Howard County Maryland Blog

Local Politics and Current Events

Does Columbia need a High Rise?

Posted by bsflag2007 on Sunday, May 6, 2007

I have not weighed in on the High Rise controversy because I really didn’t feel like I knew enough about the situation to make any kind of comment – though like most people, I have my personal gut level feelings about the need for a high rise.

So, like the product of too much formal education that I am,  I started doing some research and talking to people on a very informal level. The history of the use of this site – and the applicable regulations, etc make it very difficult to make an easy “cut and dried” declaration of who is right about what is or should be “legally” allowed (in spite of what any side might like to claim).

Sure, there have been various “rules” in place at various times, which may or may not have been promulgated at the behest of certain influential groups or individuals instead of in the interest of the common good.

Bottom line:  I think (as Mr. Ulman keeps saying) the best resolution to this issue is a negotiated compromise.

Developers (and anyone trying to do business or simply function) in HoCo truly need to be able to rely on the stability of the rules and laws.

There are lots of decisions and investments made based on the existing rules and laws at any given time. Changes to them simply cannot be arbitrary or unnecessarily frequent — and they cannot result in financial losses to citizens honestly trying to navigate the rules without the municipality making financial amends.

It is fundamental — no taking of property (or the value of the property) without due process or compensation.

Arguments predicated on excluding “developers” as a special class of citizens who are not entitled to this protection don’t persuade fair minded people.

If you are tempted to deny some “rich developer” or company these basic rights, take a deep breath and consider how you would feel if you bought a lot in order to build a house…. spent a substantial portion of your savings on engineering and plans and fees to get a building permit, got a loan and  started paying interest to a bank…. maybe sold your house and moved into a rental …. then the city said,  “uhhhh, wait a minute … we’ve decided we’d rather not have a house built on that lot….  you can always sue us if you don’t like it”    — get ready to cough up huge legal fees, and continue to pay your mortgage and your rent and have all your money and your future tied up for as long as it takes…. maybe years.

If you  think this kind of stress does not apply to “developers” — think again.

You may think they reap gazillions of dollars for very little work.   Not so. These “deals” tend to be pure examples of capitalism – risk versus reward. Most of the time someone “personally guarantees” the loans.   When was the last time you risked everything you own on your business?

I’m not saying “poor developers”.

Some of them are real jerks – some of them “come out o.k.” no matter how ill-conceived the project. Some of them live off the construction loans and future deals in a big house of cards. Just like any other group of people – there are mostly honest, hardworking individuals in real estate and some pond scum money grubbing ethics challenged jerks.

The problem is it is just “unAmerican” to treat everyone as is they are of the “pond scum” variety.

However, when it comes to the proposed tower for Columbia……

Without comment on the personalities involved (on any side) , after a fair amount of research, I have two comments.

1) If the best argument the developers can make “for” the size of the tower is “but you already said we could!” (picture a 12 year old who managed to get you to agree to something which you immediately regretted but are hesitant to renege on because you value your credibility) – which seems to me to be the only valid argument — then the answer needs to be “no”.  However, it is important to behave like adults and negotiate a compromise that acknowledges the original error and “gives” a little something extra for the “inconvenience”.

2) Columbia does NOT need that huge tower.  When looked at from a purely objective position, it is a BAD idea.  It is too big, too tall, and unless it is going to provide low income housing is not needed to fill a specific housing shortage.  It is simply not driven by a market need.  It is a monument to ego – a giant self-absorbed  phallic symbol that will alter the character of Columbia in a way that only the developer seems to want.

Driving through Bethesda/Chevy Chase a few weekends ago I counted my blessings that I don’t have to deal with that traffic and congestion and bad attitudes and road rage and stress and etc…. on a daily basis.

Then I thought about how much some folks would like Columbia to be “more like” Bethesda/Chevy Chase…. prestigious high end enclaves … forgetting about the nose to nose congestion and smarter and richer than everyone else residents.

Yuck.

CIndy Vaillancourt

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19 Responses to “Does Columbia need a High Rise?”

