Monday, November 25, 2013

The Verona: The Tip of the Iceberg?

As I'm sure you've all heard by now that the County has purchased the Verona an older Apartment Complex in Columbia's Oakland Mills Village. The Verona is located among a vast array of aging Apartment and Condo complexes in Oakland Mills that have seen better days. In the short term, the County's plans for the Verona are relatively small; landscaping, perhaps a fresh coat of paint here and there. In the long term however (2023 and beyond) the County hopes to redevelop the property much in the manner it did with Guilford Gardens (now Monarch Mills) and is currently doing with Hilltop (now Burgess Mill Station.) 
Residents are wary of the prospect of adding more subsidized to a Village that already has a deep concentration of it. But I think redevelopment will help give Oakland Mills (any older Columbia Village for that matter) a much needed face lift. There are however some aspects of the County's plan that I don't agree with. First, when the County says "Mixed Income Community" they're only really covering half the market; the Rental Market. In Baltimore when its notorious Public Housing High Rises were redeveloped with mixed income housing communities there was always an element of home ownership. Home Ownership (whether it be Market Rate or affordable) is intermingled with the Rentals. I think when the County is ready to redevelop the Verona, their vision for the new development should include units for purchase (both market rate and affordable) as well as rentals. This holds even more precedence when considering what I'm about to write below.

In the same breath the County makes when announcing its intentions for the Verona, they also make mention of providing assistance to renovate the Single Family Housing Stock in Oakland Mills to make it appealing for civil servants (teachers, fire fighters nurses etc.) to buy into Oakland Mills and "put down roots." Although I very much agree with that concept for the aging Single Family Homes in Oakland Mills I must pose this question; What's wrong with putting down roots near the Village Center? The take away message I got was that you must own your home to put down roots in the Community and you have to do so in a Single Family Home on the outskirts of the Village. I personally think that Oakland Mills will gain a lot by having more for purchase housing near its Village Center. Most Village Centers that are thriving have lots of for purchase housing surrounding it. I think keeping options limited to rental around Oakland Mills Village Center would prohibit those looking to buy a small condo or town home from putting down roots in Oakland Mills.

Next, as part of the County's purchase of the Verona, they're upping the amount of subsidized housing in the area. Roughly 17% of the Verona is subsidized while the remaining 83% are Market Rate. The percentage of subsidized housing will go up to 20% in the short term and perhaps even higher once the property is redeveloped. Granted some of these subsidies will be "Moderate Income Housing Units" or little less than the Median Rent for Columbia and/or Howard County. Given the relatively low rent for the Verona, some moderate income rents would be MORE than what the rent currently is at the Verona. Will the County RAISE the market rate rent at the Verona? Time will tell.

I can see why the prospect of more subsidized housing would make Residents nervous (even if the rent isn't any different) especially when Forest Ridge located next to the Verona, is 100% Subsidized. This is when Master Planning the area begins to come into play. Forest Ridge although it received some renovations in recent years could stand to get attention similar to the Verona. With its sole concentration of subsidized housing, the County should team up with Enterprise Housing (the owners of Forest Ridge) and combine the percentage of subsidized housing and redevelop the two properties in conjunction with one another. The finished product will include a redeveloped Verona and Forest Ridge with a 20% Subsidy across the board. Keep in mind this 20% is only for Rental Subsidies there will be additional for purchase subsidies in the new Verona/Forest Ridge as this will be a true mixed income community.
Now as I get accused of trying to gentrify Oakland Mills and run out the low income Residents I will also propose this; Senior Housing. Subsidized Senior Housing to be exact. One problem area in Oakland Mills is the vacant site that once housed an Exxon Gas Station. Since its closing in 1999 Community Leaders have worked frivolously to get something built on that space but at the end of the day it remains an eyesore. As part of the Verona/Forest Ridge redevelopment plan I would place a 100% Senior Subsidized building on that site. 
When looking into the future of Oakland Mills there comes the question of connect-ability. Connect-ability to Town Center to be more specific. This fits perfectly into Master Plan. Although the new multi-modal road proposed to connect Oakland Mills with Town Center doesn't effect the Verona or Forest Ridge, it does effect Grand Pointe. This new road is projected to lead to a partial demolition of a couple of buildings in Grand Pointe. I think with all this talk of redevelopment in Oakland Mills, I think a complete redevelopment of Grand Pointe will create a "gateway" to Oakland Mils that will capture the energy created by the redevelopment of Town Center. 
There are four Apartment Complexes in Oakland Mills and I've already discussed redeveloping three of them. The 4th one is Autumn Crest and you guessed it, redevelopment should be a viable option as well. With all this new housing coming down the pipeline in Oakland Mills, Autumn Crest will definitely begin to show its age. Indeed, Autumn Crest's larger Apartments (2 and 3 Bedrooms) still don't have two full baths. Something like this as well as other modern conveniences will only add to the lack of desirability of Autumn Crest. Redevelopment may be the only option to keep it viable. 
In Oakland Mills there are also privately owned developments that are showing signs of blight that would benefit from redevelopment. They include but aren't limited to; Shadow Oaks, Holly Court and Cinnamon Tree Quads (both in Talbott Springs and Stevens Forest) in order to fully understand whether or not redevelopment is in any of their futures a study would have to be conducted to see what percentage of occupants own their home and if one goes on the market; see how long it takes to find a buyer and if that buyer intends to live in it or rent it out. Also in the study, the County must see if the Home Owners Associations in each development is willing to invest in their properties by modernizing the exterior facades, landscape improvements and additional lighting. The finding of these studies will determine whether or not these developments have a sustainable future.
As Residents of Oakland Mills ponder the future of the Verona. They may or may not be surprised to learn that at least in my humble opinion, it's just the tip of the Iceberg.     

