One thing that I have learned about Columbia is that community meetings have a lot more going on than just a meeting. These are not seminars or meet-ups. They are not like college classes or legislative hearings. No, a Columbia community meeting contains elements of professional wrestling, The Jerry Springer Show, religious revival, and intervention.
As a result, very little information gets communicated at a Columbia community meeting. It is subsumed by catharsis and in that turbulent emotional release the focus transforms from information to motive (of both individuals and organizations) until the evening protracts to judgments of right or wrong. Timelines get skewed, all past indiscretions are presented anew, as though the topic considered was a conspiracy put into place years ago, only to manifest itself that particular evening. All of that happened in Oakland Mills last Tuesday night. It is important to say that this type of event is not unique to Oakland Mills, but they do have their own certain style.
Howard County Citizens Association President Stu Kohn was in attendance, and this is how he characterized the meeting:
“The residents are not happy and down-right angry. Many spoke out about their concerns. The common theme was the lack of transparency and that Oakland Mills has much of the concentrated subsidized housing. They are very concerned about schools, crime, quality of life, and property values.”
Before the meeting began, a small group of vocal residents, most of whom had elementary school age kids during the Ford Administration, assembled at the entrance to The Other Barn. As meeting attendees entered the building, they had to pass through the group as they enthusiastically asked for the contact information of the attendees. They were gathering a list for the newly formed group, the “Oakland Mills Improvement Association.” Above all of this was former Oakland Mills Village Board member/County Councilmember/State Delegate Ginny Thomas exhorting “We promise to keep your email secret if you sign up!” I have talked to a few Oakland Mills Village Board members, and they were none too happy about this. They felt that creating a bottleneck into the meeting was a bit ambitious and that some of the folks that signed up may have erroneously thought they were signing up for the “resident remarks” portion of the meeting. I can see their point. It may have been better to ask people to sign up for the OMIA after the meeting. That would have shown some deference to the folks actually holding the meeting and would have promoted goodwill with the Village Board.
The meeting itself started with some introductory remarks by Oakland Mills Board Chairman Bill Gray and County Councilman Calvin Ball. Howard County Housing Commission Director Tom Corbo gave a brief explanation of the current state of subsidized housing in Oakland Mills, an overview of the Housing Commission’s plans (and future possibilities) for the Verona Apartments, and the different types of subsidized housing programs in Howard County. Lastly, former Oakland Mills High School Principal Frank Eastham shared a few remarks with the crowd. In particular, he shared that as a boy he received free lunches at school as part of an assistance program, and to not put a particular face or location on the folks that receive Free and Reduced Meals in Oakland Mills today.
The meeting then pivoted to “resident remarks,” in which Oakland Mills residents were allowed three minutes each to state their concerns. It was at this point that the meeting was essentially turned over to the Oakland Mills Improvement Association. Part of this was staging. At the beginning of the meeting, the Oakland Mills Village Board took seats along the perimeter of the room, allowing the County officials to sit at a table in the front. Secondly, OMIA came early and signed as a block at the beginning of the meeting. Of the 26 people that spoke, 10 of them were identified as members of OMIA. In fact, they were nine of the first twelve to speak. There is nothing particularly wrong with this, but the result was that OMIA got their message out, with little interruption, and I’m not sure everyone that wanted to speak had a chance due to time considerations.
On the other hand, OMIA came prepared. Each speaker had a slightly different take on their opposition to the Verona apartments purchase. In addition, they kept pretty close to the 3-minute time limit. That was impressive. The aforementioned Ginny Thomas was the first speaker. She set the tone of the evening by weaponizing the Howard County Housing Commission. Specifically, Ms. Thomas stated:
“Why is Oakland Mills being targeted?...Oakland Mills is a target, 21045 is a target, and the reason is simple. We have a lot of affordable rental units that have grown old over the years.”
Ms. Thomas also brought up another point that I found a bit surprising, she holds County Councilperson Jen Terrasa, who represents southeastern Columbia and North Laurel, in high regard. This is how Ms. Thomas phrased it:
“Councilman Jen Terrasa is here, and I want to compliment her because in North Laurel the Housing Commission was ready to put something there. 95 people showed up and Jen Terrasa carried the ball, met with Ken Ulman and it’s been reversed. So I would like to congratulate North Laurel citizens. You can name other places in the County where people have defeated projects. So we don’t have to take this, guys.”
I should note that from where I was sitting, I could see Jen Terrasa, and she did not look too happy about this characterization. It may have been wiser to speak with the Councilperson before publicly making those remarks, but that is how the evening started. The remainder of the OMIA statements probably should be left to a blog post on their own.
That being said, there were a number of other speakers of note. A gentleman named Wendell did not support the Howard County Housing Commission purchase, but did explain at length that before coming to this decision, he had proactively visited with people that live around the Village Center. In this act, he explained, there was no “us” and “them,” only “us.” That was a wonderful moment.
The Presidents of the Stevens Forest Elementary School PTA and Oakland Mills Middle School PTSA both voiced opposition, but spent much of their time speaking about the children, staff and educators at their schools. These neighborhood leaders were eloquent in their description of the conditions in their schools; about challenges, caring, and celebrating the entire student body. Anyone involved in this discussion should seek them out, sit on their hands, and listen.
All told, much of the evening could be summed up by two speakers. The first, a woman who identified herself as a long-time Columbian announced to the crowd that she had found a website that provided tenants the ability to comment on their apartments. She found the comments relating to the Verona, and after describing moldy walls and disrepair, the crowd cheered and clapped. Conversely, the last speaker, much younger in age than the average of those attending, came to the podium with two children in tow. She told the crowd that she is a current resident of the Verona apartments and explained the conditions in her apartment. This woman was clearly frustrated and there was a lot of emotion in her voice. After explaining her plight, all she could say is “Just tear it down.” As she repeated this phrase a few times, waves of laughter rolled through the crowd. The juxtaposition of these two Oakland Mills residents; one older and one younger, one an owner and one a renter, and the crowd reaction when speaking on the exact same topic, left me worried about what was really going on here. I keep thinking that maybe I missed something. Maybe there was something going on beyond my field of vision. Maybe someone farted. All I know now is that late Tuesday night, one woman went back to her comfortable home believing she contributed to the discussion and another woman went home with her children to a home in distress knowing that more than 150 people laughed at her.
In the end it was a night with a lot of no’s, a lot of cheering and a lot of clapping, but I don’t think many people learned much. Maybe that was not the intent. I can only hope that in the future, rational discussion and respect will carry the day. I hope that all interested parties understand that the best solution, and probably the only solution, will involve negotiation and compromise. I hope for a better Oakland Mills.
I don’t live in Oakland Mills, but I worry about Oakland Mills. In addition, I feel just awful putting my nose in the business of another Columbia Village. The folks in Oakland Mills know their neighborhood best and I prefer to support the local conventional wisdom. Today I am compelled to make an exception.
Like many Columbia Villages, the broad state of Oakland Mills can be viewed by two interrelated forces that describe the same set of circumstances in the daily life of a Village: Oakland Mills has a lot of problems. Oakland Mills has a lot of opportunity. At times, these forces are in tension and tend to tear at the community. Other times, these forces are in compression and crush the middle ground. On occasion, these forces work in the same direction at the same time.
Recent discussions regarding the Howard County Housing Commission’s intent to purchase the Verona apartments, located near the Oakland Mills Village Center, have (in my opinion) emphasized the potential problems. Opportunity does find its way into the discussion, but at this time it is minimal.
Based on a number of conversations I have had with Oakland Mills residents, the expectations for the area near the Oakland Mills Village Center are high, and the desired change from the current condition is dramatic. The conventional wisdom is as follows: “Oakland Mills has its fair share of lower income housing. What Oakland Mills needs is more high income housing.” Beyond these framing statements, I cannot find much of a plan. Yes, the Oakland Mills Village Board authored a Master Plan (PDF) that has a stated goal of more high end housing, but the plan lacks detail on how to achieve this goal.
