Columbia's Grand Pointe decision leaves some wanting more

Amanda Yeager
Contact ReporterHoward County Times/Columbia Flier

After Howard County Housing Director Tom Carbo abruptly announced last week that he would not recommend a Housing Commission bid for the Grand Pointe apartment complex in Columbia's village of Oakland Mills, some community members say they're disappointed they didn't get to hear more details about the potential purchase.

Carbo, who serves as both the director of the county's housing department and the executive director of the Housing Commission, an entity independent from county government, had been scheduled to attend a meeting of the Oakland Mills Board of Directors on Sept. 21 to discuss a possible Housing Commission bid for Grand Pointe, a 325-unit, high-rise apartment building on Stevens Forest Road.

On the evening of Sept. 18, however, the board sent out a revised agenda removing Carbo's presentation from the schedule.

"Howard County Housing has decided not to bid on the Grand Pointe Apartments," the email said, by way of explanation.

Tuesday, Carbo said he had met with Oakland Mills Village Board co-chairs Ginny Thomas and Bill McCormack, "who told me in no uncertain words that they would not accept any more affordable housing in Oakland Mills.

"Since our mission is affordable housing, we can't enter into any transaction without planning on some portion of what we purchased" being affordable.

Carbo added the Housing Commission had not formally decided whether or not to bid on the property, which was put on the market in August by broker Jones Lang LaSalle, Inc. As executive director, Carbo is not a voting member of the commission. The purchase is not listed on any upcoming agendas for the group.

Some village residents said they're left wishing they could have learned more before a deal was nixed.

"I am disappointed. I really wish [Carbo] had been there so we could at least hear the options," said Reg Avery, who represents Oakland Mills on Columbia Association's Board of Directors. "I want to have as much information as possible, so we can make the best, most educated, informed decision we can."

Avery had planned to attend the Sept. 21 meeting in Oakland Mills but decided to go to a CA board meeting scheduled for the same night instead, after hearing Carbo would no longer be presenting.

"I feel like we're leaving it up to fate now, what happens to it," Village Board member Marcia White said. "I prefer to at least hear what the county wants to do."

An earlier presentation from Housing Commission members on Sept. 8, which was attended by about 50 people, laid out three possible options for the apartment complex, which was built in 1973. One envisioned purchasing the building and making a percentage of the units affordable and targeted to teachers, police officers and other county employees, while keeping the rest of the units market rate.

A second option would have set aside affordable housing units for seniors, and a third would have converted the building to condominiums, a percentage of which would be sold at an affordable rate.

According to Village Board member Bill Woodcock, about 20 community members spoke out against a Housing Commission purchase of Grand Pointe at the Sept. 8 meeting.

Woodcock thinks most of the community would have opposed adding affordable units to Grand Pointe. But, he said, "I think it's much easier to get people upset about something rather than thinking of creative solutions."

Providing a backdrop for the Grand Pointe discussion is the Housing Commission's controversial decision two years ago to buy the 251-unit Verona apartment complex near Oakland Mills' Village Center. The $39.5 million purchase was announced as the contract was being finalized, and residents came out in droves to say they felt blindsided by the decision.

Carbo said at the time that the commission was bound by confidentiality agreements not to disclose its interest in the purchase until August 2013; a public meeting on the decision was held four months later in October, days before the purchase was completed.

The decision also touched a nerve in the community, where many residents feel the county has placed an unfair proportion of affordable housing units. Community members worried the commission would increase affordable housing at Verona when it becomes eligible for redevelopment in a decade, though Carbo insisted the goal of the purchase was "to try to increase the amount of higher rent and higher income housing" in the village.

Those fears began to resurface as news of a potential Housing Commission bid on Grand Pointe spread.

In an email to the community on Sept. 16, Village Board co-chairs Thomas and McCormack urged residents to attend Carbo's scheduled presentation.

"This is very important because it would directly affect the Reinvention of Oakland Mills ... . We strongly urge you to attend this meeting to learn about this proposal and how it could shape the future of our village," they wrote.

In the message, the village board co-chairs referenced the Oakland Mills Village Center Community Plan, approved in January, which includes a section on housing that recommends attracting mid-range and upscale units to the village. It also suggests building senior housing and incentivizing teachers, police officers and other civil servants to purchase homes in the village.

"Since any Housing Commission project requires at least 20 [percent] subsidized housing, the Housing Commission proposal may not be compatible with the [plan]," Thomas and McCormack wrote. The email also noted the co-chairs had met with Carbo and Diane Wilson, chief of staff for County Executive Allan Kittleman.

Neither Thomas nor McCormack could be reached for comment Tuesday.

In a separate message, John DiTomasso, president of the Oakland Mills Improvement Association – a community group founded in reaction to the Verona purchase – wrote that Grand Pointe is a prime location for luxury development because of its lakefront view and proximity to downtown Columbia.

"If the Housing Commission snaps it up for subsidized housing, we will have little else with which to attract high-end developers," he wrote. "The Housing Commission should focus on redeveloping the properties it already owns instead of buying more teardowns."

Local politicians deferred to Carbo for comment on the decision not to pursue a bid on Grand Pointe.

Kittleman "feels pretty strongly that because the [Housing Commission] is a private entity and they make their decisions independent of county government, that he does not want to weigh in on this decision one way or another," Deidre McCabe, the county executive's communications director, said.

County Councilman Calvin Ball, a Democrat who represents Oakland Mills, said he has "always, and will continue, to strongly support the community and moving toward a full spectrum of affordable housing."

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