Playgrounds for all ages at Blandair Regional Park, Columbia

The south side (Part 1)

Active recreation is the theme for the first 100 acres of Blandair Park, a 300 acre regional park being developed in the center of Columbia by Howard County Dept. of Recreation and Parks. Construction of two phases has been completed on the land south of MD-175 at Oakland Mills Road.  Phase 3, just begun, will introduce additional options for play by all ages and abilities, and nearly complete the south side build out.

Back in 2005-2010, I advocated as part of the Thunder Hill Park Alliance to make the entire parcel a nature park.  Thankfully, the 200 acres on the north side are intended to be a preserve of forest, wetlands, and meadows, with a nature center, children’s garden, and a historic farm complex.  

Read further for an orientation (with lots of pictures) to what amenities are on the south side now and the innovative plans for Phase 3. It’s a long post, but scroll through for the pictures. We’ll look at the plans for the north side in Part 2.

~ Harry Schwarz

What is Blandair Park? [Excerpts]

by Howard County Dept. of Recreation and Parks

Blandair Park is one of the county’s premier destinations for sports events. . . . . Amenities now available include three lighted synthetic turf multipurpose fields, 2 lighted synthetic ball fields, press boxes and bleachers, along with playgrounds, pavilions, tennis courts, restrooms and a parking lots.

Blandair Regional Park, south side of MD-175, looking West (Howard County Dept. of Recreation and Parks). Phase 2 is in the foreground, now complete. Phase 3, now being constructed, is the undeveloped land upper right center.
Blandair Park, Phase 2 , now completed (Howard County Dept. of Recreation and Parks) CLICK ON IMAGE FOR ENLARGED VIEW

The farm [that became Blandair Park] traces its beginnings to lands granted to the Talbot family in colonial times, and it was later owned by members of the Dorsey, Howard, and Weems families. In 1845, Theodorick Bland, Chancellor of Maryland (1824-1846), purchased it and named it “Blandair.”  . . . . The last residing owner, Nancy Smith, passed away in 1997 and the farm, long having ceased operations, was purchased by Howard County with assistance from the State’s Program Open Space in 1998 for use as a park.

Challenge Course playground, Blandair Park (Harry Schwarz)
Challenge Course playground, Blandair Park (Harry Schwarz)

In 2001, a committee of 23 citizens was appointed to advise the County on the direction it should take in developing the park. The Committee determined that the North Area should feature historical interpretation, preserve natural areas, and provide predominately passive recreation and nature education. It also could provide space for occasional large outdoor gatherings. They determined that the South Area should provide more facilities for active recreation, as well as preserve its natural areas.

Approved Master Plan, Blandair Regional Park (Howard County Dept. of Recreation and Parks) CLICK ON IMAGE FOR ENLARGED VIEW

Report on how the athletic fields are being used

by Michael Blevins, Sports Manager (Howard County Recreation & Park)

Blandair’s next phase has a focus on inclusive play [Excerpts]

by Janene Holzberg (The Baltimore Sun) August 16, 2018

Phase 3 Illustrative Site Plan, Blandair Regional Park  (Howard County Dept. of Recreation and Parks) CLICK ON IMAGE FOR ENLARGED VIEW
Phase 3 existing site, Blandair Regional Park (Harry Schwarz)

A groundbreaking ceremony for the biggest, most expensive — and most inclusive — playground in a Howard County-owned park will take place at 9 a.m. Wednesday [August 22nd] in east Columbia, as development of the third phase of Blandair Regional Park gets underway.

County Recreation and Parks Department officials estimate the $10.9 million project will take 18 months to complete and will open in the late spring or early summer of 2020.

Conceptual illustration of Playground for All, Blandair Regional Park (Howard County Dept. of Recreation and Parks/captions by Harry Schwarz)

Nicknamed “Playground for All,” it is the third of seven phases planned for the 300-acre park site over the next decade.

The playground design’s emphasis on special features for all ages and abilities arose from focus groups the county held with community organizations and residents starting in 2013, he said.

