Wednesday, December 31, 2008

So...About the Embrace Hostility Thing...

In my "retirement" post over at EHHC (lingo for the cool kids), I said I would do the occasional post but that I would be focusing my attentions on this blog. Then, Columbia Talk chimed in with a minor victory speech (taken in jest). After that, I was roasted for becoming comformist. I took that in jest, too, but rang a bit true when I looked at the difference in material between the two.

And then, I got a curtain call to come back from I'm not dead yet.

I'm not going to pull a Hillary Clinton and say that I've found my voice. Still, I have realized that I can talk politics here with the same kind of disdain for lunacy that Embrace Hostility has, coupled with this geeky love that I have for local politics.

The end result is that I think I'm going to do a mix. I'll still make well-thought out political arguments, but not in such a dry way. And I'm still going to be a snark. Besides, our politics in Columbia don't seem to be too civil anyway.

Consider this the construction of the Six Million Dollar Man. We can rebuild him... (much like Columbia's downtown).

Monday, December 29, 2008

Forum on Fed Health Care Policy

I wasn't able to make the forum tonight that Exec Ulman is holding on federal health care policy - per the suggestion of the incoming Obama administration. I would have liked to have gone, but couldn't make it. Can anyone that went send me some notes of what was discussed? Particularly, I'd like to hear if anyone discussed how the Healthy Howard Access Plan hasn't worked well at all and how it should probably be transformed into a debt forgiveness program to encourage general practice doctors in the County.

You can drop me a line here.

A Year Ends, Another Begins

It's been a strange year in so many ways, but good too in many ways.

Embrace Hostility made a bit of a mark, even though it was originally just to help sell bumper stickers. I did sell a couple, so maybe some more smart ass posts will get a couple of more?

Columbia Now is now a target of some naysayers, and that's ok - I actually welcome a good discussion. I hope that the naysayers will come on over here and engage in some honest convo. Seems like it's way too commonplace for anons to run amuck.

There's a lot to be said for activism and having a passion for your community. I really feel that civiv engagement is important. It's the duty, though, of civic actors to be open to ideas from both sides and find the right solution amid the many ideas in the ether. Hell, if we're shooting for civility - we should be aiming a lot higher than that - then the least we can do is try to come up with good solutions to our problems.

For me, though, I'm hoping that 2009 will be the time for Columbia to take the next step. Columbia was once the model on which modern suburbia was based. Now, it kind of blends in with the crowd. Columbia can evolve to become cutting edge again. We can go green with our building. We can become a truly accessible, 21st century small city. Our ideas should be challenged and thought out. We should build concensus and be a city and a county that finds ways to break through our own cynicism and determine our own fate.

I hope we're up to the challenge because next year is going to be a tough one.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

An Update on CB 62

I decided to delve into the proposed legislation, CB 62, a little bit further. Having read the legislation over a couple of times, I noticed that the reporting in the Columbia Flier is missing a couple of details on the subject.

The prime detail is that the number of Moderate Income Housing Unit credits available under the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (not Act) would increase by 100 for units meeting certain requirements of square footage. These square footage standards actually violate portions of the existing county housing code for affordable housing units.

The legislation allows for the 100 additional credits to go to units that are (1) one or two bedrooms and (2) have maximum square footage of 900 sq ft for a 1 bedroom and 1100 sq ft for a 2 bedroom unit.

The county code calls for a MINIMUM square footage of 750 and 950 for 1 and 2 bedroom apartments, respectively. But, for townhomes, the county's minimum is 1400 sq ft for a 2 bedroom. This minimum is obviously larger than what is proposed in CB62. That would have to be resolved.

In my initial post, I discussed my concern with the portion of the bill that can exempt up to one-third of a development's units from having to get housing credits if they are moderate income units.

This problem, though, is equally troubling because it would likely lead to the construction of condo buildings to satisfy these conflicting minimums - as the legislation stands now. On the other hand, this legislation may compel affordable downtown units upon approval of the master plan for downtown Columbia. That would be a positive, especially considering the recent spring up in the number of short sale units in downtown condos. It could also be perceived that developers would be trying to create pockets of affordable units in lieu of mixed-income communities. That flies in the face of Columbia planning. It's a mixed bag.

