Howard County Blog

A Blog on what is going on in Howard County

Friday, December 29, 2006

Year End Questions

What was(were) your favorite blog post(s) of the past year? What do you look for in a blog post?

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

New Years Eve Activities

What are people's favorite activities to do on New Years Eve?

Monday, December 25, 2006

Post-Holidays Open Thread

So how did you spend Christmas? As per tradition I went to the movies. I saw Night at the Museum which was light and funny. What was your favorite movie of the year? You can read the review of my favorite in this old post.

Friday, December 22, 2006


Trust is needed in order to cooperate.

I started my involvement in dealing with downtown Columbia with complete trust. In fact, I nearly did not go to the charrette because I had complete trust in Ken and Guy sitting on the Zoning Board able to look out for the community’s interest. I only went on the strong direct and personal urging of my friend Ken Ulman.

Throughout the last year I have had my trust destroyed. Last April as I was losing my trust I wrote:

Every single person [in the community] I have talked to in this process has wanted to work positively with county officials to find the best plan for downtown redevelopment, yet it seems to me that this process has been made a lot more difficult because 1) the plan the consultants presented after the charrette didn't reflect what the community said during the charrette, but what the developer had been advocating for, 2) the fact that the plan has yet to be changed to reflect what the community has been consistently saying on things that there was near universal agreement about at both the charrette and the focus group like mixed income housing, 3) the effort by some to close the public out of the process, and 4) actions like the lack of the promised video of the Feb. 27th meeting that break down trust. I truly would like to see trust restored in this process, but I think the situation is clearly in the hands of the Department of Planning and Zoning and the new representative of General Growth to rebuild this trust.

The above comment was in response to the shock the community had when it was discovered that despite the Department of Planning and Zoning promising that the February 27th public meeting would be videotaped so there would be an undisputable public record of that meeting and what the community said, yet despite that promise the meeting was not video taped.

This is but one example of a long hard year, where I attend meeting after meeting and had my trust destroyed. Another glaring example was a Focus Group meeting about which I wrote the following:

What did you think of Wednesday’s focus group meeting on downtown Columbia redevelopment? My reaction can be summed up in one word: disgust! Utter disgust. I think the Department of Planning and Zoning (DPZ) should be ashamed of themselves for their efforts to try to ramrod the Focus Group members into giving their assent to 1) positions they clearly had already said they were not in agreement with (such as 10% moderate income housing and 5% middle income housing) and 2) provide a blank check for decisions on key aspects of the downtown plan be made without coming back for further review before the focus group (in many cases this involved pushing unresolved issues into a less public format). DPZ gave the appearance that they wanted the Focus Group to just serve as a means to give the plan a stamp of public approval and a tool to try to co-opt specific community leaders. Luckily we, Howard County residents, are very politically intelligent (after all many of us work in DC and have seen the big boys play these games or played them ourselves) and the focus group hasn’t let this happen. The game of pushing a decision forward in a process by claiming future opportunities for input and then turning around at these later “opportunities” and claiming that these decisions have already been made and the time for input has passed is an old one. In fact it is such an old game that we should all be insulted that they thought we were suckers enough that they could pull this off. Let us stop these games! These decisions are way too important for this type of childishness. It is this exact type of bull-shit that has been reducing public trust.

I want to thank the members of the focus group who spoke up against giving there assent, particularly Liz Bobo, Jud Malone, and Bridget Mugane.

(I should note that I have come to conclude that DPZ was acting on instructions from elected officials and so I do not blame DPZ staff as much as feel sorry for them.)

Trust can be lost and once it is lost it is hard to earn back without a serious demonstration of good faith. We have not yet had that demonstration of good faith.

I have sat through all but two of the Focus Group meetings, every day of charrette week, all of the public meetings, and read all of the Department of Planning and Zoning documents that they have thus far put out and I have yet to see the developers offering anything concrete to the community. Yes, there is a lot of pretty language about what the plan “should” have, but there are no concrete commitments or even any sign of movement in that direction. I beg everyone to study this plan. I also strongly hope everyone remembers there is a huge difference between declaring something will be so without creating the means to implement it and actually creating the way something is implemented. All the pretty language in the world doesn’t mean anything unless the substance achieves it.

This post, which is done when I do not have time to write much, is hardly scratching the surface of the process by which I lost my trust providing only two snapshots that I have written about previously. I would love to have my trust restored by a substantive demonstration of good faith on the part of the developers or a sign that county officials are champions of those that they represent (and I have high hopes for the new council, which I think starts without baggage that has reduced trust in other quarters), but as time goes by and more things are done to destroy that trust the bigger that demonstration will have to be. Actions shall be the judge.