Conceptual illustration of Farm Playground, Blandair Regional Park, designed for ages 0-2 years (Howard County Dept. of Recreation and Parks)
Conceptual illustration of Farm Playground, Blandair Regional Park, designed for ages 0-2 years (Howard County Dept. of Recreation and Parks)

Instead of 50 percent of the playground equipment being accessible to kids with disabilities — which is the most common formula for accessibility in county parks — that number was increased to 80 percent for Blandair’s playground.

Six color-coded pods will contain themed areas geared toward various sub-groupings of children from 18 months to 12 years, and the entire playground will have perimeter fencing to help contain those who tend to wander. Shade structures, picnic tables and benches will be incorporated into the layout.

Conceptual illustration of Dino Playground, Blandair Regional Park, designed for ages 2-4 years (Howard County Dept. of Recreation and Parks)
Conceptual illustration of Dino Playground, Blandair Regional Park, designed for ages 2-4 years (Howard County Dept. of Recreation and Parks)

“This playground has been intentionally designed for special needs kids and the amount of thought and planning that went into it is incredible,” [Beth Benevides, a Marriottsville resident and former president of the Howard County Autism Society’s board of directors] said. “But the features will appeal to all kids of all ages, so we’re flip-flopping things by pushing the mainstream into the special-needs community.”

Conceptual illustration of Space Playground, Blandair Regional Park, designed for ages 5-12 years (Howard County Dept. of Recreation and Parks)
Conceptual illustration of Space Playground, Blandair Regional Park, designed for ages 5-12 years (Howard County Dept. of Recreation and Parks)

An Infinity Web climbing apparatus and other planned playground features were also selected for their innovative qualities.

Musical instruments called Free Notes comprise a feature that sensitivity experts say will relieve stress and soothe park patrons. These include cymbals, chimes and drums. Dinosaurs, the farm and outer space are themes of a few as-yet unnamed areas.

Conceptual illustration of Free Notes playground, Blandair Regional Park, designed for all ages (Howard County Dept. of Recreation and Parks)

This phase of the park will also contain three bocce courts, two croquet courts and two horseshoe pits, so-called “backyard games” that aren’t available in other county park facilities and will likely appeal to seniors, [Raul Delerme, Chief of the bureau of capital projects for the Howard County Dept. of Recreation and Parks] said.

Delerme said a less flashy but integral feature of Phase III will be construction of a Recreation and Parks Department maintenance facility that will service the entire park. The shop “will give us an even greater presence on-site and that’s important to us,” he said.

To encourage accessibility, the park is connected to downtown Columbia by a paved path and there is a bike rental station in Phase I, Hunter said [Anna Hunter, the department’s public information and marketing director],  and the park has also provided a bus stop on Oakland Mills Road.

We believe in children of all abilities playing together

Our inclusive playgrounds promote physical, cognitive, learning, visual and hearing experiences that enrich play experiences for all children. We believe everyone deserves the highest level of fun.

Consulting with both child development and inclusive playground experts, we incorporated focus on the complexities and developmental benefits of play to include the specific features children need at each stage of growth. Designing an inclusive playground goes well beyond the ADA’s playground equipment requirements or even designing and building playgrounds with wheelchair accessibility.

Inclusive play means:

  • Creating wide paths between playground equipment so all children can walk or roll between playground equipment
  • Creating surfacing which is easy to use with crutches, wheelchairs and other mobility devices, creating wheelchair accessible playgrounds
  • Creating cozy or quiet spaces for children who may become overwhelmed and may need a quiet space
  • Ensuring that special needs outdoor play equipment isn’t in a separate area, but included with other equipment, allowing children to play together
  • Buying playground equipment that can be used in a number of ways, by everyone.


Check out the renovations at Merriweather Post Pavilion

Merriweather Post Pavilion (MPP) in Columbia, MD is in the midst of a $55 million renovation. If you haven’t visited for awhile, you’re in for a treat. The renovations are geared to enhancing the fan experience and providing appealing amenities to the performers in order to attract top talent. MPP celebrated it’s 50th anniversary in 2017 so the facility was due for some upgrades. 

