In poker, sometimes a strong hand is just as effective as a good bluff. It just gets tricky when the stakes are high.
Howard County Executive Ken Ulman went "all in" with Howard Hughes Corp. last week over improvements both sides agreed are needed for Merriweather Post Pavilion. He did it by proposing a bill that would change a four-year-old mutually agreed upon Downtown Columbia Plan between the county and Hughes because he said Hughes' efforts regarding public improvements, particularly to Merriweather, are "lagging."
Ulman cited a recent consultant's report that $24.6 million in improvements are needed for Merriweather and progress on the Inner Arbor project as reasons for changing the plan. In the original agreement, Hughes was required to hand over ownership of Merriweather before the company would be allowed to develop 5 million square feet in downtown Columbia. The new bill would change that number to 500,000 square feet, which, coincidentally, Hughes would exceed with its next project – a plan to bring a mixed-use development in Columbia's Warfield neighborhood near the Columbia mall. If the bill is passed, Hughes would be obligated to turn over Merriweather to the nonprofit Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission before moving ahead with the project.
If Hughes balks, Ulman said the county could withhold building permits to Hughes' next big Columbia projects, the Warfield development and the mega-development that would develop 5 million square feet on the crescent. The county, under the new bill, could also withhold building permits if it thinks Hughes isn't creating enough affordable housing units in Columbia.
For its part, Hughes officials are saying that they're moving ahead with plans, hoping to prove to the public and elected officials in the coming weeks that the legislation isn't necessary. Privately, they must be thinking about a lawsuit in the bill becomes law since they have a signed deal. All the while, a fight could leave Columbia development in limbo while a case makes its way through the courts.
Which brings us back to Ulman and the cards he's holding. His pressing for quicker improvements to Merriweather and to the stock of affordable housing in downtown definitely make for good headlines. But will it be enough to get Howard Hughes, and for that matter, the County Council, to play along. With the stakes high, it may come down to what kind of poker player he is.