Perceived Problems It appears many that oppose the Howard County Housing Commission purchase of the Verona apartments are laser focused on a single metric: What are the expected future incomes of those that would reside on the properties? The implication is that if the number of lower income residents increases, even by the smallest of integer numbers, it would be too much for the neighborhood to bear. In my opinion, it is a clear, bright line that smacks of classism and really does not have a place in Columbia.
I have heard two theories from those in opposition. The first is a deflection, and can be summed up as follows: “Why don’t they put this mixed income housing in _____ (fill in your own supposedly upscale neighborhood here, usual suspects are River Hill, Maple Lawn, Elkridge, Ellicott City, etc) instead of Oakland Mills?” I have not had any conversations with the Commission, but the answer to this obtuse question is obvious. These types of initiatives by the Housing Commission are pretty straightforward. Through the strategic purchase and renovation of properties, coupled with effective local management of current and future tenants, the Housing Commission can turn a profit that is redistributed into other local initiatives. Although technically possible, the feasibility of purchasing property at a premium and expecting a return on investment to further the Commission program would be far more difficult. So yes, given a long enough time line, I would expect the Housing Commission to pursue mixed income housing in other parts of the County – but today that opportunity exists in Oakland Mills.
The second theory relates to the schools near the Verona apartments. In this world view, there is a direct correlation between the number of lower income residents and the percentage of children that receive Free and Reduced Meals (FARMs) at the local schools. This proposed correlation then translates into lower property values and a general decline of the entire neighborhood. I find this thinking particularly vile and insipid. It sets up the local student population as a straw man against development. The youngest in our neighborhoods deserve require unconditional love and respect. They must be given every opportunity to succeed. They should never be used as pawns.
Map of Stevens Forest -
The paragraphs below discuss the area shown in the above map. It is an approximate representation of the Stevens Forest Elementary School walking shed. Unfortunately, the walking area does not directly align with boundaries drawn by the US Census. For this reason, the areas north of Kilamanjaro Road and south of Farewell Road are not considered. In the case of the area north of Kilamanjaro Road, the Census boundary also includes houses along the east side of Thunder Hill Road in Talbott Springs, and dilute the housing representation north of Kilamanjaro Road. Similarly, the area south of Farewell Road also includes households in Orchard Hill and a portion of the Fairmeade Road area of Owen Brown.
In addition, the US Census redrew the map lines within Oakland Mills between the 2000 and 2010 Census. For this reason, some of the single family homes in southwest Stevens Forest are included in the discussion of apartment areas. As a point of reference for the discussion below, the areas shown in the map above and shaded in blue are the apartment areas of Stevens Forest. The orange areas shown represent the single family home areas.
The current makeup of the Stevens Forest neighborhood shows that many of the single family homes are childless. All told, there are a little less than 700 single family households in Stevens Forest. Of those houses, 136 of them had school age children in the year 2000. By 2010, that number dropped to 105 households. This translates to approximately 17% of the single family homes sending to Stevens Forest Elementary School. As a point of reference, there are more people living alone in single family homes (114) than have school age children in the Stevens Forest single family homes.
Conversely, the apartments (to include Forest Ridge, the Verona, and Grand Pointe) are about 1100 units. Within those households, 129 had school age children present. By 2010, that number was 195, an increase of 65 households. So currently, approximately 20% of the apartments send children to Stevens Forest Elementary. Another point to consider is that among the apartments in Oakland Mills, many of them are rented at market value. I would caution anyone from inferring that the 195 apartment households sending to Stevens Forest Elementary School equates to the households qualifying for Free and Reduced Meals. If the subsidized housing at the Verona increased to 40%, that would translate to approximately 60 more households. If the percentage of households holds at approximately 20% (the Columbia Association has done a lot of research on this, and they believe the percentage of family households will actually decrease in the future), that would give 12 more households with school age kids. So we are talking about a dozen homes impacting the local school system.
Conversely, the general case shows that single family homes are purchased by higher income earners. If a greater proportion of these houses were the homes of children sent to the local schools, the proportion/percentage of lower income students would decrease. Simply said, a higher instance of families that participate in the FARM program may not indicate a concentration in low income residents, it can indicate an absence of higher income residents (in established single family housing units) with children.
On the opportunity side of the discussion, I have identified at least three possible scenarios. The first is laissez-faire. Pretty much, let the market determine the outcomes associated with the properties surrounding the Oakland Mills Village Center. If there is an upside to this scenario, it is that there is little to do. Beyond any regulations associated with the transfer of real estate and due diligence on the part of financial institutions involved in the transaction, an entity would no doubt purchase the apartments and operate the property in accordance with their internal management norms. Unless specified by the seller, there is no guarantee that the eventual buyer would have offices in Howard County, or even in the state of Maryland. Given the track record with other property owners in Oakland Mills, most notably Exxon-Mobil and Cedar Properties, I would question if a distantly located owner would understand or work well with the Oakland Mills governance structure. In the end, the change would be far less than dramatic and the vision for high end housing would be pushed farther into the century.
The second opportunity is the aforementioned high income housing development that many in the Oakland Mills area desire. The concept is high in allure, but is crippled by a lack of details of a finished product. If you poll the well informed citizen bystanders in Oakland Mills as to what a high end housing development is, you get a lot of different responses. Some describe something that looks remarkably similar to what the Verona looks like now, but with high end appliances and marble countertops. Others will describe a vacation they took to Portland, OR or Savanna, GA. On that vacation, they saw a particular building, or city block. They will describe in passionate detail of how this could work in Oakland Mills, irrespective of the supporting infrastructure that made that one place unique. A third contingent is not too specific on details, but emphasizes things like LEED certification, sustainability and renewable energy. I think it is possible for a high-end multi-unit building to find a place near the Oakland Mills Village Center, but I don’t think there is a design that will meet all of these disparate expectations.
It might be a good idea for folks in Oakland Mills to take a look at a dozen or so suburban high end developments in the region and consider the aspects they have in common. Take a look at the apartments adjacent to the shopping center on US 1 and Contee Road. Park your car and walk the distance between the Arundel Mills complex and the Baltimore Washington Parkway. This is what is being built in the region, and think about how they would fit into Oakland Mills. Most are five stories high and are stick-built. If the preference is for steel construction, the minimum heights of these developments quickly go past ten floors. If high end housing is what they desire, that is what most likely would show up.
If Oakland Mills is smitten with this idea of high-end housing units, I suggest they bring in some of the developers of this type of property. Get to know them, and understand what and how they build. Demonstrate a willingness to be flexible. Right now, Oakland Mills is developing a reputation for speaking loudly about problems with county parks, US 29 crossings, and mixed income communities. If a high end developer had a choice to purchase a property either in Oakland Mills or anywhere else, one of the deciding criteria would be how much cooperation they could expect from the surrounding community. Honey and vinegar my friends, honey and vinegar.
The last opportunity is the one put forth by the Howard County Housing Commission. As currently described, the Commission would provide local oversight and management of the Verona property for ten years. After ten years, the Commission would propose a redevelopment of the property. Recent reporting on the proposed redevelopment contains references to increasing the number of subsidized housing units to 40%. This roughly translates to an increase of 60 units. Many in the community are focused on this number, but I want to point out here some of the things that are beyond a number.
What comes with the redevelopment is a design based in 21st century thinking. Design materials, building efficiency, location and quality of on-property amenities and even parking will all be a vast improvement over the current 1970’s era design. Another point to consider is the new construction will be on a scale that will be a positive impact on the neighborhood. Much like many forward thinking Stevens Forest residents opted for vinyl siding over the traditional T1-11 plywood cladding, new development often induces more new development.
Although material improvements will be a benefit, the culture brought by the Howard County Housing Commission is also an improvement. As a non-profit, it is mission focused and directs its profit back into the community. Moreover, the Commission is local and responsive to the community. On balance, this may be the best opportunity in Oakland Mills. Not so much because of the development itself, but because of what it brings with it.