  1. Ready for the tower said

    Cindy,

    This is quite confusing. Your post starts off well enough, with regard to the developers having equal rights and the need for rules and law (and henceforth, zoning) to be applicable to all of a community’s citizens. However, you then turn around and contradict yourself.

    With regards to your item #1, the developers’ only being able to substantiate their position with “you already said we could,” then equating the argument to that of a 12 year old is not only insulting, it also flies in the face of the first 700 words that you typed. The developer has complied with all county regulations and zoning requirements. To pass new zoning requirements retroactively, as Sigaty is proposing, is not only changing the rules mid-game, it is also penalizing these particular developers. How does this ring with your statements that:

    1. Developers (and anyone trying to do business or simply function) in HoCo truly need to be able to rely on the stability of the rules and laws.
    2. Changes to them simply cannot be arbitrary or unnecessarily frequent — and they cannot result in financial losses to citizens honestly trying to navigate the rules without the municipality making financial amends.
    3. Arguments predicated on excluding “developers” as a special class of citizens who are not entitled to this protection don’t persuade fair minded people.

    Secondly, with regard to your item #2, this statement is not based in fact. “When looked at from a purely objective position, it is a BAD idea. It is too big, too tall, and unless it is going to provide low income housing is not needed to fill a specific housing shortage.” What part of this statement is purely objective? Descriptions such as “too big, too tall” are not objective statements. Objective statements are free of opinion and bias. Statements such as “it is too big, too tall…” are subjective statements, and carry no more weight than my opinion that the building is not too tall and is not too big. Except that perhaps my statement has current zoning regulations on my side and yours doesn’t, objectively speaking.

    Your statement that “It is simply not driven by a market need,” is without proof. Wouldn’t you say that if there was no market need, that WCI would not be compelled to build the tower? There is no point in building a tower unless the units would be sold. However, units are already being reserved, which means that there is a demand for this tower, in spite of your claim to the contrary.

    You say that the tower “will alter the character of Columbia in a way that only the developer seems to want.” I encourage you to do more research and talk to more people, Cindy, because it isn’t only the developer that wants the tower. At dispute is whether or not a majority want the tower or don’t want the tower. However, to say that it is only the developer is to ignore a large segment of the population of Columbia, Town Center, and the County.

    Lastly, I am disappointed to see your comments equating “bad attitudes and road rage” and “smarter and richer than everyone else residents” to one building that is 22 stories. That is what we are talking about. One building. And to add the comment about “smarter and richer” residents in such a snobby tone is risky from someone who started her post claiming to be “the product of too much formal education.” Are you the very person we are to fear?

  2. bsflag2007 said

    Two things:
    – where some see “contradicting myself”, I see “seeing the issue from both sides”. I believe developers and individual citizens need to be treated fairly and consistently. I don’t want to see the tower as it is presently permitted built. I would rather the developer agree to make changes than have the community pay for litigation — which they may well lose.

    I think there is a good case to be made that the developers met the requirements of the rules in place at one specific point in time. It is not as clear whether the rules at that particular point in time were a particularly good a idea… or if they were put in place under less than fully informed/well thought out conditions.

    As for the whining twelve year old … I intended to paint exactly the picture you apparently formed.

    There are many types of arguments that can be made when a municipality considers making significant changes to land use regulations. There are many persuasive arguments that can be made when a municipality considers trying to retroactively apply a new set of rules.

    However, the one the “pro-tower” folks seem to be hanging their hats on is the “you already said we could” argument. I have seen no persuasive arguments for the need or the benefit of this project to be this size.

    The scale and impact on the character of the community and the town will be significant. The big question is whether this is a direction the Columbia portion of HoCo wants to go. I mention the Bethesda/Chevy Chase connection after having need to navigate that are several times in the last few weeks.

    In my discussions with various people, these areas and the potomac mills area have been referenced as “desirable outcomes” to increased development, commercialization and density. Sure, there are some very picturesque areas, some very expensive real estate, some terrific stores and restaurants. Sure, these communities carry a certain prestige factor.

