Howard County Times
Howard County

Tensions ease over downtown Columbia partnership

John DeWolf III, the Howard Hughes Corp.'s senior vice president for development, is a tall man doing a big job from a large office in downtown Columbia. The floor-to-ceiling windows face Lake Kittamaqundi, and the conference table is covered with maps and plans for downtown development, a 30-year project to include new stores, homes, offices, hotels, transit lines, walking paths, renovations at Merriweather Post Pavilion — all in pursuit of James W. Rouse's original idea of a "real city."

DeWolf — whose company is the project master developer — has had a bumpy couple of weeks, but he says it's better now, as the Howard County Council is poised this week to consider an amended version of a bill to create a new authority to manage the rebuilt downtown.


"There's been lots of good conversation about a good resolution," says DeWolf, referring to his phone calls and in-person meetings in the past few days with council members, who are scheduled to take up the legislation and amendments Monday.

Councilman Calvin Ball says discussions of the past few days produced some amendments meant to "address everyone's concerns in a reasonable and appropriate way. And I think we've done it."


The discussions came after a testy public council work session June 21 in which DeWolf aired his frustration with the process of shaping the downtown authority legislation. At one point, he told the panel that his company has an easier time doing business in other states and has the option to simply walk away from Columbia.

Neither council members nor Howard County Executive Ken Ulman — who played a key role in shaping the downtown plan when he was on the council — seemed to be taking that as a serious threat, and DeWolf says it wasn't meant to imply that Howard Hughes has given serious thought to pulling up stakes.

"We're real estate developers, so we negotiate," he says when asked what he meant by telling the council: "There's another choice we can make, which is to walk from" the downtown project.

DeWolf says his company is committed to the project and eager to get going — so eager that he expresses impatience with the amount of time it's taking to get all the legislation in order so the work can begin. He says Howard Hughes' lawyers did not believe it was even necessary to establish a new authority to collect fees and manage the downtown district. County officials disagreed.

"What we keep saying is, 'Just let us do it, we'll take care of it,'" DeWolf says.

The partnership legislation introduced weeks ago and some of the 11 amendments filed Thursday reflect the push and pull over authority to manage the partnership. DeWolf had negotiated much of it with Ulman months ago, and thought the terms were set, only to learn that the arrangements had to go through a legislative process, including public hearings.

"We shouldn't be here" discussing the terms of the partnership, he told the council at the work session. "It's very difficult as a private company to be sitting here and be subject to this."

He said the company wanted to make sure it kept a good measure of control over the partnership, as Howard Hughes is responsible for all operating costs in the project's first phase — up to construction of the first 500,000 square feet of commercial space.


The bill to be considered Monday still gives Howard Hughes four members on a seven-member board of directors, but an amendment would raise the number of members that would make up a quorum: six rather than four members, meaning Howard Hughes representatives could not conduct partnership business by themselves. Another amendment would establish an 11-member committee to advise the board and report back annually to the council.

These two changes "struck the balance between Howard Hughes being able to manage their expenses" and giving the community a stronger voice in the partnership, says Ball, who wrote the amendment on the advisory committee and co-sponsored the quorum expansion, which was drafted by Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty.

Councilwoman Courtney Watson, who co-sponsored the amendment on the 11-member committee, says the point was to "bring a variety of stakeholders into the discussion."

Howard County Times: Top stories

Howard County Times: Top stories


Daily highlights from Howard County's number one source for local news.

For example, the 11-member advisory committee would include the president of Howard Community College, the chief executive officer of Howard County General Hospital, the CEO of the Howard County Revenue Authority, two people who live in or near the downtown district, and the owner or manager of a business in the district with fewer than 25 employees.

Another amendment sets a minimum quarterly payment that Howard Hughes has to make to keep the partnership going and makes clear that this sum is to be counted separately from Hughes' other financial obligations.

The original bill would establish a fund to be supported by contributions from developers and owners of commercial property that would be used for an array of affordable housing assistance programs, such as rent subsidies and grants. Under an amendment, the administration of the fund would shift from the county Housing Commission to a nonprofit organization chosen by the council.


Watson, who co-sponsored that amendment, said it was meant to respond to arguments from housing advocates supporting an independent organization as the best agency to oversee the affordable housing program focused on downtown Columbia.

DeWolf says he's satisfied with the amendments and hopes the tensions over the partnership are resolved.

"At the end of the day, it was probably good for us to vent a little," DeWolf says. "But hopefully, it'll be the last time I do it."