Is Perception Reality?
The main reason I wrote this blog post is because most of the discussion about the Verona apartments comes with subtext. Let me say up front, this is not universal, there are people out there that have voiced their opinions based on direct and personal experiences with the people that live in Oakland Mills apartments. For most of the others, the subtext speaks to the distance in Oakland Mills. Because if you listen carefully, their discussion is not about Mary and Robert that live in an apartment. It’s not about Cindy, a Stevens Forest Elementary School student and the daughter of Kyle and Jennifer. It’s about a national study that warns of neighborhood decline. It’s about percentages, unmoored from what is actually happening in the neighborhood. As Oakland Mills moves forward, they will have to integrate apartment dwellers into the discussion. They have been without a voice for far too long.
How will Oakland Mills look a decade from now? The answer to that question is very much up in the air. What we do know is that there is a new property owner that wants to improve things in Oakland Mills. I would encourage the Oakland Mills Village Board to work closely with the Howard County Housing Commission in the next few years. Keep the conversation going about what is going on in Monarch Mills, Burgess Mills, and Columbia Landing. Encourage the Commission to have current residents in the Verona apartments to participate in the Village Board process. The Village Board should also engage other apartment owners in a discussion of what they see happening in the next ten years. It would be nice to see more than one property owner upgrading their buildings and if the work could be well coordinated, even better. It is in this way the Village Board can get the problems and opportunities in Oakland Mills moving in the same direction.
My last blog post on this subject discussed how Columbia, MD has evolved over the last thirty years, and the effect of that growth. As Columbia has aged, the population and number of households has grown in an almost linear fashion. However, the number of families with kids has remained almost constant over the same period.
The last discussion centered on Howard Research and Development and the pace at which Village Centers were constructed. We almost have twice the number of Village Centers that we had in 1980, and the same number of families with kids. I believe that is a top-three reason why the Village Centers are struggling. Today I will take a look at the effect of the historically low percentage of family with kids households on the Columbia Association.
Much like Howard Research and Development, the Columbia Association has shown a similar fidelity to the Columbia Plan, although their results are somewhat mixed. Forty-nine years ago (almost to the day), James Rouse presented plans for Columbia and distributed binders with information on how the city would be organized. Within this binder, there are many references to what would ultimately become part of the Columbia Association.
THE NEIGHBORHOOD CENTER (page 25)
Throughout Columbia, in keeping with the goals originally set, will be the opportunities for people to enjoy a number of neighborhood conveniences. At an appropriate location within each neighborhood, again within easy walking distance of many homes, several acres have been set aside for the neighborhood center.
The neighborhood center will be designed for the whole family, but especially for the smaller children who also need opportunities for fun and growing up in safety. The elementary school is the focal point of the neighborhood center. Included also will be a nursery school and kindergarten. For even the smallest children whose mothers must keep an appointment or attend to a family errand, the neighborhood center will also provide a child care center. For after school hours and summers, a child’s playground adjacent to the school will be easy to reach for even the smallest resident of the neighborhood.
Near the elementary school, a small shop, similar to the little country store of many years ago, will answer the very basic needs of the residents. A loaf of bread or a newspaper, a milkshake or a sandwich will be available at the neighborhood store, a small shop attractively designed for convenience and compatibility with the surroundings.
The neighborhood store will operate every day of the week, and every evening. In the mornings, mothers whose small children are at the nursery school can meet for a cup of coffee. Next to each store will be a terrace where people will be able to sit and talk. In the afternoons, teenagers will use the same healthy environment as a place to meet and converse with friends.
In season, the terrace will be opened to the neighborhood swimming pool. On Sunday afternoons, the families of the neighborhood will be able to swim in the pool, or play tennis or enjoy some other recreation at the neighborhood center. In the evenings, clubs and groups will have a good, easy to reach place to meet to carry on their activities. All of the opportunities that were once possible only in very small towns will be part of the rich fabric of life in Columbia.
As Columbia progressed through the 1970’s, neighborhood center construction was severely curtailed. This marked the first departure from the Columbia Plan. In the Villages of Wilde Lake, Oakland Mills, Harper’s Choice, and Long Reach, the neighborhood center concept is intact. Of these villages, only Hobbit’s Glen (HC) and Kendall Ridge (LR) do not have neighborhood centers. More telling are the younger Villages of Owen Brown, Hickory Ridge, Kings Contrivance, Dorsey’s Search and River Hill:
RECREATION AND OPEN SPACE (page 35)
Of the 14,000 acres planned for Columbia, almost 3500 acres will be set aside as permanent open space, preserving forever valuable natural resources and attractions. This land will be bound by appropriate legal covenants, to be drawn to the satisfaction of the County Commissioners, to assure its continuing preservation and maintenance as true open space.
But the legal retirement of this land from development does not of itself make the land really useful to the people of the County and the community. In the plan for Columbia, much of the land has been designed for recreation. Five lakes, totaling over six hundred acres of surface, will be developed as natural attractions and as resources for many kinds of sports and recreation. The lakes will be stocked with fish, picnic grounds will be cultivated along the shore, and sailboating and canoeing will be open to all.
Throughout Columbia, an extensive system of riding trails and pathways will offer scenic walks or horseback riding through many miles of woods and stream valleys. Each neighborhood will include swimming pools and tennis courts, as well as playgrounds and park areas.
Much of the open space planned follows an earlier proposal of the Howard County Parks Advisory Board for the conservation of the important stream valleys in the area. These valleys serve as the basic drainage system for the County as a whole and as a sanctuary for wildlife in the many balances of nature. Columbia has determined to respect the land, not just because the land is beautiful, but because it is fundamental to a good environment.
As part of the land acquisition for Columbia, CRD purchased the Allview golf course. The plan for Columbia calls for the rebuilding and upgrading of Allview – as a golf course. In addition, two other golf courses are planned in the community. Each village and neighborhood of the town will be close to many recreation opportunities made possible through the cultivation and preservation of meaningful open space.
In 1980, Columbia had one fitness center – The Athletic Club. Since then, CA acquired the Supreme Court and Skateland properties. These were ultimately combined into odd bird Supreme Sports Club. CA also built the River Hill Gym. The fitness centers have been a success over the last few decades as the fitness industry in general has mushroomed. In 1980, Jane Fonda was still known as an actress, her workout video would not be released for another two years. Although each fitness facility caters to a wide range of patrons, a lot of their equipment and many of their classes come with minimum age requirements. To their credit, CA has spent considerable time and expense setting up a separate KidSpace area for younger kids to use while parents work out. CA has also grown to emphasize individual workout services.
What we are looking at here are broad trends over time measured with a calendar. Columbia’s adult population has grown for more than forty years. This adult population has also seen growth in the demand for fitness programs, and the Columbia Association has met that demand well. With each wave of fitness programs and/or equipment, the Columbia Association has adapted well. Whether it was aerobics, Pilates, Zumba or Nautilus machines, steppers, Lifecycles, rowing machines, treadmills or elliptical machines; the Columbia Association has found a way to integrate these into their membership offerings. It’s hard to criticize success; however, this single segment of the Columbia Association recreational portfolio cannot be taken as a success of the whole division.
On the aquatics front, CA was celebrating the grand opening of the Hopewell and MacGills Common Pools (Columbia’s 14th and 15th pools) in 1980. Within a few years, the CA Board of Directors would fundamentally change the outdoor pool philosophy. They changed the name of the pool division from neighborhood pools to outdoor pools; indicating that they no longer intended to construct an outdoor pool in every Columbia neighborhood (my regrets to Elkhorn (OB), Pointers Run (RH), and Fairway Hills (DS)). Although this represents another departure from the Columbia Plan, CA did go on to build eight more pools over the last thirty years.