The renovations are being coordinated by the nonprofit Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, which took over ownership of  Merriweather Post Pavilion in 2016. One of the first acts of the new leadership was to sign a new 40-year contract in 2017 with DC-headquartered I.M.P. to operate MPP.  The Commission hopes to supplement the traditional rock concerts at MPP with other artistic and cultural activities.

Ian Kennedy, Executive Director of the Commission, recently gave me a tour of the renovation work in progress. Here are some pictures for a glimpse of the new Merriweather Post Pavilion.

(Click on any image to begin the slide show.)

All photos are by Harry Schwarz, unless otherwise indicated.

The partners operating Haven on the Lake are fighting in court

The Columbia Association (CA) and Still Point Spas partnered to establish Haven on the Lake, a wellness spa in downtown Columbia, in 2014. Now they are battling each other in court and it doesn’t seem a fair fight. Still Point is accusing CA of “pursuing unrelenting legal actions; CA’s strategy seems to be to ‘bully’ the Still Point into leaving, dragging out the legal process so the costs become too great for a small women-owned business to continue.”

The founders of Still Point, Tori Paide and Marla Peoples, are acupuncturists I know from when I worked at Tai Sophia Institute (now MUIH). They are heart-centered people with the utmost integrity. They are also award-winning entrepreneurs and CA wisely partnered with them for their expertise in creating a healing environment and profitable business model.

Tori Paide, left, and Marla Peoples, founders of The Still Point spa at Haven on the Lake in Columbia, one of two locations

Tori and Marla shared their legal struggle with me, and while it’s their side of the story only, many of the elements are indisputable and the overall documentation seems to me compelling. I am sharing their story so that perhaps the court of public opinion might provide some support in their battle against Goliath. Continue reading The partners operating Haven on the Lake are fighting in court

Autonomous Vehicle Technology coming to Merriweather District

Some famous person once said, the future will be here before we know it.  Well, the development of Merriweather District presages a bright future for Columbia. Rouse’s Columbia was always at the cutting edge of community development. The introduction of autonomous parking, with GREEN building design, and recovery of the surrounding ecosystem as we finish Rouse’s city, makes us a leader once again. 

“Our partnership with Howard Hughes Corporation will transform Merriweather District into the first city in the country to be built for, and operate, fully-autonomous parking technology,” said Anuja Sonalker, Founder and CEO of STEER. “The benefits are infinite.”

Merriweather District Groundbreaking includes announcement of autonomous parking amenity for Downtown Columbia neighborhood [Excerpts]

by Jean Moon (Columbia Patch), April 30, 2018

The Howard Hughes Corporation and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan broke ground today on the first urban, walkable neighborhood to be created within the Merriweather District, celebrating The Howard Hughes Corporation’s continued transformation of the district and the revitalization of Downtown Columbia.

Planned development of Area 3, Merriweather District (image by Howard Hughes Corporation)

The development of a new office building to be anchored by Tenable Inc., one of the largest and fastest-growing cybersecurity companies in the country, marks the latest milestone in Downtown Columbia’s emergence as a vibrant commercial hub for technology and innovation.

In addition, plans were announced for a neighborhood amenity to harness the emerging technology of autonomous parking. The Merriweather District buildings will be powered by STEER technology, the first fully-autonomous parking solution transforming everyday cars into driverless vehicles that self-park. This integration will transform the Merriweather District into the first city in the country to be built for automated self-parking cars.

Aerial view of planned development of Area 3, Merriweather District (image from Downtown Columbia, DTC Partnership)

“The Merriweather District is designed to be a dynamic live-work-play destination with access to unique offerings, great restaurants and an iconic entertainment venue within a beautiful, walkable environment” [said John DeWolf, President, Columbia, The Howard Hughes Corporation.]

STEER Autonomous Parking Video (click to play)

Level 4 Autonomous Parking Coming to Merriweather District in Columbia MD [Excerpts]

by Bryan Jonston (Auto Connected Car News), May 1, 2018

Click on logo for company website

STEER built the first fully-autonomous parking technology to transform everyday cars into driverless vehicles. The first application of STEER’s technology is a Level 4, highly autonomous and cybersecure parking solution – drivers simply exit the car at a destination, and the car parks itself in a designated parking lot. When consumers are ready to go, just summon the car via a mobile app.

