Divided public mulls over measures to overhaul downtown Columbia

"Let's not forget we're talking a lot about unaffordable housing here."

Two clashing plans to incorporate affordable housing in downtown Columbia and commit $90 million to fund public infrastructure in the Crescent area divided residents at public hearings this month.

Downtown Columbia — envisioned as "a real city" by founder Jim Rouse — could be poised for major redevelopment as the Howard County Council considers the Kittleman administration's plan to redevelop the city by partnering with Howard Hughes, Columbia's lead developer.

The public dialogue revealed competing visions for downtown Columbia. Supporters of the administration's plan, which includes density increases and a public financing deal, said the plan delivered a long anticipated downtown environment, while opponents said the same plan delivered a poorly planned community in favor of Howard Hughes.

Lauding a competing plan's sophistication in its simplicity, community organizations like the Hickory Village Center, the Columbia Town Center, Howard County Citizens Association and the Howard County League of Women Voters pressed the council to support Councilwoman Jen Terrasa's affordable housing proposal, which would create up to 702 affordable housing units by requiring 15 percent of Howard Hughes' units to be affordable.

Through federal tax credit projects, land transfers and by shuffling existing affordable housing opportunities, the administration's plan creates 900 units using a 40-year binding agreement with Howard Hughes. If passed, the plan would increase downtown's density from 5,500 units to 6,400 units. The plan exempts affordable units from density calculations and reduces the amount of available parking.

Supporters of the administration's plan include Patricia Sylvester, a member of the Columbia Downtown Housing Corp., which worked with Howard Hughes and others to create the administration's affordable housing plan. She said the plan is the product of consensus and ensures affordable housing will be built.

"In the end the joint recommendations say the housing will happen. It will happen," said Sylvester.

Opponents like the Full Spectrum Housing Coalition, however, said the administration's plan is a piecemeal way to create affordable housing by increasing zoning incentives without creating enough new opportunities for affordable housing.

"This plan ignores the tenets of good city planning," said Jervis Dorton, a Rouse Company architect, referring to plans to replace an existing library site. "That's not planning, that's just expediency."

Speaking on behalf of the African American Coalition of Howard County, Sherman Howell said the administration's proposal did not fulfill Rouse's vision for a community where a janitor and a CEO could live side by side. Howell said elements of the plan concentrate affordable housing in five tax credit sites.

"The housing for 'affordable housing families' will be located in five or six spots in downtown, each building being designated as an affording housing building creating a 'stigma' and/or possible future blighted areas," said Howell.

Tiffs over TIF

Few residents questioned the need for affordable housing — only how to achieve it.

In contrast, the county's $90 million tax increment financing deal, which uses future tax revenues to fund public improvements in the Crescent area, drew clearly defined sides, some of which decried the need for the TIF.

People Acting Together for Howard County and the Howard County Educators Association strongly opposed the TIF, which they said would place an undue burden on the county in an area where it is not needed.

"Make no mistake, the TIF is a choice; a choice that we fear will force our educators and other county workers to stretch future tax dollars further because Howard Hughes will not be contributing fully to the general fund. And this choice will affect the generation to come," said Yaw Adu a member of the PATH strategy team.

Speaking publicly on local public policy for the first time since leaving office, former Howard County executive and state delegate Liz Bobo said the administration's plan made her heart heavy.

"This issue is often described as 'very complicated.' It is not. For 35 years or more the Rouse Company paid for all of the infrastructure costs as a matter of doing business," said Bobo. "Who should now pay for the roads, parking structures, roads, sewers, etc.. demanded by the great amount of additional development in Downtown Columbia? My answer is the current developer, Howard Hughes, who will reap the profit, not the county taxpayers."

Councilwoman Jen Terrasa interjected the hearings with comments and questions and called the TIF a "developer giveaway."

"I'm curious how many people believe the majority of the development would not occur if we didn't give $170 million to the developer," said Terrasa, as the room erupted into applause.

Unsurprisingly, commercial entities and nonprofit organizations directly invested in the redevelopment of downtown supported the need for the TIF, calling it an assured way to implement years of discussion on how to redevelop Columbia.

The Howard County Chamber of Commerce joined other economic development organizations including the Economic Development Authority in supporting the TIF, which chamber President Leonardo McClarty said represents "progressive thinking" and a necessary public-private partnership.

Downtown Columbia organizations that regard density increases as essential to creating a truly downtown environment said the TIF was the missing piece to develop downtown Columbia.

"This proposal would fulfill our shared 'park-once' vision for Downtown Columbia in which all residents can gather and enjoy the benefits of downtown's redevelopment and the company of each other," said Ian Kennedy, executive director of the Downtown Arts and Culture Commission.

Others argued public parking could be achieved without a TIF.

"I don't even see why the council is encouraging a TIF. If we need the parking, float bonds and get the parking," said Roger Gabin, a Columbia resident.

The long wait to redevelop downtown Columbia could be over if the council passed the administration's package, supporters said.

"It's time to snap those chalk lines. Can we just get building?" said Richard Wilson, who has lived in Columbia for 22 years.

The council could vote on the legislation as early as September. It will hold a work session on proposed legislation on Monday, July 25 at 8:30 a.m. in the George Howard Building.

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