It was in fact pool attendance data that started me thinking about what was going on in Columbia. Early in the Columbia Association Aquatics Master Plan discussion, the Columbia Association handed out a document titled “Demographic Pool Trends (PDF).”
There wasn’t a full decade worth of data (I vaguely recall that there is some problem with the fidelity of the data from 2001-2005) for the last ten years, but a regression analysis of CA pool attendance from 2006-2010 does show a negative trend.
What stuck in my head was that during the last decade Columbia’s population had increased by more than 11,000, increased the number of households by more than 5000, and the Columbia Association converted two of its pools to mini-waterparks, and total pool attendance still went down.
The decreasing percentage of families in Columbia has also impacted the CA budget, and hard. If you talk to the folks at CA, they will tell you that membership retention has been in line with their projections. It is a fact that CA does not have any fiscal problems and its balance sheet is healthy. However, over the last four months, I have talked with dozens of families in Columbia about what CA services they use. When comparing family expenditures on CA services to married couples and singles, the Columbia Association and families are far more tightly bound to each other.
First a caveat, for the most part, I am talking about people on lien assessed properties. That is the one equalizer in Columbia – we all pay the annual charge. Beyond that, families that sign up for an amenity or Package Plan membership pay the highest cost (family memberships cost more than individual memberships). In addition, Columbia families enroll their younger children in the CA School Age Services program (before and after school care), day programs at the Supreme Sports Club, and during the summer months – weeks and weeks of summer camps. For those single parents or dual income family households, these CA services are a necessity. Many families also have birthday parties at CA facilities, as well as participate in CA swim leagues and martial arts. Most that I have talked to appreciate the services and, with a hiccup here or there, are pleased with the services provided. All told, these Columbian families pay approximately $10,000/year (each) to the Columbia Association.
To put that in context, consider if we increased the number of Columbian families with children by 10%. A 10% increase in families with kids is approximately 4000 households. If 1/3 of these households (1334) participate in the services listed above, that translates into more than $12,000,000 going to the Columbia Association each year. Many of the remaining households would also participate in the Columbia Association, through membership and other activities. As a note of caution, the 1/3 participation rate is an estimation, and not all families will participate in all activities/amenities. However, taken together the additional revenue and increased utilization of existing facilities would bring in millions of annual revenue and put to rest the discussions about closing pools or repurposing tot lots.
One final note on the Columbia Association; the CA Board of Directors and CA senior management has been focused on the projected demographic changes and the increase in the senior population. They are to be commended for being in front of this issue. However, part of their effort has been directed at increasing senior participation through limited memberships. These memberships have been rumored to be around $200 per year. If you do the cost analysis on this, it would take 50 participating seniors to equal bringing one married couple with kids into the city. So here is the question, “Would it be easier to get 50 seniors to obtain a membership, or one family?” If you draw out this analysis the answer becomes a little clearer: “Can we get five families to move in and take advantage of CA services faster and easier than recruiting 250 seniors?” In an ideal world, CA should recruit both groups, but over the last few years, I have not heard much from CA about recruiting families to live in Columbia. Now is the time for residents to advocate for a balanced approach.
Columbia’s population has been increasing every year and the number of households has more than doubled in the last thirty years. However, married couple households with children have stagnated and shown little change over thirty years.
Beyond the raw number of households, the number or married with kids households as a percentage of total households has dropped from 42% (1980) to approximately 22% (2010).
It does not matter if I am talking to a couple that moved here in 1971 or perusing the “You Know You Grew Up in Columbia” Facebook page, it is not hard to find people lamenting that Columbia is not like it used to be. It is true that Columbia has less trees and more of a built environment than in 1980, but I believe that the determining factor is that Columbia has (as a percentage of total households), a lot fewer families. At one time community was synonymous with family. Today it is not.
In order for Columbia to be successful, families are an economic necessity. This town cannot survive as it was intended without them, and they need to be present in greater numbers. The percentage of married couples with kids in 1980 may represent a high water mark that may never be repeated. However, the current number of families with kids is too small at this time. To get an understanding of the effects of married couples with kids on Columbia today, consider the following projection:
As shown above, an attempt to restore the married with kid household percentage back to 1980 levels (42%) would require 7517 households, almost doubling the current number of households with kids. I do not think this could reasonably happen in my lifetime. To put it kindly, it would be turbulent. As a point of reference, Baltimore City has a goal of attracting 10,000 more families to their city, and they have a lot more households than Columbia.
On the other hand, increasing the number of married with kids households to 33% of total households (approximately 4000 households) seems somewhat reasonable over a decade. That is roughly 500 households a year. Ambitious, yes but a goal worthy of such a great community. Another point to keep in mind is that the number of senior households is projected to increase by 10% over the same time period, and most reports I have read show local and governmental organizations lining up to accommodate this age group, so why not both seniors and families?
Before we get into any deeper analysis here, it is important to frame the discussion. Beyond the charts and numbers, it is important to know what was going on in Columbia in 1980, and how the community has evolved over the last three decades.
The Columbia of 1980 is a place far removed from today. US 29 still had stoplights at MD 103, MD 108, South Entrance Road (southbound), Owen Brown Road, and MD 32. In fact the MD 32 we know today only extended about a mile, from a spur off Guilford Road to I-95. At that time, MD 32 was what we now call Guilford Road. For those brave kids that liked to explore, the overpasses for what is now MD 32 existed in a meadow with no roads connecting them. MD 100 was still on the drawing board.
Then, as now, the Mall in Columbia was under construction. The soon to be opened wing that now houses the food court and Sears anchor was being built. Taco Bueno was holding down the corner between the original mall and the new construction. Even though the mall expansion had taken down far more trees than anyone imagined, a thick buffer of trees separated the Mall from Governor Warfield Parkway and the neighborhoods to the west of downtown. The Howard County Central Library had been built, but it was restricted to staff-only access and not open to the public.
Out in the Villages, development continued according to the plan. By this time most of Wilde Lake, Harpers Choice, Oakland MIlls, and Long Reach were built out. The Village of River HIll was still in the design stage, and the neighborhoods of Kendall Ridge (Long Reach), Dickinson (Kings Contrivance), and Fairway Hills (Dorsey Search) had not been built. Clarys Forest (HIckory Ridge), Hopewell (Owen Brown), Hobbits Glen (Harpers Choice) and Dorsey Hall (Dorsey Search) would see many more housing units constructed in the coming decades. In short, Columbia has always been known as a planned community, and the master plan was well under way.
Follow the Plan
Over the last thirty years, the Columbia Plan was a powerful driver. The master plan, both the physical layout and economic model, was intended to be so comprehensive that it would take into account changing variables over time. The Columbia plan performance during the 1970’s reinforced this thinking. Having gone through two energy crises and recession, Columbia was still doing well against the bottom line. These shocks were not planned for, and many similar planned communities - with Federal government backing -went bankrupt during the same time period. Given this short history, it is hard to fault anyone who thought at the time that the Columbia Plan was durable and robust.
With this setting, construction continued at pace over the last thirty years. In addition to the residential construction, Howard Research and Development constructed the Hickory Ridge, Dorsey Hall, Kings Contrivance and River Hill Village Centers. These four joined the five (Wilde Lake, Oakland Mills, Harpers Choice, Long Reach, and Owen Brown) Village Centers in the city, and this was in accordance with the plan. (Note: the Owen Brown Village Center was built by Giant Food, Inc.)
Apparently what was not considered during this time was while all this construction was going on, the number of married with kids households remained constant. This diluted the grocery shopping dollar across the city. We now have the same number of families shopping at twice the number of supermarkets (and yes, at grocery stores at Columbia’s perimeter, and Costco, and Wegmans). The effect has reduced individual store profits across the city. Keep in mind that this was not readily apparent. As the population of Columbia grew, there were more shoppers in the stores, but if the patrons were shopping for two, they bought less than parents shopping to feed themselves and kids.