    However, there are some significant down-sides to this perceived “move up” the ladder. Including torturous traffic, and some of the unsavory attitudes I mentioned.

    Howard County and the Columbia area continue to offer quality of life intangibles that many of us find more intrinsically valuable than more rapid appreciation of our property values. I have lived in heavily developed, congested, traffic nightmare areas and can speak from first hand experience that this is not a life-style I would choose to return to…. and I really do not look forward to having it evolve around me, either.

    Of course, evolution is inevitable, and in many ways desirable. It is my hope that this community will make value judgments that will keep HoCo and Columbia from becoming any of these other “suburbs”.

    Am I “the very person we are to fear?”. I may be scary, but probably not in the way you may be alluding to. I am more of a “pull up the ladder behind me” scary type. I settled here many years ago to enjoy a particular kind and quality of life and to flee the congested, over-developed, hustle and bustle of the smarter than everyone else crowd.

    I have no interest in keeping up with the joneses…. and have little interest in forcing my sensibilities on others. You may say that is also a contradiction. I would argue, again, it is not. It is an acknowledgment that I would prefer to live where like-minded folks have made long term plans to encourage a certain type of community to thrive.

    I also do not believe it is fair or just to “bait and switch” folks trying to do business with our community. When a conflict such as this one arises – I would prefer to see all sides treated respectfully and hope some kind of agreeable compromise can be reached.

    When push comes to shove, unless someone can prove that there was some kind of fraud or undue influence involved in the issuance of the permits, I do not think HoCo should litigate this issue .

    Last – but not least — there was a time when I would have put forth the same argument you have that WCI surely would not want to build a project it was not convinced would be economically successful. And even if WCI did “want” to – surely no bank would agree to finance an ill-conceived project.

    Sadly, neither one of these assertions is really quite true. Developers build because that is what they do. Banks make loans on projects because that is what they do. The wheels of commerce must keep moving whether the market can actually absorb the end product or not. The financial considerations of a deal like this go way beyond the end of the line profit numbers. Paychecks are generated from these deals — for everyone from the chief guys at WCI to the loan officers, to the contractors on down. Yes….they will build even if the numbers don’t really stand up. They will build anything they can anywhere they can until complete over-saturation or financial collapse. It’s a cycle that is repeated too often except in areas where communities had the forsight and courage of their convictions to stave it off in the face of huge sums of money being dangled around.

    Is the HoCo high end housing market soft? Uh, yea. Is it a temporary softening? Who knows. Is there a market for highend “executive/retirement” low upkeep housing? Sure. Does it all have to be filled with a single building? No. Sowhy the big monument to ego? Building a building like this is a huge testosterone rush.

    Granted, 22 stories is not the biggest thing ever built – but then it is not really a question of the individual building – it is a question of scale and direction and reasonableness. The developer has every right to make a profit on whatever they build on that site. And there are definitely folks who want to live on the top floors of the biggest building in town — I’m not sure they really care whether that’s the 22nd floor – or the 18th floor – or the 16th floor — as long as it is the top.

    Can you honestly say that there is no ego involvement in the design, placement and configuration of this building that override the financials? Is this particular configuration the “only” profitable use of this site?

    It is my sincerest hope that a nice building will go up over there. Even a big, tall, building. I also hope reason prevails and all parties are persuaded to maintain my vision of what I’d like HoCo to be. I don’t see a contradiction there.

    Cindy V.

  3. The unknown stuntman said

    “Can you honestly say that there is no ego involvement in the design, placement and configuration of this building that override the financials? Is this particular configuration the “only” profitable use of this site?”

    Cindy, it is really irresponsible of you to say that. Did you participate in the design, placement and configuration of the building? If not, I’d be curious to know how you became aware of the egotistical whims that gave rise to the tower plans.

    Also, instead making innuendos, why don’t you tell us what a more profitable use of the site would be, since you obviously believe that there is one?

  4. bsflag2007 said

    Innuendos?

    What I asked is “Is this particular configuration the “only” profitable use of this site?”

    While as a general rule I absolutely believe business folks have a right to a reasonable profit for their efforts – I do not necessarily believe it follows that the community must always accommodate the “MOST” profitable configuration.