I started with good faith attending the charrette and repeatedly offering solutions to issues I was hearing from the community or seeing as I studied the plan. I always moderated my solutions proposals (with the one exception of mixed income housing which is a base requirement to stay true to Rouse’s vision of Columbia) to insure that they did not undermine the ability of the developers to make a huge profit. I talked to Dennis Miller and after he left I spoke with Doug Godine (the senior GGP officials) and I have seen zero give on their side. Under these circumstances the only tactic is to stand strong and advocate content of what would achieve a good plan. When and if GGP ever puts something on the table that shows they have been listening to the community or if DPZ revises their plan to reflect what the community has been saying then I am more than ready to take a fresh look and see if we can move forward. I am ready to approve a plan tomorrow if I thought it might work, but first we must see such a plan. I have been spending a year offering up solutions I thought would satisfy the community, achieve a good plan, and make sure the developer made a huge profit. Despite countless hours and meetings over the past year I have seen no change to the plan. The solution is not to cave. Time is on our side, not theirs. The moment they are ready to talk and demonstrate good faith I am ready. Till then I urge everyone to not start letting them play one preferred amenity off another. We will all lose out in that circumstance. There is a reason why divide and conquer is such a common strategy. Let us not let that happen here. We are all stronger and smarter than to let that happen.

Thursday, December 21, 2006


I once heard Congressman Elijah Cummings say that the reason why for the last six years we have had the policies we do in this county is because the Republicans start out on the far right in political positions they take and Democrats start out in the center and then to compromise the Democrats move to the right. I think there are lessons to be learned in this. When one side is playing hardball and using all the games and maneuvers to get the best deal for themselves and you aren’t willing to champion what you want they will get more of what they want than you will get of what you want.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Open Thread

So I was out late Tango dancing so I didn't have a chance to write up a detailed post, but here is an open thread to keep you busy. Need a topic to jumpstart the discussion: What is your favorite park in Howard County and why is it your favorite?

Monday, December 18, 2006

Proud to Be an Oakland Mills Alumni

I have heard over the last couple days from several elected officials who attended the developer sponsored presentation of downtown Columbia planning to students at my alma mater Oakland Mills High School. From what I am hearing of what the students had to say I am even prouder of be being an Oakland Mills alum than I have ever been, and I have always been very proud of being a graduate of Oakland Mills. I hear the students ripped into the current plan and tore it apart. We teach critical thinking in our school system and it shows. The students took one look at the plan and saw it does not achieve what it claims to and just doesn't work.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Columbia Downtown Redevelopment Recap

The Mall to Merriweather Promenade: Part 1
The Mall to Merriweather Promenade: Part 2

Mixed Income Housing: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3


Why community planning matters.

Martin Luther King Day thoughts on the impact of community planning and whether new developments are contributing or undermining his dream and Rouses vision.

Let's Not Be Florida

Why the Community can set the terms of of redevelopment: Market Forces

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

I guess not yet, but here's hoping they will do it this time.

Let's Talk Solutions

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Architecture Downtown

Columbia is studied in urban planning classes the world over. Many architects would love to have their work showcased in Columbia’s downtown. I think that architectural competitions should be held for the buildings to be built in downtown Columbia, particularly signature buildings. In this way we can attract a superb array of unique building that will draw people to downtown rather than get plug and chug buildings that are not truly going to achieve the vital draw that I think we all want downtown Columbia to be.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Congressman Sarbanes Gets His Committee Assignment

Congressman Sarbanes (MD-3) has been named to the Education and Workforce Committee pending final approval by the Democratic Caucus. This committee seems like a good assignment for our new congressman. He has is work cut out for him with No Child Left Behind continuing to destroy our education system by rewarding only teaching to the test and thus only the recall level and not the critical thinking skills that are crucial to function in a democracy or a market economy. How many people remember covalent bonding or the War of 1812 five years after they finish school? Frankly, they don’t need to if they have the research skills to look it up and the critical thinking skills to assess their sources.

