Howard County Executive Ken Ulman said Thursday he has proposed a bill that would force downtown developer Howard Hughes Corp. to relinquish ownership of Merriweather Post Pavilion as early as later this year.
"The fact remains we have not seen any of the improvements [to Merriweather] identified 10 years ago made," Ulman said. "So what we are proposing is to accelerate those improvements, that the turnover of Merriweather happen, essentially, now. And then the commission will take the responsibility to make those improvements, working together with the operator of the venue."
The bill, which is being proposed as an amendment to the Downtown Columbia Plan, would hasten the date that Hughes is required to deed Merriweather to the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission.
If the amendment is passed and Hughes does not hand over Merriweather, the county's Department of Planning and Zoning can withhold issuance of building permits for future projects, which include building 5 million square feet of office, residential, commercial and civic space on the crescent property south of the pavilion.
Ulman said Hughes would be taken off the hook financially for renovating the outdoor concert venue built in 1967. A county-hired consultant, Ziger/Snead, wrote in a report issued last month that $24.6 million in improvements are needed, including upgrades to the roof, bathrooms and other infrastructure, as well as making the complex compliant with the American Disabilities Act, according to a news release.
John DeWolf, a senior vice president at Howard Hughes, said it is too early to comment on the ramifications of the amendment, but said it was "extremely disappointed in the tone of the announcement."
"We are frankly unclear as to what considerations are truly motivating" this, DeWolf said. "We have been implementing the Downtown Columbia Plan for the past four years. It is an excellent plan. The investment made in this project has been based on that deal."
Under the current plan, Hughes must turn over the pavilion to the commission for $0 before it develops 5 million square feet in downtown. The amendment would change that to 500,000 square feet, which is what is called for in the pathway that will connect Blandair Park and Howard County General Hospital. A pre-submission community meeting on the pathway project is set for March 27.
According to Ulman, Hughes' next project, a $125 million mixed-use development in downtown's Warfield neighborhood that includes 437 residential units, would move the needle past the 500,000 square feet, meaning that project would be frozen until Merriweather was deeded to the commission.
Ulman said the county has to "be firm" and "hold the developer accountable" for the public improvements promised in the plan.
"The overall point here is that this was a plan with a lot of additional development and a number of things that needed to come along with that," he said. "We are seeing those promised amenities, those public enhancements lagging."
Ulman said one of the reasons for the urgency is the recent momentum by the Inner Arbor Trust, which plans to develop Symphony Woods, 36 acres of woodlands north of the pavilion, into a curated arts park with a guest services building made of glass and mirrors called the Butterfly, an outdoor, shell-like amphitheater built into a hill called the Chrysalis, a 300-foot-long floating picnic table, and the Caterpillar, an 800-foot-long, 15-foot-high tube dividing the park from neighboring Merriweather Post Pavilion.
Ulman said the basic improvements and further redevelopment of the venue will likely be funded by signing a long-term contract with an operator.
"It's also very important, candidly, that whoever the operator is, that we get a long-term deal," he said. "We've had 10 years of successful operations of the venue, but it's been mostly on year-to-year contracts. There's been no incentive for anyone to spend the money we need to spend to make those investments."
Debbie Ellinghaus, chair of the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, said she supports Ulman's move to jump-start changes.
"Our organization is poised to protect the future of Merriweather and build a vibrant arts community in Columbia," Ellinghaus said in a statement.
The amendment also would apply to affordable housing, stating that the county can withhold building permits on projects if Hughes doesn't provide evidence that "moderate income housing units have been created."
"There is no guarantee in the current legislation (that affordable units will be built)," Ulman said. "We put the tools in that those units would be delivered. But yet, we haven't seen any yet. This will be a guarantee that those units will be delivered over time."
The amendment also changes the distribution of fees from Hughes to the commission. Currently, Hughes needs to pay between $2,000 and $9,000 per unit for the first 5,000 units it builds in downtown to the Columbia Downtown Housing Commission, a nonprofit that will use that money to build affordable housing.
The fees are divvied out in staggered tiers, with Hughes paying $2,000 for the first 1,500 units, $7,000 for the next 2,000 units and $9,000 for the next 2,000.
The legislation proposes keeping the total allocation but front-loading the fee structure, which Ulman said will help expedite the availability of affordable housing in downtown.
"The Columbia Downtown Housing Corporation has been frustrated and adamant that we do more to ensure that those units promised are delivered," Ulman said.
The proposed amendments are scheduled to be reviewed by the Howard County Planning Board at an April 17 public hearing. After the hearing, it will be submitted to the Howard County Council, which will vet the bill and then vote.
Council members reached for comment Thursday said they will wait until the amendment reaches their desks before taking a stance.
"It has to go first through the Planning Board," said Courtney Watson, council member from Ellicott City. "I am going to reserve judgment on it until it goes through the process a little more and we get a better understanding of the county executive's concerns and the opinion of the public."
Watson added that the plan was always intended to be revisited, and that Thursday was "the first step" in that process.
"I remember very clearly when we passed the plan that we stated at the time changes could be made," she said.
Council chair and Columbia representative Calvin Ball said he is interested to hear the opinions of the public and the Planning Board.
"We don't know what that process will look like, what [the Planning Board's] opinion will look like, and it could be they recommend exactly what the county executive has proposed or there might be some derivation of it that might warrant more consideration," he said.
In the news release announcing the amendment, council member Mary Kay Sigaty, who represents downtown Columbia said: "I welcome the opportunity to make sure the Downtown Columbia Plan is fulfilling our objectives. We need to do all we can to ensure the vibrant, evolving community we envisioned."
Baltimore Sun Reporter Amanda Yeager contributed to this report.