Howard County Blog

A Blog on what is going on in Howard County

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

A Downtown School Site Discussion

HayDuke doesn’t like the idea of putting a school in the Crescent site in downtown Columbia. He ends his post by saying he is open to being convinced that a school site should be an option, so let’s start a discussion and collectively brainstorm about this idea. First, I think we need to clear out early assumptions.

HayDuke assumes the design of the school as not a “nice, little neighborhood school buildings that double as community meeting places and ballfields for organized and non-organized play”. Instead he assumes it will be a massive, unwelcoming, aesthetically-grotesque complexes that are more akin to penal institutions than educational ones (as many of the new schools he feels are built are). I think this is a false assumption. We can design the school whatever way the community thinks is best. School Board member and candidate for the County Council Mary Kay Sigaty has spoken about the need to examine a different type of school design for any school downtown. Why cannot the school double as a community meeting place? Many community groups use school space for their events at schools all over the county. In fact, one of the needs brought up at the last focus group was the need for community centers. More people living downtown will mean more community groups needing spaces to meet and the school and also serve this purpose. Also more people means more demand for ball fields. If we are building green topped buildings, why cannot we locate a soccer field on the roof of the building enclosed in a Plexiglas wall. On my metro ride everyday I pass a basketball court located on the roof of a building enclosed with a wall high enough to keep the ball in. This increases the use made out of the space and provides playing fields for downtown residents.

HayDuke also assumes the school will be “surrounded by massive lots of surface parking”. This isn’t necessarily the case. If the school is an elementary or middle school, which seems most likely the case, then the parking will be needed for staff and some parents who are volunteering, but the parking could be designed so that it is a garage that seconds as Merriweather parking in the evenings. With concerts being forced to end by 10pm due to the current noise ordinances (which I remember being said at the first focus group meeting, but I am sure HayDuke, who is master of all things Merriweather will correct me if I am wrong) then concert will need to start by 7pm and with concertgoers starting to arrive an hour before a concert at 6pm and more office workers these days working later not all parking geared for office workers will be available for concert parking, but school parking (particularly for elementary and middle schools) could provide a great supplement.

HayDuke assumes that with space limited it is best to keep schools out of downtown. This is a mistake, because space is limited in all of Columbia (some might argue in all of Howard County), so unless we bus the kids long distances space will need to be found in Columbia. One of the nice things about Ken Ulman pushing for comprehensive planning of downtown rather than the piecemeal that was happening before he pushed for the charrette, is we can plan for the space so we don’t worsen the overcrowding of our schools. Though a site at Sunny Spring has been mentioned for a school, until we have a better grasp of the numbers of students created by the new residential units it is wise to plan for a school site that can be phase in if later needed. (Since the Crescent looks likely to be part of the later phases of the downtown redevelopment, the Crescent school location has the added bonus of being something that can be held in reserve in case it is needed and if it isn’t needed it can be used for other needs.) I also would add that a downtown school site 1) adds to the vitality the area, 2) adds activity to the community as kids walk to school, 3) add eyes to the street in the mornings and afternoons, 4) adds economic incentives for businesses such as toy stores, bakeries, ice cream parlors, comic bookstores, kids bookstores, hobby shops, arts and crafts supply shops, music stores, and sporting goods stores to locate downtown where kids might stop in after school. I grew up in Owen Brown and often would walk over to the Baskin Robins or the bookstore after school when I was in middle school.

The bottom line for me is that if you build more residential you are going to get more kids needing schools. Kids add vitality to a neighborhood and we should be careful not to segregate them out of our downtown. One of the complaints of those of us who grew up in Columbia was there was not enough stuff to do and a good design can help chance that. Most lively downtowns have kids and schools and if we design the school right we can make it fit in to the rest of downtown without sacrificing other amenities. In fact, it might be a great way to enhance the surrounding area. The schools parking can serve Merriweather. The school could have a blackbox theater or jazz space. The school could have a pre-teen activities area like the Teen Center at The Barn. The school if locates on the east side of the Crescent could have a nature center connected to it. The school can be used at meeting space. We can be creative with a space scarcity and by doing so get more bang for our buck out of land use.