When I was in graduate school at the London School of Economics, which has the most internationally diverse student body among all English speaking universities, I noticed a distinct difference between the North American (i.e. US and Canadian) students and all the others. The non-North American students were great at regurgitating different authors’ arguments and giving one author’s critique of another author, but they were unable to generate their own critic of a particular theory or take information from a variety of sources and develop solutions. For example, I was taking a lot of classes on ethnic conflict and after reading lots of different theories and case studies most still could not identify which constitutional structure should be put together to reduce ethnic conflict in any giving situation. They could only say they would use Lijphart’s approach or Horowitz’s approach, not pick and choose what aspects of each would work best to mitigate conflict and what effects each of these aspects would have together. The North American students by contrast might not be able to quote back a particular author’s theories verbatim or give one author’s critique of another, but were always probing the ideas and developing their own often fresh critiques of any of the theories they looked at and given a particular problem they were good at take information from a variety of sources and come up with a creative solution. In a market economy it is crucial to have the critical thinking and problem solving skills to figure out how to best market a particular product or as a consumer sort out what is quality information to make purchase choices. In a democracy we need to have these critical thinking skills to sort out what candidates, the media, interest groups, neighbors, friends, and family all say about candidates so we can determine where candidates actually stand on the issues we care about and what their records are so we can determine who we want to vote for. No Child Left Behind is a systematic attack on the teaching of critical thinking and thus an attack on our market competitiveness (the critical thinking focus of our education system is why we have such an innovative and entrepreneurial society and is the source of so many new technologies) and our democratic process. Standardized tests do not measure what gives our society its strategic advantage over most other countries and teaching to the test only weakens America.

So needless to say I strongly hope Congressman Sarbanes will use his new committee assignment to get rid of No Child Left Behind and maybe start addressing the real issues of regional income disparities, large class sizes, bureaucratic burdens on teachers, and recruiting into the teaching field those critical thinkers that challenge their students to think, like many of the great teachers I had hear in Howard County did when I was growing up here.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

One Year Anniversary

One year ago today was the first detailed presentation to my knowledge about problems with the plan then moving forward for the redevelopment plan for downtown Columbia. I made that presentation at the Columbia Democratic Club’s December meeting. Steve Fine, who now runs the blog Fineline, organized a panel on the redevelopment of Columbia’s downtown. Bill Mackey of the Department of Planning and Zoning came and presented the plan, then I gave a power point highlighting some of the problems in the plan that would need to be fixed before it was approved. Josh Feldmark, Mary Kay Sigaty, and Ken Ulman were also invited to give their thoughts and join me and Bill in answering questions.

I have always thought that one of the most important roles political clubs like the Columbia Democratic Club play is to provide a forum to voters to voice their views to the candidates and elected officials before the voter goes into the voting booth so that the candidate can listen to their constituents and learn from them before it is to late and they get an election night surprise. In putting together this panel Steve provided just this service to these three candidates. I am grateful to him for doing so.

I truly believe that through community dialog we can come up with a plan that works.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

New Leadership on Affordable Housing

County Exec Ken Ulman is putting together his team and has decided on new leadership the Department of Housing and Community Development. The Sun has a great article on this. Based on what the article says this seems like two great choices. Both the new Director Stacy Spann and the new Deputy Director Tom Carbo have a deep understanding of the county and extensive experience working on affordable housing issues. Stacy Spann also brings the experience of growing up in affordable housing in the county. It is time for new ideas and more creativity in dealing with achieving a full range of housing in our county that reflects county household incomes and it sounds like Stacy Spann and Tom Carbo might be just the right people to do it. Here is hoping.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Tower

I had hoped to get to bed by midnight for a change tonight since I have to be into DC really early Tuesday morning, but clearly yet again that did not happen. I will post my reasons for opposing the tower later in the week. The short version is the height is the least of my problems with it considering how many other problems that proposed building has. I have written about a number of these problems before as parts of other posts, but it looks like people want me to sum them up.

Market Forces or If We Let Them Build They Will Come

The nature of the profits to be made off of building downtown Columbia (or really any residential construction in Howard County) considering our location between Baltimore and Washington, our superb school system, etc. means that developers will build anything we say they can build. It is entirely up to the county residents through our elected officials to set these terms. The developers have already used up their residential unit allotment for Columbia, so they cannot build the only thing that is selling right now (office space for example is not selling). The notion that some seem to be pushing that we have to limit our terms to some random set of items that then is zero sum forcing different desired to compete against each other is not only false on the face of it, even worse it plays into the developers hands by dividing the community and making different desires compete. Anyone who plays this game is undermining both their own self interest, but more importantly the communities self interest. If you disagree with this you have to prove to me that developers in this market would say they will not build. There just is to much money to be made for them not to build. That means we, the community, through our elected officials set these terms. And for the record, the Coalition for Columbia’s Downtown has consistently said they support the developers making a big profit. Where they draw the line is they say that the developers cannot push their costs onto the tax-payers (including lien-payers) of Howard County and Columbia and that the developers who with a stroke of a zoning change without a single foundation being laid will make an immense profit of at least $1 billion will need to contribute back to the community by building according to the terms that the community decides are in its interests and reflect the values of mixed income housing, preservation of green-space, and planning adequately so that infrastructure meets the communities needs.

