the point it is no longer economically viable. Let's admit that the proposed grid system for downtown will not achieve the increased traffic capacity that is being claimed and fix the zigzag intersections and use strategically located parking and mass transit to deal with the increase traffic pressures. Let's make sure that the parking that will be built will be enough for the community's needs and will be free, public parking provided by the developer to the community in exchange for the increased residential units they will make tons of money off of and not paid parking owned by one company that has just made a fortune off of its new residential units and can also now use its monopoly position to set the parking rates. Let's make the architectural review panel's approval required rather than advisory.

We have the time to get this right so let's take the time now to fix the plan before it is approved.

Friday, March 03, 2006

This is Ridiculous

If anyone has more background on this please share in the comments section, but based on a story in today's Sun lien payers (Columbia's version of a tax payer) are being denied a right to vote due to some change to HUD policy (Why is HUD involved in this?).

Linda Wengel lives in the heart of Columbia and wants to run for a seat on her village board this spring, but she can't.

Wengel's new apartment at the Evergreens, in a building for seniors next to The Mall in Columbia, is -- like every other new building in the planned town -- in a legal purgatory.

Owners of new buildings must pay the taxlike property lien to the Columbia Association, but the buildings have not been legally annexed into Columbia, so their residents can't participate in village affairs. The problem is the result of a January 2003 change in practice by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which was used to perform annexations because the only other method requires getting approval from at least two-thirds of a village's eligible residents -- a virtual impossibility because most village elections attract a bare minimum of voters.

Whatever the reason, it is not pleasing those affected.

"If you believe in the Columbia concept, the idea that we can't vote but are still paying the assessment is upsetting," Wengel said. For apartments, however, the building owner pays the assessment directly, though it is reflected in the rent.

Joel and Gail Broida, who live east of the mall, at the new Lakeside at Town Center condominiums, agree.

"It's sort of taxation without representation. We can't vote in the election. That's not right," Joel Broida said. Gail Broida, like Wengel, wants to run for a spot on the Town Center Village Board, but she can't.

Our country came out of a fight for no taxes without representation. As we move forward with the redevelopment of downtown there will be a lot of new residents whose voting rights must be insured. How does the annexing work? Why is HUD involved? Why did HUD's policies change? Who's got the inside scoop?

Useful Link to County Maps

Maps are always useful when discussing urban planning and lucky for us our county does a superb job making available many such maps on their website.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Mixed Income Housing

The issue the community was in most agreement on Monday night was the need for affordable housing to match the salary ranges in the community rather than arbitrary numbers that will not meet the community’s needs. The current plan calls for 10% moderate income (as defined as 50-80% of the median county income) and 5% middle income (as defined as 80-110% of the median county income). This is totally insufficient and there was clear recognition of this by the community Monday night. The county median income according to the 2000 US Census Bureau is $74,167. This means that under this measure moderate income housing is for people making $37,083.50 to $59,333.60 and middle incoming housing is for people making $59,333.60 to $81,583.70. According to the 2000 census the county household income distribution is:

17.1% of the county households have incomes under $35,000
11.9% of the county households have incomes from $35,000 to
21.5% of the county households have incomes from $50,000 to
17.6% of the county households have incomes from $75,000 to
19.6% of the county households have incomes from $100,000 to
7.2% of the county households have incomes from $150,000 to
5% of the county households have incomes of $200,000 or more

Think about that for a second.

More than 17.1% of households are completely exclude from having housing options in downtown Columbia. Many of these households include the service sector employees that will work in all of the retail proposed for downtown. They also include the people who will keep the office buildings clean and safe. They also include many of the young professionals the plan declares they are trying to attract to live in the urban downtown environment (I think many young professionals will want to live downtown, but will not be able to afford it).

Just to use the example of the salaries of young professionals that the plan declares it plans to attract to live in the downtown a starting salary for person with a college degree with the federal government (a major employer in our area) is GS-5 Step 1 to GS-7 Step 1 grades which are $29,604 to $36,671. With a masters degree federal starting salaries would be GS-7 Step 1 to GS-9 Step 1 grades whose range would be $36,671 to $44,856.

OK, now the plan sets aside 10% of the housing for the households making $37,083.50 to $59,333.60 that makes up at least 12% of county households, but is more likely around 15% of county households.