    But even then —- bigger is not always more profitable. Bigger may have a larger total value – but bigger also costs more to build.

    And seriously, anyone who does not believe there is at least some ego involvement — possibly even “egotistical whims” —- involved in the design and aspirations of this building has simply never listened to a developer or a builder or an architect talk about their buildings.

    I am curious, however, what it is “the unknown stuntman” and “ready for the tower” would consider an acceptable opinion about the tower? It seems anything less than 100% support for the monstrosity is unacceptable — even when the stated position is that it ought to be legally allowed to go forward?

    Do we have to like it too?

    Cindy V.

  5. Ready for the Tower said

    In response to your statement: “I also hope reason prevails and all parties are persuaded to maintain my vision of what I’d like HoCo to be.”

    Firstly, why is it that the pro-tower voice is, by your logic, without reason?

    Secondly, what about the vision of others? Why is your vision the one that should be embraced?

    As far as ego being involved in the design of the building, I don’t see what importance that would play to anyone other than a freshman psych major. I’m pretty sure that the guy who designed my house is pretty proud of himself too, as is the lady who designed the garden across the street. The particular personality of the architects plays no role in a rational discussion of whether a tower meeting all current zoning regulations should be built as planned.

  6. bsflag2007 said

    Now you have ht the nail on the head. It is a question of which vision for the future this community wants to embrace.

    I make no apologies for supporting mine. I would prefer to see my preferences “embraced”. If it is not – then in the end those of us who no longer care for the community Columbia becomes will have the option of moving somewhere else we like better.

    For the sake of argument, I wonder why the folks who want Columbia to become something different don’t simply settle in a community that is already the way they prefer.

    As for your question about the pro-tower voice being “without reason”. I am not persuaded by the arguments “for” the tower.

    The argument that “reservations are being taken which is proof that there is a market for the product” makes me chuckle. Talk to the folks in Boston or Texas in the ’80’s. Or talk to folks in Miami right now. I have no doubt there are a fair number of individuals who cannot wait to move into a high end highrise type condo in downtown columbia. I have no doubt the units on the uppermost floors will sell. Experience tells me that will be true no matter how many floors there are.

    The argument that the permits were issued -(no matter the circumstances or questions surrounding the “issuance”)- makes it a done deal with the fate of the republic riding on honoring this commitment is also not persuasive to me. Though I do give it enough weight to argue that the municipality should not enter litigation on the point lightly. Mistakes have been known to happen – and this may well be a case where two wrongs make a right — it may be “wrong” to fix the first mistake… but that may make the outcome “right”.

    The question of “ego” is only relevant in trying to understand why a business decision would be made that does not necessarily make complete business sense.

    You see, trying to actually “understand” a situation is imho extremely important. Too often (and this is especially true with the tower) folks are so consumed with winning their point they don’t even try to understand the other side.

    Btw, I believe there is some controversy over whether the tower does, in fact, meet all current zoning etc regulations (at the tie the permits were “issued”. These are the kinds of questions that would be litigated — and I would not be interested in debating here.

    For my part – when I look at the proposal, without considering any of the history or politics or past, present or future zoning — and simply ask, is this a good idea that I would like to see in this spot…. I come up with a “no thank you”.

    Since that is so obviously unfair, I move to the next step…. what do I think would be a good idea, and might we be able to persuade the developer to change his plan?

    It is not only about money. Alternatives that are equally profitable can be developed — so there must be other reasons some folks are so determined to move forward with this plan. What are those reasons?

    Those are questions that interest me. The answers that scare me are the ones that are not based on logic — and the ones that are based on a vision I do not share. Then the question – as “ready for the tower” puts it “….what about the vision of others? Why is your vision the one that should be embraced?.”

    that question cuts both ways.

    Cindy V.

  7. Ready for the Tower said

    Ok, so let me get this straight. You concede that there is a market for the tower, however, the profit motive “doesn’t make complete business sense.” Therefore, WCI’s motivation must be to construct a “monument of ego” in the form of a phallic symbol. You don’t like phalluses, and don’t believe phalluses to be a part of your Columbia vision. Thus, we must take prophylactic action to cease with the construction of the phallic symbol,.