To attempt to quantify difference in purchase power, refer again to the bar chart above. As stated earlier, I believe a goal of adding 4000 families to Columbia would help stabilize the city. If those new family households displaced singles and couples, the established supermarkets would see an increase in revenue. Consider the following data from the Food Marketing Institute (note year 2011, latest year available):
2011 Grocery Store Expenditures
Families with Kids $120.70 /week
Families w/o Kids $90.00 /week
The difference in spending between the groups identified is:
Weekly_Spending_Delta = $120.70 - $90.00 = $30.70
Annualizing this cost results in:
Annual_Spending_Delta = $30.70 (per week) X 52 (weeks/year) = $1,596.40
Taking the annual spending difference and applying it to 4000 families with kids gives:
Household_Spending_Delta = $1,596.40 X 4000 (families) = $6,385,600 each year.
Now, much has been said in this town about the arrival of Costco and Wegmans on the east side. Many believe these big box stores have resulted in the decline of Village Centers. I am certain that they have had some effect, but the magnitude of the lack of families in this town may rival the impact of the big box stores. Think of it this way, even with Costco and Wegmans, if we had married with kids households putting an additional $6,000,000 into supermarket cash registers (annually), we would not be talking about struggling Village Centers.
Another source to consider is the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey database. Through a compilation of diaries and surveys, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the US Census Bureau publish on a regular basis the spending habits of Americans. From the Bureau of Labor Statistics website:
The Consumer Expenditure Survey (CE) program consists of two surveys, the Quarterly Interview Survey and the Diary Survey, that provide information on the buying habits of American consumers, including data on their expenditures, income, and consumer unit (families and single consumers) characteristics. The survey data are collected for the Bureau of Labor Statistics by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The CE is important because it is the only Federal survey to provide information on the complete range of consumers' expenditures and incomes, as well as the characteristics of those consumers. It is used by economic policymakers examining the impact of policy changes on economic groups, by businesses and academic researchers studying consumers' spending habits and trends, by other Federal agencies, and, perhaps most importantly, to regularly revise the Consumer Price Index market basket of goods and services and their relative importance.
The following data was extracted from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditures database for different household types and reproduced in chart form. As shown in the graph below, families with kids have consistently outspent married couples and singles. On average the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditures data (for years 2002 - 2012) shows families with kids spent $1439.91 more than married couples annually. This is similar with the Food Marketing Institute data. In fact, the two numbers are within 10% of each other.
In an effort to further clarify the impact of these national figures, the BLS also generates cost profiles for specific regions of the country. In 2013 the BLS took a look at the Baltimore metropolitan region (PDF). This study shows that Baltimore metro food expenditures are not statistically different from the national numbers.
Now, I’m not neither an economist nor a marketing professional. Given the above data, I do not expect that every single dollar would be produced and directly spent on groceries. What is important to consider here is that the above data suggests that families moving into Columbia would have a positive effect on supermarket revenues, and by extension the health of the Village Centers. Secondly, I believe it is safe to state that the magnitude of families moving in can be measured in millions of dollars.
Going a Little Deeper
As an industry, retail supermarkets operate on very slim profit margins, typically on the order of 1%-3%. If the future Columbia household profile changes and the additional monies spent in grocery stores are directed only toward low profit and loss-lead items, the impact would be minimal. The largest supermarket chains have done continuous and exhaustive studies on the purchasing habits of various household types; however, this type of analysis is considered proprietary and very few have been released to the public. If you have time, I suggest taking a look at one study done by the Progressive Grocer. It provides an exhaustive comparison of purchasing categories by household size.
What is known about supermarkets is where a lot of their profit is generated. Many of the high-profit items are easy to find, they are typically at the store perimeter. Fresh produce, the deli counter, bakery counter and fresh fish counter is where a lot of store profit is generated. Markups on these items are typically high. Within the aisles, cereal and private brand (store brand) goods also carry high markups. At first blush, this aligns pretty well with family with kids purchasing habits. Fresh fruit and cereal is a breakfast staple in most American families. Brown bag lunches for parents and kids require regular visits to the deli counter, and purchasing in higher quantities. With more people in the house, more birthday cakes are purchased, in addition to purchasing muffins and other baked goods to support organized youth sports, PTA teacher appreciation meals, and other events. The Bureau of Labor Statistics - Consumer Expenditure data shown in the charts below demonstrates the annual purchasing differences between families with kids, married couples, and singles.
Now no amount of charts and data is going to predict future behavior with absolute certainty. In a way, this entire (lengthy) blog post is a response to all the research and data collection that was part of the original Columbia Plan. In the future, household spending may turn out to be completely different than what recent history has shown. Initial public documents from the Rouse Company touted Columbia as a community of 29,000 families when completed. We have about 1/3 that number. The number of single occupant households now exceeds the number of family with kids households. The current Columbia household type profile cannot support the number of Village Centers in the community.
If we value the Village Center, not only as a place for convenient shopping, but as a vital concept that is integral to the Columbia Vision, we need to change. If this change does not become part of our culture, Village Centers will continue to see instability and possibly go under. When that happens, Columbia will move farther away from the vision laid out almost fifty years ago and Columbia will become more like many other mid-atlantic suburbs. Not a bad place to live, mind you; but not Columbia.
Why is it that all the amenities and benefits of Columbia, Maryland are never explained to the world? It's like we are the hidden library in an old house. The most recent evidence I can find regarding this mystery is a recent post on The Atlantic Cities website about the League of American Bicyclists' "Bicycle Friendly Communities" list. There are over 290 towns listed, and Columbia is not one of them. How could this be? Just off the top of my head, Columbia has:
- 95 Miles of paths for bicycle use
- An annual "Bike About" event sponsored by the Columbia Association
- An active Connecting Columbia and Active Transportation group working to improve the bicycle network
- Quite a few active bicycle specific clubs, advocacy groups, and meetups.
From the article:
Increasingly, Nesper says, suburban leaders are seeking out a "bicycle friendly" designation because they think it makes their communities more attractive to new businesses and residents. He cites Greenville, South Carolina, as another unexpected place that earned a bronze designation this year. Amenities like good bike infrastructure can help set a suburb or small city apart from its sprawling counterparts.
"What’s happening is that bicycling is an indicator of a high quality of life," says Nesper. "It helps the community compete."
I'm thinking this is a slam-dunk, no brainer, throw-your-own-metaphor-into-the-blender-and-I-will-hit-puree idea that needs to be done. Today. And if you are wondering why we are not already on the list, someone has to fill out an application. Columbia Association, sharpen your pencils, I will even pay for the postage if necessary.
For those that want to see the complete list, please visit The Atlantic Cities, its a cool website, or click here (PDF).
A few years ago the Columbia Association and Howard Hughes Corporation co-sponsored an event that featured Mr. Christopher Leinberger. (I think we all agreed that Frank Hecker had the best summation of the night.) This event was well attended and by all accounts, Mr. Leinberger held the crowd with his presentation on walkability and tying that locally to Columbia, MD. As part of his presentation, Mr. Leinberger used elements of the movie “Back to the Future” to describe how suburban development evolved between the 1950’s and the 1980’s. For those that have not seen this presentation, it is a pretty engaging lecture.
Recently, the idea of looking at Columbia, MD over a thirty years began to formulate in my head. There is no blockbuster movie that I can use to illustrate the changes that have (and have not) happened, but there is sufficient data to paint a picture.
Although it would be difficult to pin down the “best” year of Columbia’s early beginnings, 1980 was probably near the top. The city was moving away from the deep financial crisis of the mid 1970’s. The Village Centers were thriving. JK’s Pub in Wilde Lake had been open for only two years, but quickly became the “Cheers” of Columbia long before we found out about Sam Malone’s fictitious watering hole in Boston. Most of Wilde Lake, Harper’s Choice, Oakland Mills and Long Reach was built out. Development continued in Owen Brown, Kings Contrivance, and Hickory Ridge. The Columbia Association had 15 pools and one athletic club (although a lease to operate the Supreme Court, a racquetball club (with a full-service bar) was signed that year).