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Town Center Is Finally Taking Shape

It's been 46 and a half years since the dedication of Columbia on June 30, 1967. Since then Columbia has grown leaps and bounds with 10 Villages and a population teetering at 100,000 setting the bench mark for a truly integrated and diverse community. However there's one thing that's lacking in Columbia and that's a proper Downtown. Similar communities such as Silver Spring, Bethesda, Towson, and Rockville, and eventually Owings Mills boast a Downtown dense with Housing, 1st Class Retail, Office Space, and Hotels as well as recreation. Bits and pieces of Columbia's Downtown were built over the past 46 and a half years but today for the first time, all cards are on the table to make Columbia's Downtown as world class and special as the Villages that surround it.

The biggest piece of Downtown to be built came early on which of course was and is the Mall. Opened in 1971 the Mall was just a two story straight line between Woodies (Now JC Penney) and Hoschild Kohn (then Hects now Macys.) After countless Renovations and additions the Mall now boasts a whopping 5 Department Stores (JC Penney, Macys, Sears, Lord & Taylor, and Nordstrom) as well as four exterior Restaurants and a 14 screen Movie Theater. Enclosed Shopping Malls were in style way of shopping back in the 1970s and since then have become more and more obsolete with the advent of Big Box Shopping Centers and finally the return of Main St. style shopping known as "Lifestyle Centers" The Columbia Mall has bucked this trend and has remained a destination despite increasing competition in the Dobbin/Snowden area.
Between 1967 and 2013 a sparse array of Office Buildings and Housing Developments have popped up around the Mall. A lot of these Buildings face Columbia's Lakefront. The Lakefront is one of Columbia's best attributes with free concerts and moving screenings in the summer. These attractions have been great for long time Restaurants that face the lake as well. Although the Lakefront should be a huge draw and meeting place for Columbia Residents, it's decidedly
sparse unless there's an event going on.
To give Downtown Columbia the dense population it needs to thrive (living working and shopping) the Howard Hughes Corporation, a subsidiary of General Growth Properties, the company who purchased the Rouse Company developed a Master Plan for Downtown Columbia that includes 5500 new Housing Units, 1.25 Million Square Feet of Retail, 4.3 Million Square Feet of Office Space, and 640 Hotel Rooms. The planning for this Master Plan began as early as 2005 with community concerns regarding the affordability of Downtown, whether the crime rate will go up, whether the proposed Grocery Store will hurt efforts of luring a new one to Wilde Lake Village etc. Finally some parts of Downtown are taking shape.
There was once a sixth mini department store at the Mall; LL Bean. which has seen been demolished in favor of a Lifestyle Center that will eventually connect Wilde Lake to the Front Doors of the Mall as development continues. There are numerous businesses that have signed leases to be part of the new lifestyle center which opened to pedestrian traffic on November 1st but the first and only store to open as of yet is a bra shop.
The new entrance to the Mall created by this redevelopment is exactly opposite Lord & Taylor. This is a fact that I have kept in the forefront of my mind regarding a 24 hour cut through between the Warfield Neighborhood of Downtown and the Lakefront via another Lifestyle Center. What I would do with Lord & Taylor is up in the air but I think the area near the Merrill Lynch Building is grossly under utilized. 
Opposite the new Lifestyle Center, the foundations are going up for what will eventually be "Metropolitan Downtown Columbia", a new community of 800+ ultra upscale Apartments built on two slabs of land into between Broken Land Parkway and Mall Ring Road. The plan is to have Twin Rivers Road cut across Broken Land Parkway to meet Mall Ring Road as an effort to connect Wilde Lake with Downtown and perhaps the Lakefront and perhaps even Oakland Mills. 
One question that lingers is whether or not early Office Buildings of Downtown will remain as later phases of Downtown begin to come down the pipeline. Two buildings that come to mind are the American City Building and the Teacher's Building. There was also talk of demolishing the Howard Hughes Building designed by architect Frank Gehry but obviously that will not happen.
The beleaguered Howard Hughes building that once was headquarters to the Rouse Company is being renovated and expanded to accommodate a Whole Foods Market. CA is also building a Gym above the Whole Foods. This shows the truly upscale nature of Downtown Columbia given how expensive a trip to Whole Foods is. This will more than likely set a bench mark for the type of additional Retail that will come Downtown. Lakefront Restaurants like Clyde's, Tomato Palace, and Sushi Sono, should expect to see a spike in sales once Whole Foods is open.
Although these are the only parts of Downtown currently in the construction phase, there are many others in the planning phase. The Multi-Modal Pathway/Roadway connecting Downtown to Oakland Mills is in its early stages, plans the Crescent Neighborhood have been filed with the County as have plans to revamp Symphony Woods and Merriweather Post Pavilion. A new north south road and the extension of Hickory Ridge Road are also on the table. It is unclear whether the Central Branch of the Howard County Library will be demolished as a result. It is also unclear if the Grand Pointe Apartment Complex in Oakland Mills will survive the Multi-Modal Pathway/Roadway. It is unclear if Wincopin St. will still be created. One thing is clear; the focus on the future if Downtown Columbia is bright and front and center.