Another 5% of the housing is being set aside for households making $59,333.60 to $81,583.70, a range that probably includes roughly 20% of county households.

Thus the proposed plan clearly does not meet the community’s needs. The numbers the plan proposes on “moderate and middle income housing” are clearly ridiculous on the face of it and the audience on Monday recognized that immediately and spoke out loudly about this problem.

If we continue to speak out about these issues, write letters to the editor, and tell our elected officials we can get the plan fixed before it is approved. Once the new residential units are approved the county will have lost their leverage to look out for the needs of the community, so this plan must be fixed before any approval is given.

Stay tuned to the next post on Monday’s meeting …

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Liz Bobo's Townhall Meeting Thursday

Delegate Liz Bobo is having her annual townhall meeting this Thursday, March 2nd at 7:30pm at Kahler Hall in Harper's Choice Village Center. According to the email notice I just got from her:

[The meeting] will cover up to date information on many of the important issues currently before the Maryland legislature ... [The meeting] will also report on Monday evening's presentation by the Department of Planning and Zoning on the redevelopment of downtown Columbia as well as next steps to be taken. As in past years, there will be plenty of time for questions and discussion.

This looks like a interesting opportunity to continue to address the issues of the redevelopment of downtown Columbia.

Monday’s Meeting on Downtown Columbia

OK, I think I will start what will be a multi-day series of posts on Monday’s presentation by the Department of Planning and Zoning on the plan for downtown Columbia.

To start with the good news it looks like they are now talking about having some residential in the Corporate Boulevard zone. I posted before about the need for this to prevent this area from becoming a dead area at night after the office workers go home. In urban settings crime normally occurs when there are no eyes on the street and by inserting enough residential (maybe 20%) there will be eyes on the street in the evenings and the retail and restaurants will most likely stay open later.

The other potential piece of good news is that they seem to be planning to create an Architectural Design Review Board, which is something members of the Focus Group have been advocating. The question now is how will this new board be structured. I think it is very important that it have both architects and lay members of the public on it. The members of the public on the board will raise issues that otherwise might not come up and thus strengthen the final design. The other aspect of the board that needs to be clarified is one a friend of mine who is more detail focused than I guess even I am brought to my attention today: the board currently is only planned to be advisory rather than requiring its approval before the approval the project. I feel very strongly that if the board’s approval is not required it will be ignored.

OK, now let’s cover a couple, but not all, of the problems in Monday’s presentation.

First off, the presentation glossed over so many fundamental flaws in the current plan that it was deceptive to the audience. The plan is full of grand declarations without the substance achieving those goals. The grid system will supposedly increase traffic capacity, but it lacks the through streets of a true grid, instead having a labyrinth of zigzag intersections and the congesting influence of one lane each way roads with parallel parking. The new Wincopin Street South is one of the new “traffic capacity increasing roads”, yet to achieve a road the Department of Public Works (DPW) says can be 15 miles per hour DPW says the lanes must be 10 feet wide.

Thus to create a one lane each way road requires a 20 feet wide road. From the steps on the north side of the American Cities Building to the line of the top edge of the grass amphitheater is 22 feet. That would leave only one foot on either side of the road for a sidewalk. This is not creating a very pedestrian friendly walkable area as they declare. And don’t forget that Wincopin Street South is declared to be a special pedestrian oriented street. Now if they were to take out the stairs they might have more room for the road, but then they would have a 5 foot 6 inch roughly drop from the sidewalk (and doorway of Lakeside Coffee) to the road. Again not very walkable or pedestrian friendly.

Then there is the problem of the roads in the grid system that are not feasible because of existing roads and topography. A great example of this is on the north end of the Mall behind the theater where they plan to have a road go down in front of Nordstrom from the road running behind the movie theater.

In this area they cannot lower the slope from the top because of the movie theater, which they have no plans to tear down, and they cannot reduce the grade of the slope from the bottom because it would block the exit of Nordstrom, which again they have no plans to tear down. To add to it this road area is yet another one of the examples of zigzag intersections.

And this is only the start. I will continue this discussion tomorrow. Please as always let me know what you think and feel free to discuss these issues with other readers of the blog in the comments section.