I don’t want to be too much “milk and honey” here. Nationally, the oil crisis, hostage crisis, and stagflation dominated the news. Hammond High School was the scene of cafeteria fights between students. It was not a perfect day in Pleasantville, but day-to-day, Columbia was a good place in 1980.
According to the US Census, Columbia’s population in 1980 was 52,518. Far short of James Rouse’s projection in 1967, but well underway. It is from this point that we begin our story. Based on US Census data, the population of Columbia has grown pretty steady over the last thirty years. Over this time period, the rate of population growth was greatest during the 1980’s. From 1990 - 2010, Columbia has seen an almost linear growth rate.
The number of households has also grown in a similar manner. Once again, we see a higher rate of growth from 1980-1990 and then a slower, almost linear increasing rate from 1990-2010. But there is something more interesting going on here. If we dig deeper, we will find some fundamental changes in Columbia households in the last thirty years.
What we will look at next is the sub-components of Columbia households. At the top level, these can be classified as Family and Non-Family households. The US Census has a specific definition of a family household:
"A family is a group of two people or more (one of whom is the householder) related by birth, marriage, or adoption and residing together."
Non-family households are the other broad category of living arrangements. Because the number of group quarter buildings in Columbia is very, very few; non-family households can be considered as those households in which the householder lives alone or has roommates. In the graph below, the total number of households line is included as reference. Below the total households line are the family households (red) and non-family households (yellow) lines. As we have seen so far, each subcomponent has shown a steady increase in each household type over the last thirty years.
Within the Family Household designation, the US Census further breaks down these households into four types: Married Couples, Married Couples with own Children, Single Householder with own children and Single Householder with other family. The term “own children” is defined as follows:
A never-married child under 18 years who is a son or daughter by birth, a step child, or an adopted child of the householder. In certain tabulations, own children are further classified as living with two parents or with one parent only.
In the discussion and graphs below, I will be referring to married with kids households. This is shorthand and its usage refers back to the above definition.
The graph below shows how the Columbia married households have changed over the last thirty years.
I call your attention to the green line in the above graph. This line is unique in our analysis. All other 30-year trend lines have shown an increasing characteristic. The green line above is the only one that is different. If you take a close look at the line, it is in fact decreasing. In 1990, Columbia had 9,178 married with kids households. in 2010, there were 8,981 households with children. In fact, over the last thirty years, the number of married with kids households has increased from 7,756 to 9,178. If you average that over thirty years, it translates into about 48 families (net) per year.
This is not exclusive to Columbian married with kids households. A similar trend can be seen with single parent households.
To be as fair as possible, the graph below shows the same married with kids data, but over a much tighter range.
Although some may find solace in the above graph, the slow multi-decade decline of the family in Columbia, MD is a cold reality. There is something more to consider here. If this characteristic happened in a community that had the same number of housing units over time, it would be troubling; however, this has happened in a community in which the number of households has grown every year. In 1980, there were 17,965 households. By 2010, the number of households in Columbia had more than doubled to 39,562. If you look at the above graph by itself, it looks like the number of married with kids households had a pretty healthy increase from 1980-1990. However, during that same time period, the number of households grew even quicker. Another dynamic to consider is that many of the Columbia pioneers that settled here in the early 1970's either brought kids with them or had kids in those early years. During the 1980's many of these children (myself included) graduated high school and went on to pursue their own adult lives. The effect was that many of the households that started the 1980's as married with kids households ended the decade as married couple/ no kids households. So the percentage of married with kids households dropped by its fastest rate in the 1980's and by the end of the 1990's, married with kids households occupied an even fewer percentage of houses in Columbia. To get a sense of this, consider the graph below.
Some other items to consider: Not every household constructed over the last thirty years could accommodate a family. In fact, a lot of the housing built in the Columbia over the last ten years has been exclusively for 55+. However, a thirty year downward trend is not a sign of a healthy community. For the sake of comparison, I plotted the married with kids households in Howard County vs. Columbia for the same time period.
From the above graph, it is pretty clear that while the married with kids population has stagnated in Columbia over the last thirty years, families have been moving to Howard County as a whole. To get a better idea of how this county-wide trend, I subtracted out the Columbia contribution to the Howard County married with kids segment.
And that's when I figured I had to share this information. Columbia has always had a belief. The way the story goes is that back in the late 1960's and early 1970's, the Rouse Company marketed Columbia up and down the east coast. Early adapters that identified with what Rouse was trying to do here came and put down roots. It was then thought, and repeated often, that without the marketing families would find be attracted to Columbia because of the good school system. Although I am sure there are plenty of families out there that moved to Columbia for those reasons, the number of families have been barely been able to keep ahead of 1980 levels. On the other hand, it seems that lots of families have been attracted to the county as a whole. The above graph shows that in 1980, Columbia and Howard County (excepting the houses in Columbia) had an almost equal number of married with kids households. Since then, Howard County has seen a lot of families move in and Columbia has not. Columbia, it is time that we sat down and had a conversation. In order for this town to thrive, we need to attract all types of households, and in particular families with kids.
For almost a decade now, Howard County and Columbia, Maryland have been blessed with a wealth of Internet connectivity. As the Internet and various social media tools have come online, our community has seen its share of early adapters. When those “best places to live” surveys are published, I usually take some time to find out what is going on digitally in the communities listed. Most often, there is not a lot to find. Columbia and Howard County have a pretty vibrant collection of bloggers, tweeters, Facebookians and otherwise Internet connected residents.
That flourishing electronic garden now seems, in some respects, to be retreating. The first news came from the Columbia Association. Last week, CA announced that they were deactivating Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. The logic behind this change has not been made clear, and CA will continue to maintain its central corporate Twitter and Facebook presence. What matters here is that through social media outreach, CA was beginning to become more connected to residents. Personally, I followed both the Columbia Neighborhood Swim League and CA_Pools Twitter accounts. Although they did not produce a lot of tweets, the communication provided was great. Through Twitter, I could follow swim meets city-wide on summer Saturday mornings. CA_Pools gave timely info about inclement weather pool closures and other events going on. In this way, there was value imparted to me, a Package Plan member. Similarly, Facebook posts from the Columbia Archives and other venues kept me up to date on events and activities throughout the city. It is my hope that CA has developed an in-house ability to convey all of this information through the corporate portal in a timely manner. However, the loss of connectivity with discreet portions of CA has been lost, and that is sad.
Over the weekend, I found the following posted at the top of the Explore Howard website:
explorehoward.com will soon be discontinued in favor of baltimoresun.com/howard. This new Howard County section will continue to feature breaking news and events, as well as deep coverage of local neighborhoods in the county. Please bookmark the new site.
In this case, I have some sympathy here. The pull-back over at CA is somewhat of a corporate decision. Although Explore Howard and the parent company are also corporate in nature, it is clear that the news industry as a whole is on the ropes. The deactivation of Explore Howard to Baltimore Sun/Howard may just be cosmetic, but it feels like more of a loss.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t recognize a longer term trend here in the blogging world. Although many of us are still working through the hole left by the sudden and untimely departure of Dennis Lane, we have also seen other bloggers move out of the area (Sarah, Dinomom we miss you) and there are several bloggers (myself included) that have not published at the same frequency as we once did.
The social media world is still evolving and this part of the country has done a fantastic job of adapting and using these new tools. However, it seems like tide is going out on us these days. It’s time for the Howard County social media community to get up off the beach, and get back into the surf. hocoblogs@@@
I am writing today in response to my good friend Marshmallow Man. He has recently posted on his blog
a few reasons why we need a new bridge connection from Oakland Mills to Town Center.
Let me start by saying that the bridge concept is a good one. I have long believed that an iconic bridge over US 29 has merit and has its basis in some of the earliest renderings of downtown Columbia, long before Lake Kittamaquandi was formed.