Monday, December 11, 2006


Last week testifying to the Transition Team guestblogger Alan Klein had a fable that I think sums up very well the current state of affairs with regard to the 22 story condo building that is proposed for the Lakefront area:

Everybody agrees that the Tower is inappropriate for Downtown Columbia. Anybody could do something about that, but Nobody is doing what Somebody clearly could be doing to stop it.

It seems that Somebody believes that Nobody can do anything at this point. Anybody who looks at the situation realizes that Everybody needs to stand up and be counted.

There is no reason for Everybody to be harmed simply because Nobody is doing what Somebody should have done already. Anybody can see that this administration needs to stand up, be a Somebody, and take immediate action!

Friday, December 08, 2006

An Era Ends

A sad story in the Howard County Times this week. I grew up inside the glow from the Colby’s house as it is a block from my parent’s house. It will be very sad to see them go, since they are a local institution. I remember how each year they would add one more element to the light display and it was one of the rights of the season to walk down and see what was new this year.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Last Night's Transition Team Public Speak-Out

Last nights Transition Team Public Speak-Out will be rebroadcast on Dec. 18-20, 12:30 pm and on
Dec. 20 at 8pm. It was an interesting evening and I will likely post more on this later, but first I want to hear your thoughts on it. What did you think of the speak out? What issues do you think the county needs to address? What organizational or staff changes are needed in county government? Do any county government components need specific new equipment or new facilities? I testified among other things that I thought the Department of Planning and Zoning needed more staff if they were going to deal with the redevelopment of Downtown Columbia, Rt. 1, and Rt. 40 all at once and I also testified that the Department of Planning and Zoning needs a scanner capable of putting all plans under review online.

Also if you missed the Speak-Out, but wish to submit your thoughts to the transition team you can email them to until December 22nd.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

New County Council Leadership

Council Chair: Calvin Ball

Council Vice-Chair: Courtney Watson

Zoning Board Chair: Mary Kay Sigaty

Zoning Board Vice-Chair: Jen Terrasa

Liquor Board Chair: Greg Fox

Liquor Board Vice-Chair: Courtney Watson

Rep to Maryland Association of Counties: Jen Terrasa

Rep to the Baltimore Metropolitan Council: Greg Fox

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Comcast Issues

I am not sure how many other people were having connectivity problems, but I couldn't get Comcast to work at either my condo or my parent's house. When my parents called Comcast they said that their service was done in four zip codes. I headed down to College Park for the night to use my former college roommates internet access to I could post.

I feel bad that I did not get to my planned posts last weekend. Life got busy. I hope to bring on additional guestbloggers soon and now that the new Council and Executive have been sworn in I am sure the number of posts will start increasing.

Monday, December 04, 2006

A New Day for Howard County

Tonight the new County Executive and County Council get sworn in. With the exception of Calvin Ball they are all new at their position, but I am extremely hopeful that this group of six incredibly smart representatives of the citizens of Howard County will be great advocates for the community's interests. They have just been given a solemn trust by the county's voters. I am impressed that our new County Executive Ken Ulman is starting off his administration by having his transition team hold a listening session for Howard County citizens to voice their thoughts on what his new administration should do. The listening session is this Wednesday at 7:30pm at the Banneker Room of the George Howard Building. I encourage everyone to go to it and share your thoughts.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Should we elect people to fill nonpolicymaking positions?

Doug Miller has a column in the Columbia Flier/Howard County Sun of Nov. 30 in which he argues against it.
I very much agree. Candidates for policymaking offices can take stands on issues that we voters can be either for or against and vote accordingly. Candidates for such offices as sheriff, clerk, or various kinds of judge can only tell you that they would be more competent than the others at performing the essential administration or judicial functions of that office. It would seem to me to make more sense for these to be civil service type positions for which one would have to pass a test and be appointed by either the County Executive or the governor from among the the list of those who can show by the test results that they are competent to perform these functions. Confirmation could be by either the Council or the state legislature. Is it enough that candidate X for sheriff or clerk of court or register of wills has a good personality or is a member of your political party? I think not.

Open Thread

I plan a lot of posts over the weekend, but use this as an open thread to discuss any issue you are interested in. For example, what are your top priorities that you want the new County Council and County Executive to address?

Thanks also to guestblogger Ken for posting while I have had a busy week. I am looking for other guestbloggers to help spread the load out and help make sure a broad percpective on the county's issues are discussed here. I am pretty picky about who I ultimately choose, but if you are interested or know someone who would be good please email me and I will send them an application so I can see some of their writing.

I expect posts will start getting a lot more active once the new county government is sworn in next week, but as I said I also hope to post this weekend on a whole backlog of issues I just haven't had time to post on this week.