Howard County Blog

A Blog on what is going on in Howard County

Monday, October 16, 2006

Introducing Coalition for Columbia’s Downtown

For those who like me – due to work or other reasons – were unable to make it to today’s press conference launching the new Coalition for Columbia’s Downtown hear is the text of what Alan Klein (the new groups leader and one of my guestbloggers) said launching the new group:

It is fitting that we hold this gathering, introducing this group, on this date, and at this place. It was almost exactly 20 years ago that the Hug Statue was unveiled and placed here in this beautiful setting created for it – an occasion that marked Columbia’s twentieth birthday and honored Mort Hoppenfeld, Columbia’s chief designer. It has been exactly one year and one day since the Charrette process was begun – a process which began with our citizens spontaneously and overwhelmingly affirming, and envisioning into the future, the values that guided Mort and Columbia’s other designers and that have made Columbia the best place to live east of the Mississippi. And, it has been one year and one day since the Charrette process was begun – a process which, by the time it ended, had created a plan to bulldoze this park and displace this statue (which is, I would note, a perversely masterful piece of symbolism).

Now let’s be clear. We support the idea of the Charrette and are grateful to those in the County who sponsored and subsidized the event. Done well, a charrette is an effective vehicle for gathering, and responding to, citizen input on major projects such as the completion of Downtown Columbia. Unfortunately, in our view, something went terribly wrong in last year’s Charrette.

The citizen input was clear, even to the Charrette consultants. They acknowledged that collectively we told them we were quite in favor of further development here in Downtown so long as it was kept to reasonable proportions in terms of density and building heights, sufficient affordable housing was provided, historical and cultural needs were respected, the environment was not degraded, and traffic, parking, and transit were all adequately handled.

You see, Columbians, indeed Howard Countians, have been brought up for two generations now with the expectation that Jim Rouse’s goals in establishing Columbia will be honored and actually implemented. Jim said that he wanted Columbia to respect the land, be a complete city, be a place for people, and, oh by the way, make a profit as well for those taking the risk to do the development. We couldn’t agree more!

So what did we get in the plan supposedly based on the Charrette?

We said we wanted to hold density to reasonable proportions. In fact, “LOW” was the term the Charrette consultants used to describe citizen wishes. Instead, we were presented with a plan which provided for up to 5500 new residences, three to four times what General Growth Properties itself proposed less than two years ago.

We said we wanted appropriate building heights, which were consistently stated by citizens as being those up to 10 – 12 stories. Instead, we were presented with a plan with many areas of 20 story and higher buildings and which includes, through its omission, a 27 story high rise close to the Lakefront.

Jim Rouse demanded that Columbia be an inclusive city. One in which, as he said, the janitor and the executive would live in the same neighborhood. The County’s plan tells us that truly affordable, low income housing in Downtown is an impossibility and that instead we will have to make due with provisions for moderate and middle income housing. That is, for those making 50 to $110,000 with nothing for lower income residents.

We were provided a plan in which various historical buildings were often considered for the scrap pile and in which a requirement for “public amenities” might well be satisfied by some art hanging in the lobby of a privately owned, controlled access office building or the interior courtyard of that same, private controlled access, building.

And, instead of traffic and related issues being adequately handled, we were presented with a plan that called for traffic levels which earned a failing grade, according to the standards of the County itself.

As to profit? No problem here! The potential windfall to be derived from this redevelopment, this bestowment of thousands more residential units than is currently allowed will be huge. Some have estimated it as upwards of one billion dollars.

There have been, we want to emphasize, some positive things, both in the plan that was said to have been derived from the Charrette and in the ensuing Focus Group discussions the County, through the Department of Planning and Zoning, has conducted.

We appreciate and support the general notion of a vibrant, walkable, people-friendly Downtown, which the County has said is its goal, as well.

We appreciate the notion of mixed uses throughout the Downtown area.

We appreciate that the County has listened and has included a design review process for new construction, though we would rather that lay people …residents…be included in that process as well as professionals.

We appreciate that the County has lowered the overall heights of buildings in their revised plan. We note, however, that this reduction was not due to a values-based desire to achieve a human scale of development, but was rather due to the fact that they under-estimated the traffic congestion that the density their original plan called for would create.

We appreciate that the County will encourage green construction. We believe, however that mere “encouragement” is too little, too late and falls short of the vision required to take Columbia into the future as “The Next America”.