The Merriweather District, a Howard Hughes Corporation project, will be the first high-density, mixed-use neighborhood to adopt STEER and power a truly tech-forward experience for residents, businesses and consumers.

“Our partnership with Howard Hughes Corporation will transform Merriweather District into the first city in the country to be built for, and operate, fully-autonomous parking technology,” said Anuja Sonalker, Founder and CEO of STEER. “The benefits are infinite; Merriweather residents can save time and gas getting to and from their cars; reduce stress and frustration hauling bags of groceries in inclement weather; and corporate partners will benefit from increased employee productivity by saving time and frustration looking for and walking from the parking lot to work.”

How Autonomous Vehicles Will Shape Cities

By Brooks Rainwater (National League of Cities), June 1, 2018

Today in America, autonomous vehicles (AVs) are already on our streets, with pilots taking place in cities nationwide. Technology like this can be utilized to make all of our lives better — but even if our hands are off the wheel, we must drive this future together.

Mobility: Tap taxis to tackle isolation

While most automakers don’t plan on selling AVs to the public before 2020, Lyft, Uber and Nutonomy have all started piloting driverless technology in select cities across the country. If you live in a city, your first ride in an autonomous vehicle will very likely be in a self-driving taxi. These taxis have the potential to provide a cheap and inclusive way for people who are isolated—such as the elderly and disabled—to get around.

Prototype Uber driverless taxi (click on image for Uber website)

Sustainability: Weaving a microtransit mesh

If your first experience riding an AV isn’t in a taxi, then it’ll be in a driverless minibus. Unlike the taxis, minibuses have pre-programmed routes and can carry multiple people at once. They will be an economical part of our autonomous future.

A driverless shuttle began operating this fall at the University of Michigan’s Mcity test facility in Ann Arbor (click on image for Mcity website)

Jobs & the Economy: A human touch on robot delivery

You may have expected that a drone would be delivering your takeout burritos, but it turns out robots on sidewalks will probably be doing it first. Autonomous robots will likely be a boon to local restaurants and shops, allowing them to more easily compete with megaliths like Amazon and provide customers with almost instant deliveries.

Autonomous robot (from CitiesSpeak, National League for Cities)

Urban Transformation: Rethinking buses, bikes, and barriers

Just as robots will likely be embraced by local businesses, robots will also likely serve a municipal role. Autonomous street patrol officers and ushers will become a go-between for residents and their built environments, and city infrastructure will become a flexible fabric with which residents can communicate.

Before long, we can expect to see thousands of autonomous vehicles on roadways, autonomous buses and transit vehicles providing rides, and autonomous conveyors shuttling back and forth on sidewalks making deliveries. 

Volvo pioneers self-driving garbage truck (click to play video)

Featured image at top of post

from the Volkswagen Group, currently testing autonomous parking at Hamburg Airport.


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Ellicott City Flood and Flooding [An update from 2016]

As we attend to the immediate needs of the residents and businesses affected by this week’s flood in Ellicott City, people are asking “Why does this keep happening and what can be done to prevent it?” I attempted to address this question with a blogpost from August 3, 2016 following the last major storm.  

Much planning has been done in the last two years and several major projects are being implemented. The basic issues remain. We’re going to have to consider now whether these last two storms represent a new normal and whether the plans are sufficient. As always, it’s a judgement about the extent that we’re going to battle mother nature or adjust to her ways. 

Ellicott City – The Great Floods

Lower Ellicott City had been prone to flooding since it was founded. There has been at least four different major floods in recorded history in Downtown Ellicott City. So what makes it so prone?

First of all, Ellicott City sits at the confluence of the Tiber and Patapsco Rivers. This in itself moves a lot of water. Another issue is that Ellicott City sits in a shallow valley, with many of the expanding buildings and homes having to be build literally over the Tiber river. This makes water from almost all directions converge in the valley to the Tiber River before being emptied in the Patapsco. And this isn’t even the biggest issue.

Tiber River watershed, adapted from Google Maps

Continue reading Ellicott City Flood and Flooding [An update from 2016]