    Is this the position you are taking? Regardless of profits, zoning laws, desires of residents-current and future-, that phalluses are bad?

    With regard to your comment that people who don’t like Columbia as it is now should go elsewhere, I’d like to point out that if we all had that mentality, there would be no Columbia. If people wanted suburbia back in 1967, they should have moved to an already existing suburban area and left HoCo as it was- rural. Change happens. To say “like it or get out” is to not accept change.

  8. pzguru said

    RFTT and Unknown Stuntman – wow you two are certainly aept at parsing and dissecting words. Very Clintonian to say the least.

    With respect to the notion that every project must follow the path of greatest profitability would render ALL zoning laws unacceptable since zoning laws restrict development in various ways. If profit was the determining factor, then the entire County should be re-zoned so every land owner can reap the same profits as WCI. A silly proposal most would say.

    As for the legalities of the process, let’s just say that there has been uncertainty about whether the County’s approval of the FDP amendment was legal or not. In just about any case I would support your position that the County should not retroactively un-approve something. However, in this case, if there was something inappropriate about the FDP amendment, and there IS a good case to that effect, then I don’t support letting the approval remain. WCI can recoup costs by suing the County (if that’s possible) since they would obviously have a good case.

    Aside from the legalities of the FDP amendment, there are many other considerations such as traffic studies that should have been reviewed as part of the process. I can’t say whether they were or not or what the reports may have indicated.
    Most importantly though, is the Planning Board’s approval of the building. It was out of character for the Board to approve a building so out of character with the surrounding area.

    But then again, when the chairperson of the Planning Board is a close personal friend of and campaign donor to the County Exec, who coincidentally unabashedly supports reconstructing Town Center, then maybe it’s not so surprising that the Board approved the plan.

    And, please, you should be applauding CV for examining both sides of the issue, even if she ultimately takes the side opposite yours. She’s at least giving an explanation for her position other than “I hate it”.

  9. The Unknown Stuntman said

    I knew I could fall from a tall building and roll a brand new car, but I can also dissect words like Clinton? Thank you, pzguru, for comparing my intellectual ability to a Rhodes Scholar who became governor of Arkansas at age 32. Speaking only for myself and not RFTT, I am unworthy of the comparison.

    Moving on, all development projects should be able to maximize profits while adhering to all applicable rules and regulations. There is a case to be made for massive zoning reform, but that has no specific relation to the Tower. Many projects do have a social component in addition to financial profits, such as workforce housing and low-income housing. However, profit is usually the underlying factor driving development, zoning laws or no zoning laws.

    Cindy makes a good point that the tower is reminiscent of a phallus. If the Taliban were running the County, that argument would carry a lot of weight. However, while Cindy was “looking at both sides”, she seems to have ignored the environmental considerations of the Tower, which are not insignificant. Higher density is better for the environment. It leaves us with more open space, preserves farmland, etc. As long as our population grows, we need someplace to put everyone. The Tower seems like a sensible option.

  10. bsflag2007 said

    Is the tower going to provide a lot of low-income or “workforce” housing?

    Cindy V

  11. The Unknown Stuntman said

    Holy missing the point Batman! I don’t know if the Tower has set asides for low income or workforce housing. Regardless, it increases the supply of housing which puts downward pressure on townhouses and so forth that lower income and workforce folks can afford.

    My point is that density and the environment are bosom buddies. You arguments against the Tower did not take into account the environmental benefits.

  12. pzguru said

    Mr. Unknown – you make wide claims without any substantial backup. The tower may allow more people to be located on a smaller tract of land (less tree clearing and so on); however, that does not make it environmentally beneficial or sensible.

    For example, 5,000 more people means LOTS more sewage waste and LOTS more landfill waste. It also means LOTS more traffic, which equals congestion, which pollutes the air at a greater rate than when traffic is moving and vehicles operating more efficiently.