We appreciate the fact that the Charrette was held at all and that the County has continued to engage at least a few citizens, their hand-picked Focus Group, in discussions on the issues that have arisen from their original plan.

We appreciate the dedication and hard work which Marsha McLaughlin of DPZ and her staff have put into this process. We wonder, however, where our elected officials have been and what guidance, if any, they have provided to those who work, after all, for them and at their behest.

And, finally, perhaps paradoxically, we appreciate that the County’s plan strayed so far from what the citizens actually said we wanted during the Charrette, for it is this chasm between citizen input and the resulting Charrette output that has spurred so much energy, interest, and activism.

It was Delegate Liz Bobo who first leapt into this chasm and mobilized 300+ people to gather last January, beginning and legitimizing the expression of doubts, concerns, and questions about what the County was proposing and about how quickly the proposal was being pushed through the system. (Thank you, Liz Bobo!)

It was into this chasm that, for almost a year now, dozens of citizens have leapt - faithfully attending Focus Group meetings. Sitting as mostly silent witnesses to a process which was causing them grave concern, and often as vocal contributors to attempt its improvement, as well.

It was into this chasm that voters leapt to elect new members of the Columbia Council and nominees to the County Council who stood publicly in favor of slowing down the process and making sure that we take the time we need to take in order to create a development plan worthy of this city, indeed this county, and its values.

And it is into this chasm that we announce the formation of the “Coalition for Columbia’s Downtown”, an independent, non-partisan, grassroots collection of individuals from around the City and the County. Our purpose is to be advocates for the clear values that were expressed by the public during the Charrette; to provide a focus for those values, to be a container in which those values can be developed and made clearer, and to be a vehicle to ensure that those values are adhered to by the County, the Columbia Council, GGP, and the development community in general.

Specifically, we announce the following five first positions and actions:

  • The County Council is about to consider a nominee to fill a vacancy on the Planning Board. We urge the Council to table this appointment. This is not about the nominee or his qualifications, but rather a statement that the new Executive and especially the new Council should be the ones making this decision.

  • We support the County Council’s move to protect Governor Warfield Parkway as a Scenic route and thank Council members Merdon and Ulman for responding to citizen input and proposing this designation.

  • We ask that the County Council and County Executive candidates respond to our positions, as laid out in our Executive Summary and, soon in a longer white paper on Downtown Columbia. We will make sure that their responses receive wide distribution.

  • The proposed Plaza Tower building is much too tall for the rest of Downtown and is out of keeping with the human scale of development that the citizens support. Its construction should be halted and the use of that site considered in the context of the rest of the Charrette area.

  • We plan to hold a series of gatherings, both large and small, during which we will work to educate the public as to what is going on with respect to Downtown development, and to be educated by them as well, as we continue to work to be the face and voice of the public’s values, needs, and wishes in this area.

Frankly, we would prefer that we didn’t have to be doing this. We would prefer that someone with real authority (and, frankly, we don’t care if that someone is the County, GGP, CA, or someone else) …that someone with real authority step up to the plate with their own grand vision for Downtown Columbia. Someone who will say, “We won’t wait to be required, encouraged, or even asked to do what’s right. We INSIST on affordable housing in Downtown that matches the income levels of our population. We INSIST on green technology in all new construction so that Columbia takes its place as a leader among cities in this area. We INSIST on funding adequate public transportation so that we make the city more accessible and reduce people’s dependence on cars. We INSIST on a wide variety of publicly available cultural and civic amenities to make Columbia an even more attractive, vibrant destination. Bottom line…we INSIST on creating a Downtown whose development is steeped in the values that Jim Rouse first promulgated and that the community holds dear!”

Columbia is a planned community. More importantly, it is a planned community based on certain values. It is vital that all development be of human scale and done in the spirit of those values. We urge all citizens to make your voices heard and to join with us in support of our community’s values. This is the spirit in which Jim Rouse founded Columbia. We owe it to him, to ourselves, and to future generations to do what we can to make sure that we leave Columbia even better than he left it to us.

Alan, great job! I could not have said it better myself :) And thank you to all the great people who have given up their time and energy to make sure the future development of Howard County is done well.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you all for your continued diligence. Concerned activism benefits us all.

12:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why do you need a coalition? According to Ken's website, his efforts single-handedly saved Merriweather!

4:37 PM  
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