Anyway, it sounds like the bill will be tabled for more review and rewriting.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

County Council Aims to Increase Affordable Housing

The generally accepted philosophy in Howard County is that there must be a delicate balance between growth and sprawl. Some would argue that it is too restrictive. Some would like to see even more careful planning and direct citizen voting on how that planning is decided upon and executed.

Another critical issue in the county is that of affordable housing. Working for a nonprofit considered one of the national authorities on the subject, I am naturally a supporter of publicly-designed and privately-executed affordable housing plans.

Right now, the county's Adequate Public Facilities Act requires developers in the county to acquire housing credits for each unit they want to build. The County allots approximately 1500 per year based upon their expectations of housing growth between now and 2020. Also, developers must set aside between 10 and 15 percent of their developments to be sold to buyers with incomes below 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI). [That's a problem unto itself. There needs to be more broad classification than just that if it doesn't exist already.]

The rub is that only 100 credits are set aside each year for those moderate-income housing units. So, if developers want to build more than 100 moderate-income units per year, they cannot do so under current law.

In an attempt to alleviate the issue, County County chair Mary Kay Sigaty sponsored a bill that would no longer require developers to acquire credits for moderate-income housing units. The intent is to allow developers to build more of this class of units. Also, the bill would allow developers to reserve up to one-third of a development's units for moderate-income housing before having to acquire credits for them. All developments would still have to fulfill sufficient infrastructure requirements before approval.

Critics of the bill included Greg Fox, who said that removing the credits would cause too much growth in the County that would not be accounted for in the general plan. It's a valid concern.

County housing and community development director, Stacy Spann, approved of the bill and noted that the economy will compel higher demand for affordable housing.

All sides appear to be happy with the intent of the bill, as am I. Mixed-income communities seem to work best in the affordable housing world, though there has been evidence in Memphis that the presence of mixed-income communities alone do not make a city better. The issue we face is how best strike a balance between managed growth and the demand for affordable housing.

First, we have to not be short-sighted. Ms. Spann does note that the demand for affordable housing will increase given this economy. It is likely that more people will default, lose their homes, and have to go into rental communities. Demand for housing - existing and new construction - has dropped dramatically and brought prices down with it. It is expected that the market has not yet reached bottom because of a coming wave of mortgage resets in the Alt A and Option ARM markets. The housing market is in a corrective phase and its ending point is still anyone's guess. The 1500 units that the County expects to see annually will not happen for some time because of depressed demand. Therefore, we should not address this issue through the prism of current housing market conditions. This depression in the market represents an anamoly.

Second, we should continue to strike the balance between growth and a desire for mixed-income communities. We have seen sprawl in Columbia as commercial development has outpaced housing growth. Infrastructure concerns and urban design do not appear to have been adequately considered in making these approvals, so it is difficult to not call for serious pause when discussing modifying County-wide development regulations on the residential side.

In this market, the credit program works. It may be in our interests to keep the allocation schedule concept, but increase its flexibility without going quite as far as what Sigaty supports.

Let me provide an exteme example. Say a single county development would encompass all 1500 units provided under the general plan. If a developer were keen, they could set aside 500 units of moderate-income housing before having to get any credits. They could then allow for an additional 500 replacement units. Now, we've approved 2000 units provided that the infrastructure is there or could be developed to provide for the expected growth. That's the worst case scenario for the County - a 33% overage in the number of units ok'd by the County.

Perhaps, then, we should make the credits more flexible. Instead of setting aside just 100 credits for moderate-income housing, the County allows for some percentage of the total allocation of credits to be used for either moderate-income or market rate housing.

As it relates to the debate over the Downtown Columbia Master Plan, critics are hoping that 25% of the proposed 5500 units added to downtown in the 30 year plan could be deemed affordable (up to 120% of AMI). So, why not allow for an additional 15% of "flexible" credits each year? The County could allocate a floor of 100 credits, and a maximum of 325 (or round it off to 350). That would seem more likely to appeal to both off the County's development concerns.

Monday, December 15, 2008

CB58, Turf Valley, and a Referendum

HCCA is gathering signatures for a petition that would activate a referendum on CB58 - the proposed legislation that would allow for a change to zoning restrictions in Turf Valley. At the center of the issue is the regulation change that would increase the grocery zoning max to 55,000 square feet (up from a 18,500 square feet) and cap other stores in the zoned area to a size of 20,000 square feet.