    If you really wanted to be environmentally conscious, why not simply impose a moratorium? I’m not in any way advocating that, but since you are trying to claim environmental protection for your cause, then go the whole distance and really protect the environment.

  13. The Unknown Stuntman said

    OK Pzguru, put those same 5,000 people in cul-de-sacs using much more land for housing, driving farther to work, and producing the same (if not more) trash and sewage. How is that better for the environment?

  14. Ready for the Tower said

    pzguru- there won’t be 5,000 people living in the tower. That’s what this post is about, the tower. one building. one tower.

  15. Pony boy said

    PZG-

    For some reason, I am unable leave a comment on your post about the Planning and Zoning ombudsperson, but I won’t let you get away with this statement:

    “True, the Director serves at the pleasure of the CE, and is subject to confirmation by the Council. However, that does not mean that the CE or Councilpersons should interfere in the process to serve their own agenda, or that of a campaign contributor, or a wealthy land owner.”

    The hypocrisy of this blog is entertaining. Ken Ulman is criticized for allegedly having too much influence over the decisions of those that serve at his pleasure. Jim Robey was absolutely vilified by others on this blog, including Alan Kittleman, for not having enough involvement in the worker’s compensation decisions of those that serve at his pleasure. Some folks are just darned if they do and darned if they don’t.

  16. pzguru said

    I’ll address the last three commenters one at a time:

    Unknown Stuntmant – I did not advocate adding 5,000 people in cul-de-sacs all over the County. I am of the opinion that the County is close to being built out, and when that happens, there should NOT be a push to change zoning classifications or increase density whether it be in Town Center or the rural (RC and RR zones) of the County.

    Ready for the Tower – you’re correct. I was generalizing about the overall Town Center plan and got ahead of myself. However, the Tower is essentially the first drop of water over the dam so to speak. I’m not opposed to a tower going there, per se, but I don’t think the current tower is appropriate (and there are the lingering issues about whether the FDP amendment was legal or not). If it is deemed legal, then I don’t think that bell can be un-rung. SIDE NOTE: for all the people who oppose Sigaty’s legislation, there have been other instances of such actions by the prior CE as well as Ken Ulman when he was Councilman. I hope to be able to make some additional postings in the next week or so to bring those to light.

    Pony Boy – I’m not sure why you can’t post a comment. It should be open for all commenters. Maybe the Blog Host (Mr. Keelan) can check to see if I accidntally did something I didn’t mean to.

    You are confusing two different examples of “interference”. I am talking about politicians undoing years of legal precedence, thereby setting BAD precedence. When that happens, it is dam near impossible to deny any similar future applications, because it puts the County at risk of being sued. The various lawyers and consultants that handle lots of plans and clients in the COunty know about these decisions and use them for leverage in their cases. Once pandora’s box is opened, it can’t be closed. Then people (residents and community activists) wonder why “everything gets approved” and blame DPZ for “being in the developer’s pockets.

    The example you’re referring to, about the auxillary police officer, is a case where I think, and many people think, a little “interference” would have been completely proper and fair. That officer was serving the County and suffered a life-altering injury. Mr. Robey should have done the right thing to help the man but he didn’t. If the existing law couldn’t be interpreted in such a way to help the man, he could have passed a new law. WHY DIDN’T HE? I can’t imagine that anyone would have opposed providing financial compensation of some sort to the man.

    I hope you can understand the vast difference between the two situations – no hypocrisy what so ever in my opinion.

  17. Andy Dufresne said

    As long as there isn’t Section 8 or other subsidized housing, High Rise in Columbia, especially around the Mall, would be a benefit to the area. Higher population density in less sprawling surroundings, mostly without children, will boost tax revenues without incurring too much additional public expenditures.
    As long as the low class and criminal elements are kept out, high rises would be great. Especially if service businesses such as specialty shops and restaurants move in.

  18. To Andy said

    Are you also going to suggest that only white people can live in the high rise?

  19. Hayduke said

    Andy,

    I can’t decide if you completely lack awareness or if you’re the king of irony.

    Seriously, do you not see a total disconnect between your pseudonym and your words?

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