Howard board, superintendent in legal battle as they run county school system

Howard County Council approves historic overhaul for downtown Columbia development

After months of deliberation, the Howard County Council Wednesday approved a $90 million public financing deal and affordable housing plan for downtown Columbia as Howard Hughes Corp., Columbia's master developer, overhauls the county's core.

The historic deal could set the stage in making downtown Columbia a true urban environment envisioned by developers, planners and local elected officials as an economic engine for the county for years to come. Columbia's founder, Jim Rouse, envisioned the full build-out of downtown in the 1980s.

"Tonight, we are one step closer to the development of a vibrant, urban downtown, as we prepare for nearly 13 million square feet of new commercial, residential and retail space," said County Executive Allan Kittleman. "As development moves ahead, the county now will be able to keep up with planned growth and provide support for a new arts and cultural center, library, fire station, transit center and elementary school."

Greg Fitchitt, Howard Hughes vice president of development, said the vote is a catalyst for downtown Columbia.

"It is really going to be a major milestone in advancing the downtown Columbia plan and bringing the 21st-century urban village to life," Fitchitt said.

In a 4-1 vote, the council approved the subsidy, called tax increment financing, or TIF, to fund public infrastructure, including a $51 million parking garage for private and public use, public roadways, stormwater management and other infrastructure in the Crescent, an undeveloped parcel of land that rests between concert venue Merriweather Post Pavilion and Broken Land Parkway.

The financing tool, the largest sum in the county's history, earmarks future tax revenues from the development to pay back bonds and other costs linked to the deal.

In response to community concerns about the public benefit of the deal, the council will sign an agreement with Howard Hughes to carve out more community enhancements from the deal.

The deal drew divided responses from the community at public hearings over the last several months, with opponents, such as community organization People Acting Together for Howard County, calling the deal a gift for the developer. Supporters, like the Howard County Chamber of Commerce, called the deal a forward-thinking model for development.

Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, who cast the lone vote against the deal, called the council's approval "an unjustifiable hand-out by the government to a for-profit developer."

Terrasa, whose amendments to stop the deal failed overwhelmingly, said council members went too far in compromises with the developer.

As a result of the TIF approval, Howard Hughes by Nov. 30 will transfer ownership of Merriweather Post Pavilion to the Downtown Arts and Culture Commission, a local nonprofit arts commission that has eyed the transfer for years.

The TIF provides a 2,500-space parking garage critical to meet Merriweather's parking needs. Much of the amphitheater's parking would be overtaken by ongoing development by Howard Hughes, a threat that has put the ownership of the site in limbo for years.

Several bond requests of up to $170 million will follow over the next four years.

In a separate agreement negotiated by the council, the Kittleman administration and developer, Howard Hughes will commit to a broad range of other public enhancements, such as hiring businesses that are local and owned by minorities, women, the disabled and veterans; local hiring; and $45 million in set-asides from the deal for a new elementary school, over several bond issuances.

County Council Chairman Calvin Ball led the negotiations along with other councilmembers.

"I thought it was critical that we negotiate strongly for even the consideration of the legislation that was sent down to us," Ball said. 

The developer will also provide $12 million to fund other public infrastructure to support the development and grant the county rights to a future transit center that will manage a revamped public transit system. Howard Hughes will work with village associations, commercial property owners and the Columbia Association to modernize and improve its covenants over the area.

Fitchitt said the agreement builds more room for community benefit on top of legislation that is already "pretty unusual if not unique" in its design.

"Ultimately this [agreement] contributes even more to the community. … The legislation was good to begin with, now it's even better," Fitchitt said.

The developer will also work with the county to build a permanent emergency facility, referred to as "rapid response emergency station," in the publicly funded garage, a move proposed by Councilman Greg Fox.

In another agreement, Howard Hughes also committed to paying a minimum hourly wage of $17 for on-site staff working on public improvements.

The Kittleman administration declined to include that provision in the other agreement because Kittleman believes the government should not force wage restrictions on businesses.

"All of us tried to listen to each other and the community," Fox said.

Affordable housing

With no discussion, the council Wednesday shot down an affordable housing plan by Terrasa that would require up to 15 percent of housing to be affordable, a plan similar to the Downtown Columbia Housing Corp.'s original recommendations.

Instead, the council passed a plan, negotiated by a local housing commission, Downtown Columbia Housing Corp, the developer and the Kittleman administration, to build 900 affordable residential units in downtown Columbia using a mix of tax credits, Section 8 vouchers and other means.

Local planners and developers have grappled with how to include affordable housing in downtown Columbia, a key guiding principle where planners envisioned janitor and CEO could live side-by-side. Despite the approval of more than 800 residential units in downtown, not one is affordable.

Kittleman hailed the plan, achieved through a 30-year binding agreement with the developer, as a guaranteed and consensus-driven strategy to include affordable housing in downtown. The council reduced the original agreement from 40 to 30 years.

The agreement includes affordable housing units dispersed throughout new and old sites, including Toby's Dinner Theatre, the Banneker Fire Station, a future transit center and a new and existing central library site. Around 400 units will be financed using federal low-income housing tax credit programs.

The housing agreement passed with several changes. For example, Howard Hughes will also provide $7.8 million to facilitate an 83-unit homeownership and live-where-you-work program in the area.

The council also limited surface parking in downtown Columbia to facilitate a park-once, urban environment and declined to reduce parking ratios for apartments unless a parking study is conducted.

Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty encouraged the county to continue to build a more inclusive community.

"Don't hesitate to come back for more. Push the envelope," Sigaty said.

For four of the council members – excluding Councilman Jon Weinstein, who is eligible for another term – the passage of the downtown package is a key legacy vote.

This story will be updated.

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