Progress in negotiations between the Howard County government and downtown Columbia developer Howard Hughes Corp. over the redevelopment of Merriweather Post Pavilion has prompted County Executive Ken Ulman to postpone a hearing for a bill intended to put pressure on the developer.
Ulman said Monday that the County Planning Board's April 17 scheduled public hearing on the bill, which would amend the Downtown Columbia Plan -- a guiding document approved in 2010 -- has been postponed to June 5 because of progress in negotiations.
“I am confident that the Howard Hughes Corporation and I share the same objectives of making sure Downtown Columbia is a vibrant, thriving community,” Ulman said in a statement. “We also share a vision for the community enhancements that are needed to help this community reach its full potential.”
John DeWolf, senior vice president of Howard Hughes, said in a statement that the developer "believes in the vision of the Downtown Columbia Plan as approved," and that they are "always prepared to work collaboratively with Howard County and the Columbia community to achieve that vision."
The announcement is a positive step for the two sides, who have been at odds over the timeline for improvements to the concert venue and other public infrastructure.
Ulman had said he was frustrated by Hughes' lack of progress on improvements to Merriweather, which the county estimates will cost $24.6 million, and a perceived lag on other public improvements, including affordable housing and a multi-use pathway connecting east and west Columbia.
In an effort to expedite those improvements, Ulman proposed a bill in March that would force Howard Hughes to turn over ownership of the pavilion to a county-affiliated nonprofit later this year. The turnover, a requirement of the downtown plan, is not expected to happen for another five to 10 years under the current plan.
The bill also would take Howard Hughes off the hook for funding the renovation and expedite the allocation of funding for affordable housing in downtown.
If the bill is passed and the developer declines to comply, the county can withhold building permits for future projects, which includes a $125 million mixed-use development in downtown's Warfield neighborhood and the 5 million square foot mega-development on the crescent.
Ulman has said a solution without legislation is preferred.
“As I have said, I am committed to the goals laid out in the legislation I introduced, but have been open to exploring ways to achieve those goals,” he said. “Our discussions with the Howard Hughes Corporation have created a dialogue and path forward for achieving our shared objectives.”
When the bill was first introduced, there was urgency from the county to get it vetted by the Planning Board and the Howard County Council so that it could come before the council for a vote before the end of June.
According to county officials, it was important to get the bill to the council before June 24, when the primaries for the 2014 elections are held, because the council is prohibited from voting on zoning legislation after the primaries.
County spokesman David Nitkin said this week, however, that getting the bill to the council in June is no longer a concern because, since it does not affect any zoning changes, the bill would not be subject to the restriction -- meaning it can be voted on after the primaries.