We are on our way to a new downtown and we can in typical Columbia fashion find new solutions. We should not be limited by what has been done before. We must also not fall into the mistakes of Bush's Iraq War "planning" and base our plans on rosy estimates. The last thing we want are more overcrowded schools or a road infrastructure not able to handle the new users. Lets plan for the maximum need and then a little more so that we don't get caught with longterm problems. Creative fixes are easier and cheaper to do if we plan them in advance before constructution than trying to retrofit solutions.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


I think you have totally drunk the kool-aid on this one, big time.

Just so that I understand what you are saying, let me summarize:

An elementary school in the crescent would require a totally new design ($$) and could serve the community for meetings, jazz, pre-teen activites, etc. Except when there is a concert at Merriwheather. You have already over-programmed the parking lot. If you think the parking requirements at an elementary school are minimal, I suggest you stop by Running Brook Elementary School some morning. You will see cars parked in the lot, on the curb, in the grass. It is a mess.

You wax on and on about kids walking to school and comic book stores, but if you look at the crescent, the only kids eligible to walk would be those that live in the crescent and the Town Center Apartments. I don’t believe this will generate a wave of three-foot tall pedestrians. In addition, sending 5-12 year olds across six lanes of traffic on a daily basis is not going to be acceptable to many parents. More traffic, more emissions, less good design. All other kids would have to bused into and out of the area.

With respect to generating a wave of economic interest (toy stores, bakeries, ice cream parlors), if 100,000 households can’t generate this type of retail (the last bakery left decades ago, Friendly’s has been gone for years) how does the sudden appearance of 5500 households make it happen?

I really think the easiest solution to the school problem is to convert the Faulkner Teachers Center back to Faulkner Ridge Elementary School. Faulkner Ridge is very close to downtown, and is easily accessed via Twin Rivers Road. This would be a true win-win. The building, fields, and parking lot are already there. I know that the Board of Education does not want to convert the building back to an elementary school, but I think it is in the best interest of Columbia and Howard County.

Moving away from schools and on to the subject of community centers. I think a community center in downtown would be a nice idea for the future residents. However, I think they should get in line with the rest of Columbia residents. Wilde Lake (population 6244), Oakland Mills (population 8,188), Harper’s Choice (population 7,548) and (arguably) Dorsey Search (population 7,521), have a village center, where Village Board Meetings are held, and each neighborhood has a neighborhood center. Long Reach has neighborhood centers in three of its four neighborhoods. Keep in mind that Kendall Ridge has roughly the same population as River Hill, but has no neighborhood center (???). The Village of your youth, Owen Brown (population 10,419), has four villages and only a village center building (although I believe it is the most renovated building in the CA system, so maybe it counts as more than one). Kings Contrivance (population 11,043): Just the Village Center. Ok, there is a “meeting room” at MacGill’s Common, but it really is more like a large closet, not a small room. Hickory Ridge (population 14,396), that’s right, one facility. Live in Clemens Crossing or Clary’s Forest? No community center for you! I do believe River Hill (population 5,636) has two neighborhoods and two facilities, maybe things are turning around out there.

The point here is that yes, we all love community centers; but the people of Columbia have been long waiting for them. Clearly, if Owen Brown and Hickory Ridge get by with one community center right now, Town Center (current population 1,743 + 5500 units) can probably get by for a few years. Let’s try to get our affairs in order in the rest of this community, and start serving the people who already live here before we start showering amenities on those who have not arrived.

Lastly, thank you for putting things out there. There are many in the downtown discussion that perpetuate a “culture of no.” That is, (as an example) they get excited and denounce 5500 households, but never seem to find the time to say what an appropriate number of households would be. There are many different examples that I could give, but I have gone on far too long. As I said, I appreciate that you putting things out there, and maybe through discussion, we all compromise and concede; you get a neighborhood center downtown, I get Faulkner Ridge Elementary School opened, and we all work together.