HCCA opposes this legislation and would like to have it put to a referendum - presumably in the hopes that it could advocate effectively enough to have it voted down. It seems that a lot of the effort behind this stems from a distrust of the County Council and Executive Ken Ulman. The underlying tone appears to me that the HCCA feels that the elected officials are in the back pocket of Turf Valley developers that asked for this zoning change.

The citizens that comprise HCCA, though, have legitimate and earnest concerns about what this kind of rezoning and redevelopment would to for traffic on Route 40 and I-70. I don't find that there's anything wrong with having a concern about the traffic, environmental, and overall infrastructure impact of proposed rezoning or development.

The opposition to the HCCA - comprising many of the residents of the Turf Valley PGCC - believes that this proposal has been thoroughly vetted by citizens, incorporates their input and concerns, and should not be a matter for the population of Howard County at large. They feel that they want their shopping center and have worked out a plan that will respond to that desire.

The HCCA would argue that the issue here is responsible growth and development. Therefore, since growth and development have an impact on many more citizens than just those of Turf Valley, they argue that the issue is one that should be put to a vote of a body much larger than the County Council - a body elected to determine matters such as this on our behalf.

For a moment, let's put aside the allegations of misleading communication from the HCCA and CB58 supporters. It is apparent that both sides are clearly willing to misrepresent themselves and each other to achieve their ends. That is troubling to itself, but not the point of this essay.

The issues at play, really, are those of "standing" and the real merits of a referendum. Who has a right to oppose development? Is it everyone in the jurisdiction? Is it only those in Turf Valley? How about some group in between? It is difficult to decide. For me, it is probably somewhere in the middle. The citizens of Turf Valley should clearly have standing. Some measure of those outside Turf Valley should have standing, too. Still, it is not clear whether they should have standing in the form of a vote on legislation.

The referendum is a clever political ploy. It allows politicians to sideskirt the very issues that they are charged with making decision about and can put it to a vote for the people to decide. In a representative democracy, though, the referendum really is a way to avoid doing a critical part of the job.

For those that approve of the referendum in question, they will always claim that politicians make big mistakes, are not aware of the will of the people, and that they do no provide enough of an outlet for concerned citizens to impact policy.

Naysayers like me will say what I just did - that a representative democracy compels our elected officials to make tough calls for us. We elect them to do that and they should accordingly take the flack and consequences for such decisions. Officials are elected with the charge from voters that we trust their judgment on a comprehensive set of issues. In this case, zoning is one of those issues. Yes, philosophies are considered when voting, but ultimately, a vote for a candidate is a validation of their thought process. We should trust the thought process of elected officials because that is a implicit consequence of representative democracy.

Referendums are political campaigns unto themselves. They often warp an issue from its core into namecalling, misinformation, and scheming. Instead of focusing on the real problem at hand, it becomes something far larger and worse. Need I remind anyone of the misinformation about a host of candidates in this past November's election?

Advocacy - without the campaign ads, money, and lies - is really the best way to work on these issues. Concerned citizens should organize to petition their elected officials for time and opportunity to present their side of an issue. It is clear that members of the HCCA and the supporters of CB58 are well-informed and intentioned. They are armed with facts and research that intends to prove their cases. The process that we have for public comment and consideration of an issue is the right way to handle this. Ultimately, the fate of CB58 should be in the hands of those we elect - elected based on their judgment.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Governor O’Malley, County Executive Ulman Work Together to Maintain HoCo Commuter Bus Service

I ran across this good news today - though 5 days old - while checking out the kind mentions to this new space across the HoCo blog-o-web.

“Working together with County Executive Ulman and the citizens of Howard County, we have been able to reach an agreement that not only ensures a regular transit option between Howard County and Baltimore City, but also addresses budget concerns,” said Governor O’Malley. “Based on the extreme hardship such a step would have on citizens, as well as the lack of viable transportation alternatives, MTA will maintain a reduced commuter bus schedule on these routes.”

Complete elimination of three commuter bus lines from the county had been proposed by MTA as part of an overall budget reduction plan due to declining revenues resulting from the recent national economic downturn. A key reason for the restoration of partial service is that the MTA proposal would have left Howard County commuters without a regular service transit option to Baltimore.

“I am pleased that we are able to partner with the state to restore a significant portion of these bus lines for Howard County residents,” said County Executive Ulman. “We are well aware of the tough fiscal decisions being made at both the state and local levels and we appreciate the Governor’s staff working with us to restore some of these routes. Today Governor O’Malley has practiced what he preaches, ‘Compromise in not a dirty word.’”