That being said, the bridge concept suffers from a few drawbacks. Primarily, the cost estimates from Bridge Columbia and Howard Hughes (both in the neighborhood of $10M-$15M) seems a bit more than most people I know think should be spent on such a project. Moreover, projects like this are viewed in a much different light than even a few years ago. Backers of this plan not only need to secure financing for the bridge, but also demonstrate how bridge maintenance and resurfacing will be paid for in the future. Federal and State funding sources are dwindling and this bridge is going to have to stand on its own. To date, no pro forma has been released to indicate how these costs will be paid.
Related to the cost is the utility provided by the proposed bridge. Some Oakland Mills residents have been pretty vocal about their need for the bridge. On the other hand, the folks in Town Center have been pretty quiet about their need for the bridge. Bridge Columbia and the Oakland Mills Village Board have both gone on record that bridge usage must be limited to pedestrians, bicycles and bus transit (with special exception for emergency vehicles). I think this ultimately hurts the Bridge Columbia movement, because it is counter to the initial premise of greater access. Said another way, the proposed bridge would provide a benefit to Oakland Mills (in the form of greater access), but would mitigate the externalities (prohibit car traffic and associated noise) from infringing on their neighborhood. It’s as if someone had front row seats to a Rolling Stones concert, but say that they would only go if they didn’t play so loud.
Beyond that, many of the justifications offered seem to fall on their own internal logic. Most are problematic because it appears to be difficult to integrate the bridge with any current (or planned) transit system. For instance, a recent Baltimore Sun article
quoted Bridge Columbia
proponent Frank Gottenmoeller, “According to Gottemoeller, it currently takes anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes to travel from Oakland Mills to Town Center by car or bus. With the new bridge, Gottenmoeller estimates it would take buses two minutes.”
Now, I don’t dispute Mr. Gottenmoeller’s assertion that the bus trip would be only two minutes; however, in order for the bus over the new bridge to be faster than today, the buses would have to leave on a pretty heavy schedule (< 10 minute intervals). Currently, I am not aware of any bus system in Maryland that operates on 10 minute headways (maybe Ocean City, in season?). In addition, Mr. Gottenmoeller does not take into account the time travelled between a residence and the bus station. This would also add on minutes in excess of the time travel currently available. This is not to say it is a bad idea, but consideration should be given to the residents of Oakland Mills and their travel time calculus. “Should I drive over to the lakefront in ten minutes, or should I make my way to the bus stop and arrive later?”
Getting back to Marshmallow Man and his post on The 53, he provides several good ideas that the bridge would facilitate, but they center mostly on special events (pub crawls, road races, triathlons). He also puts forth the idea of a bus connector service that bypasses Broken Land Parkway. Which begs the question, “Why ride a bus down Broken Land Parkway, when you can enjoy the (future) speed bumps on Thunder HIll Road with your friends?”
Lastly, the one thing a new bridge promises that cannot be refuted on any level is that it would allow residents of Oakland Mills to travel on foot or bike to Town Center without fear. This is the basic premise for a new bridge. If the money can be worked out to achieve this one goal, the bridge is a good idea. hocoblogs@@@
“Above all we need, particularly as children, the reassuring presence of a visible community, and intimate group that enfolds us with understanding and love, and that becomes an object of our spontaneous loyalty, as a criterion and point of reference for the rest of the human race.” – Lewis Mumford
Last week, I read two items of interest. The first was an article in the Columbia Flier
(“Howard groups helping older adults 'age in place' ”
, Luke Lavoie) The second was what I would call a “thinking piece” from the Columbia Association President (see sidebar).. Both address the issue of a growing senior population but taken together, they represent the bookends of the discussion.
The Columbia Flier
article provides a very straightforward discussion of the services currently available for seniors and a few initiatives that will soon provide for the same population segment. In addition, the data and commentary within the article presents the basis for why aging in place is taking place. The article sites a 2010 national survey
sponsored by the American Association of Retired People.
According to a survey published by the AARP, nearly 90 percent of American adults over age 65 want to stay in their residence, with more than 80 percent believing their current residence is where they will always live.
Comments provided by local resident Paul Verchinski reinforces the AARP data. “I’ve lived in Columbia since 1973,” Verchinski said. “I’ve raised my kids here. I like it here. It’s a great place to live, so I’m not leaving.”
Over at the Columbia Association, President Phil Nelson has produced a 23-page document that reflects much thought into the local aging population. Mr. Nelson does not reference the AARP study, but draws from US Census data. Some of the findings listed in the report are as follows:
- Currently, 60% of Columbia households are one or two person households. According to recent Census Bureau data, this trend is expected to continue to increase.
- The number of households with children is anticipated to decrease from 31.6% in 2010 to about 12.6% by 2040.
- The fastest growing age cohort will be the over 65 group. Anticipated growth in this age cohort is from about 5% of total population to just over 20% of total Columbia population.
Where the Columbia Flier article provided the causes of the growing senior population, the CA document focuses on the effects projected out to 2030 and beyond. The first dozen pages detail the projected demographic changes to come. At that point the paper shifts focus and provides recommendations to the Columbia Association Business Model so that CA can adapt to the changing population.
Columbia Compass Guide to
View CA Board Agenda Attachments:
The Columbia Association Board of Directors agenda documents are interesting things. If you view them within a web browser online, the only thing you see is the board agenda. A note at the top of the CA Board agenda webpage states “There are generally attachments to all agendas and minutes of meetings. If you cannot see any attachments we recommend downloading Firefox.”
If you are not using the Firefox web browser, the agenda PDF file must be downloaded to your computer to view the attachments. If you download the file and open the file locally with Adobe Acrobat Reader, you should be able to see the attachments listed at the bottom of the screen. Each of the attachments is itself another PDF file. With respect to the September 12, 2013 meeting, the attachment referenced in this blog post is Item_13(a)1(a)_Business Model Review for Open Space.pdf.
Of particular interest is a passage entitled “Dateline: August 2033.” The intent of this piece is to provide a hypothetical look back on Columbia from the year 2033. The tone of the passage is upbeat; however, the content is (in my opinion) foreboding.
How things have changed in the last 20 years in Columbia and Howard County! The last new building related the redevelopment of Downtown Columbia is opening. Columbia’s development is now focused on the new mixed use center rising along Snowden River parkway on parts of the old GE site. It will be a mini-downtown for the eastern part of Columbia. Its twin is rising across I-95 on the old quarry site. The new bridge across I-95 linking Route 1 and Snowden River Parkway makes travel between Columbia and Route 1 easier. Of course downtown Columbia is much larger.
The fifth paragraph details the effects of demographic change:
Speaking of population, some significant changes have occurred over the last 20 years. Five distinct generations inhabit Columbia (a few in the mature/silent generation, the baby boom generation, generation X, generation Y, generation Z) – each generation is distinct and has different requirements, particularly related to services and communication. There was the increase in the Asian and Hispanic populations (the Caucasian population is now only 35% of the overall population in Columbia), but the biggest change was in age. The senior population has sky-rocketed; now over 20% of the Columbia population. People have either decided to age in place in their homes (which have adopted over the years) or they have moved to downtown Columbia to enjoy all the amenities and night life. Downtown Columbia residents are either seniors or 1 and 2 person young adult households. There are very few children in downtown Columbia; it is just not conducive to children. Almost all families/children live in the other nine villages. Actually, a song from the 1960’s can describe the situation: “Where have all the children gone?” With so many young adults delaying marriage and having only 1 or 2 children or deciding to remain childless, the population of children has shrunk both in size as well as percent of the population. Over 80% of the households are childless. The county school arguments have gone from “should we build more schools” to “should we convert the excess schools into senior condos”.
