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Kittleman introduces TIF plan for Crescent in downtown Columbia

A major push to develop downtown Columbia is underway.

As part of a historic development plan for downtown Columbia, the Kittleman administration introduced plans on Monday to provide $90 million to fund public infrastructure needs for the development of downtown Columbia, specifically the Crescent by the city's master developer, Howard Hughes Corp.

The first phase of the Crescent, a mixed-use project, will bring nearly 1,600 rental units and more than 960,000 square feet of office space to downtown. MedStar Health, the first confirmed tenant of the development, is moving its headquarters to the first building going up as part of the project.

The administration's proposal, which creates a special taxing district, will include three bond sales over the next several years that will total about $128 million, covering roadway improvements and three public parking garages.

The package is the product of two years of negotiations and public hearings as the county grapples with how to build affordable housing in downtown Columbia and set the pace for development. Howard Hughes initially requested $171 million from the county roughly a year ago.

Tax increment financing is a common public financing tool that allows the county to borrow funds against the future increased value of property spurred by development to make public improvements. Overall, critics say TIFs must be scrutinized in order to determine whether funds cover legitimate public costs and not private costs in favor of the developer.

Nearly a year of negotiations culminated in the first deal for the Crescent development, which will fund a 2,450-space public parking garage and improvements along intersections and roads. The developer plans to invest $618 million for the development of the Crescent area.

Down the line, the county plans to also fund a 598-space public parking garage and a 2,000-space public parking garage.

"Creating this plan has demonstrated the highest level of collaboration among county government, affordable housing advocates and the private sector, showing we will work together to produce the best results for residents," said Kittleman. "Through this plan, Downtown Columbia will experience an enormous economic boost over the next 30 years."

Stan Milesky, the county's finance director, cautioned the total TIF could vary depending on the pace of development

The project could produce roughly $408 million in net revenue, which will help fund "critical infrastructure needs" like a new elementary school, a fire station, an arts center, a transit center and improvements to transportation, according to the county memo.

The proposal is part of a series of bills before the Howard County Council that, if passed, would radically transform the look, feel and nature of downtown Columbia, a planned community long envisioned as a thriving economic hub for the county.

A 40-year binding agreement with the developer — only the second in the county's history — lays out a plan for 900 affordable housing units using a series of land transfers, fees and construction projects. The agreement freezes zoning regulations and includes existing affordable housing finance programs like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program. Another 110 units would be built outside the downtown zone in the former Patuxent Publishing building on Little Patuxent Parkway.

The package also increases the density of housing by 900 affordable housing units — creating roughly 6,400 units instead of 5,500 outlined in the Downtown Columbia Plan — that is tied to an decrease in parking ratios.

The agreement, the administration said, is the product of consensus between the administration, the developer, the county's public housing authority and the downtown housing corporation, parties that have long debated how to ensure affordable housing is incorporated in downtown Columbia.

An initial measure by the council to allow developers to pay into a fund for affordable housing units in residential buildings was not "economically feasible," the Columbia Downtown Housing Corporation said. The $4.8 million paid by the developer under this measure went into a fund managed by the housing corporation.

Although the housing corporation suggested requiring the developer to ensure at least 15 percent of its housing was affordable — a requirement similar found in some areas in the county — the housing corporation later worked with the developer to produce joint recommendations similar to the developer's current proposed agreement with the county.

Councilwoman Jen Terrasa filed a measure, also before the council next month, that is closely in line with the housing corporation's original proposal for a 15 percent affordable housing requirement.

More than 380 units have been built and 370 units are under construction in downtown Columbia. Not one is affordable.

The administration's plan has been fully vetted by the housing corporation and is fully supported by the Howard County Housing Commission.

This story will be updated.

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