Delegate Liz Bobo supported a look at a gas tax increase proposed by County Council member Mary Kay Sigaty as part of a plan to be able to maintain some or all of the MTA routes servicing our area. Despite the recent plummet in gas and crude oil prices, that additional taxation would not have been viewed very favorably in the current economic environment.

I'm very happy that Executive Ulman and Governor O'Malley were able to work out a deal. Certainly, it is not perfect, but accessibility to viable public transportation around Columbia is critical.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Columbia's Current Development Challenges

Nearing the original intent for 100,000 people in just over 40 years, the demographics of Columbia and our County are changing. We have a population that is generally well-off. Our community seems to agree that we have better than average schools, relatively low crime, and a wealthy historic of economic development opportunities. Still, Columbia is facing a crossroads in its development and population.

As our city - yes, city - has grown, it has become apparent that many modern urban planning philosophies have been abandoned. Like many smaller cities in the state, we have chosen to develop our land in a way that does not jive with the concept of the modern city. Columbia is experiencing development on its fringes that do not particularly tie into the city as a whole. We are seeing sprawl on a daily basis in retail and commercial construction. It is adding to traffic issues and creates a community that is not citizen-friendly.

At the same time, our downtown area has never fully achieved its potential. Yes, it has components of achievement - the Lakefront, the Mall, Wilde Lake Park - but so many issues face downtown.

While there are sidewalks everywhere in downtown, much of it feels and is disconnected. Traffic speeds along the Little Patuxent Parkway and Governor Warfield Parkway loop, creating a downtown that is not friendly for a pedestrian to navigate. I can walk to the mall from Vantage Point Road, but crossing Little Patuxent to get to the entrance is a gamble.

Downtown Columbia should not just be a retail destination for people who do not live here. The Mall in Columbia is the engine that drives downtown. Its engine is sputtering, though. The development around the Mall in recent years has been less than thoughtful and doesn't exhibit modern integrated planning techniques. What we now have is a Mall Loop that lacks identity, purpose, and direction.

When I moved to Columbia, all of my friends told me that it was great that I would be halfway between Baltimore and D.C. The implication was that I wouldn't want to spend my play time in Columbia proper. For the most part I don't, though I am a patron of several bars and restaurants outside of downtown. Downtown of a city, though, should attract people to it for nightlife, entertainment, and culture. With the exception of Merriweather events and concerts or the occasional Lakefront event, downtown fails to meet that standard.

The implication of all of this is that Columbia is now in more advanced stages of working with General Growth Properties on finalizing their 30 year vision for Columbia's downtown. In effect, we are engaging in a discussion for the next generation of downtown Columbia. We have to choose how much we should harken to our past - its successes and failures - as a base for our future.

There are groups that feel that Columbia's downtown has achieved well and should be modestly preserved. In effect, they would more or less like to keep things as they are.

I am not of that ilk. I believe that cities grow and evolve. The city is a living thing. It can and should change and become better. It can become more responsive to the people that live in it. Columbia's downtown can grow and actually improve the life of the city in terms of commerce, environmental stewardship, and vibrance.

The plan that GGP has proposed isn't perfect, but it's a good start. With modest changes and careful zoning requirements, it can be a solid vision for this city to have a real downtown.

Welcome to Columbia Now

My name is Ryan Ballengee and I'm a resident of downtown Columbia, in the Town Center village. I've lived here since December 2007 and have worked for Enterprise Community Partners (formerly Enterprise Foundation) since 2005.

I'm a young man - 25 - and have lived in Maryland my entire life. I grew up in Pasadena, Maryland, in Anne Arundel County. I attended Mount St. Joe for high school and then went on the University of Maryland for five years to get an undergraduate degree in business management and a Master of Public Policy degree.

Politically speaking, I am fairly centrist. On social issues, I lean to the left. On fiscal issues, I lean more to the right. I believe that morality should have no lean.

It is from that context that I will write about the issues facing Columbia. Previously, I poked fun at the Choose Civility movement in the County because (a) it was an easy target for jokes and (b) civility is a weak standard for our County. It is my opinion that this County should strive for much higher standards in not only the behavior of its people, but in everything that it does.

I feel that it is time to start talking about ways to achieve that higher standard.