And later in the piece:
Not many single family homes have been torn down, but they are very different from the Columbia of 20 years ago. In 2014, there were about 39,000 households in Columbia, and the median household size was about 2.55 persons. That’s the basis the 2010 Census that showed a Columbia population of 99,615. Now, with different lifestyles and housing choices, Columbia median household totals have decreased to about 1.8 persons per household. Just that seemingly small change means that the same number of households now provide shelter to just over 70,000 people. The remainder of the population lives in higher density units constructed in downtown, and the Village Centers.
Now, posting these passages here constitutes on some level cherry-picking. That is not my intent, and I post them here not only to facilitate a discussion, but to encourage everyone who reads this to go to the Columbia Association source document and read it in its entirety. I don’t think I have purposely omitted any particular passage that contradicts the tone or intent of the Columbia Association projection. Once again, follow the link
, take a deep dive in the material, and let me know if I am giving a fair representation.
That being said, there is a lot to talk about here. The first data point that had me pondering Columbia’s future was that more than 80% of Columbia households would not have children. Based on other data contained in the report, this yields a “family households with children” total of approximately 7400 units. That is less than the current number of households in Owen Brown (4069) and Oakland Mills (3416) combined. It is also less than the number of Columbia family households with children in 1980. Just for a moment, think of Columbia in the above referenced context: Columbia, a community of two thriving family villages, surrounded by eight villages of singles and couples of varying age. Was that the plan? Is that a better city?
Of course, this is pure fiction. The reality may be far worse. If these projections are at all valid, the future has 7400 families scattered over 27 square miles. A politically, socially and culturally weak archipelago of households – driving farther, working harder and spending more time just focused on providing their children interactive play with their peers.
Many of the supporting statements in Dateline: August 2033 describe the effects of a potential household-with-children crater. As families with children households drop off, the Village Centers will see fewer dollars. As the Village Centers become unprofitable, the retail tenants will soon depart, leaving little other option for the land. Particularly troubling is the projection that school sites would be considered for conversion to age restricted condos. (quick aside – the reference to the song “Where have all the children gone” from the 1960’s appears to be inaccurate. The song was a rewriting of another song
(paragraph 3 under Activism) from the 1960’s. Although the wording is correct (circa 1997), the metaphor behind either form of the song is jarring in this context).
Take a moment and reflect on the projected changes to the Columbia Villages. If a Village loses its Village Center, if its school are converted to condos, if the tot lots are converted to “demographically appropriate opportunities,” if residents have to drive farther for daily needs, if kids need to take longer bus rides to school, what exactly is left of a Columbia Village? In what way is this future Columbia better than Perryville? Crofton? Bowie? Germantown?
Lastly, the discussion that in the future, parts of Columbia will be “…just not conducive to children” sets off alarm bells in my head. As a community that has since its founding put forth a vision of diversity and inclusiveness, the idea that a twenty year development would allow for any group to be excluded is mind boggling. The idea that the group being excluded would be our smallest, our most impressionable, and in the broadest calculus, our most important resource demonstrates a complete lack of value in this community – today, tomorrow, or at any time.
“Somehow, we have to get older people back close to growing children if we are to restore a sense of community, a knowledge of the past, and a sense of the future.” – Margaret Meade
As I have put time and effort into working through these demographic gymnastics, I am well aware that there are defenders of this vision. Aside from the potential benefits touted by zero population growth advocates and in aging in place literature, there are folks that say the Dateline August 2033 document is not intended to be a roadmap or policy that is to be carried out – that it is intended to spur discussion. This line of thinking seems to always end with “Well, the CA Board has not voted on it, so there is nothing to get worked up about.” To those people, I have to ask – why put all this time and effort into research and to put to paper the outcomes if they stand for nothing? Now is the time to ask “Is this what we want?”
Ultimately, I think that this analysis does a good job of describing where we are, and I believe that some of the claims may become reality. However, I think there is one aspect that was not considered in the analysis, and that aspect is love. I believe that throughout human history, where there are people in love, babies happen. The past few years may have seen a downward trend in births, but I think that in the future, people will fall in love and have kids and those families will need a great community to raise those kids. I believe in a future where seniors are part of the community (as for certain I will be one of those seniors), but they also realize that we need to make room for families with kids to thrive.
The Columbia Association is a non-profit social welfare corporation...
That’s about the point where I think we lose most people, and we can’t afford to lose them anymore. In the past year, I have come in contact with about two-dozen new residents. Most have a less-than-ideal view of the Columbia Association. “Don’t tell them, but I planted a new azalea bush last spring.” That, or a variant of the remark was what I heard most. Regulation, avoidance – are those terms that CA wants to be associated with?
I have no idea how many people know how this town is governed, but now is the time to move that number in the positive direction and make that trend lasting. I am confident that most residents could rattle off a short list of things the Columbia Association does, but I am not so sure they could state why Columbia Association does those things.
There are also the standard laundry list of questions that would challenge a lot of residents: Do you know who is your Columbia Council Representative? Have you voted in a Village election in the last five years? When was the last time you attended a CA Board meeting? Do you know where the Columbia Association Board of Directors has their meetings?
In addition to the folks who just don’t know about Columbia governance, there exists another segment of the population that knows a little about Columbia governance. For these folks, the terms “quasi-governmental” and “tax-like lien” have meaning. They typically have lived in the community for decades, and generally believe CA was governed better in the past than it is today.
Between these two groups of residents, public knowledge of Columbia governance exists largely as an imagined construct. Although emails and list-serve posts describe narrow aspects of Columbia governance, the entire continuum of how Columbia is governed – and just as important – how it has evolved, is at best a community wide reproduction of the telephone game.
Today’s Columbia residents need to know why Columbia is not an incorporated city. They need to know what conditions existed when Columbia was founded. They need to understand the five transformations that have happened in the last 45 years. They need to know how the Maryland Homeowners Association Act and the American Bar Association Model Nonprofit Corporation Act have influenced Columbia governance.
Moreover, this endeavor must be repeated, again and again, at the most local of levels. Although a web page with this information would be a great start, this topic must be presented in person and preferably to small groups. Initial steps could leverage the traditional Columbia governance structure by presenting to the Columbia Village Boards annually. I also recommend incorporating the presentation into each Village Candidate Night before the yearly Columbia Village Elections. However, this level of outreach is insufficient. The Columbia Association also needs to reach farther down and provide this presentation to hyperlocal condo association and townhouse association board meetings. CA also needs to reach out beyond its traditional channels to those that may not have heard this discussion. It needs to present this history to local religious congregations, at their place of worship. It needs to tailor the presentation to school-age children and find a way to present to local Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops. There must be a way to amend the presentation such that scouts can earn some sort of civics badge for attending.
Lastly, as a final method of outreach, the Columbia Association needs to calculate the value of an informed resident. If a resident currently perceives the Columbia Association as the corporation that collects the annual charge and engages in architectural control, what is the value associated with informing this resident about what CA does and how CA does it? Would a more informed resident be more likely to register for classes? Would they be more inclined to vote in Village elections? How does an informed resident population affect the bottom line?
Once this value is calculated, the Columbia Association could provide outreach to localized CA users and provide a one-time discount for attendance. Users get a one-time discount, but they are also more informed as part of the process. This could be conducting presentations at schools that have before and after school care (with some arrangement for babysitting during the presentation). It could also be used for fitness discounts if users agree to attend a session. A presentation could be held in conjunction with summer camp registration. There are many more possibilities, and they should be explored.
In the end, what would all this discussion do? First, informed citizens will be more engaged. I don’t have empirical evidence on this, but let’s be honest, most humans are engaged when they have knowledge. If the only knowledge they have today is that CA is involved in the architectural review process, their level of engagement will likely be low. Second, as stated above, if a value of an informed resident can be calculated, than that value will also be recognized by the residents. Residents the perceive value imparted to them will likely act to retain that value. This could take many forms: Greater Village election participation, greater participation in CA membership and non-membership (i.e. lakefront movies, Bike About) activities, greater feedback to the issues of the day that involve the Columbia Association. If CA acts to plant these seeds of knowledge, they will reap the fruits, but they have to start – and soon.