Peace and Love my Friend.

5:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Exploring reopening Faulkner Ridge Elem seems like a very good idea, especially relative to new construction costs, but I don't think that's an ideal solution for providing the Crescent neighborhood with an elementary school. That would be a 1½ mile walk from the Crescent. It's only 1.1 miles to Clemens Crossing Elementary from the Crescent. If the Crescent is developed residentially, it should be designed around a neighborhood elementary school like Columbia's other neighborhoods were, not force its residents to escort its youngest children to a school 1+ mile away.

It's refreshing to hear green roof technology and schools in the same sentence, too.

Speaking of your metro commute, shouldn't this town center plan also really nail down just where a public transit connector will come into and service the town center area? Otherwise, after development takes place, it will be too late for optimal location of such a route and unnecessary concessions will be made. Didn't you mention a few weeks ago you'd be discussing transportation soon?

Looking at the illustration you included of the Symphony Woods/Crescent area, it is a bit disturbing the number of trees missing from Symphony Woods vs.
current reality. Where did the trees go?

10:42 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

I would like nothing more than having us all work together. I think through a discussion we as a community can find the best solutions to the next evolution of our community. It is one of the main reasons I started this blog and one of the things I love about the blog format.

As to your comments, I have Faulkner Ridge on my list of possible school options, but I think there is a possibility we may need both it and a new site. I am not very confident in the school systems assumptions that it is basing its projections on. I think it makes sense to hold a site in reserve to be used during later phases if reality shows we need it. If it’s not needed, then the site can be used for something else in the later phases. As for the parking needs of a school, yes they are big (depending on school size), but that is why a garage that serves multiple communities because of time of day would make sense.

As for what’s in walking distance for kids I would have to see the school system regs, but I would think that Warfiels Triangle, Corporate Boulevard, and the Lakefront would all have some kids in walking distance. In cities all over the world kids walk across big roads to get to school and we can improve safety by using adult crossing guards as we already use at many of our school.
Now part of both your schools and community centers comments focus on population numbers. Let us think through 5500 new residential units. It is likely that each unit -- depending on design and pricing -- will have between 3 to 4 residents. This means we are talk about adding 16,500 to 22,000 new residents to the existing 1,743. Personally I am not sure if 5500 is enough new units considering the population pressures the county faces, but I am yet to be convinced that the proposed infrastructure will even approach meeting those needs and until I am I am not willing to start signing off on any numbers. As I have said from the start: Show me that it works and I will support it, until I am convinced it will work I won’t. The utter sloppiness of the plan thus far as been steadily reducing my trust, but I am open minded to seeing improvements that will earn back my trust. Getting back to the numbers, considering this new population we need to plan to meet that need with community rooms, schools, parking, transit infrastructure, swimming pools, etc. As for the school being an economic draw for certain businesses, of course it won’t be by its own, but the combination of population density and pass-by traffic start to make these things more economically viable.

As for who gets community rooms when, I think there is generally a shortage of cheap meeting space in the county (even in Columbia, which generally has more than a lot of other areas). Why not use the economics of more density to try to fix that rather than falling farther behind. With 16,500 to 22,000 new residents we will certainly need more meeting rooms and swimming pools. We are talking about roughly a 16-22% increase in Columbia’s population. I am happy to support filling in the needs of every village as we identify them, but let’s not start playing one part off another. Just because we have a need elsewhere doesn’t mean we should not plan for that need downtown.

11:09 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

The Metro post is still in the works. Maybe this weekend on early next week depending on how busy my weekend is. It will be a long post and I am sure will jump start a lot of discussion.

Thanks for your comments about green roofing and the need for a neighborhood school experience.

As for your comments about the trees, you are right, and I am particularly concerned with the north west corner of the Crescent, which is the area with the post trees that would be destoyed and I am not sure how many people realize how much of those trees are on the chopping block.

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