The old low-income Hilltop Housing project in Ellicott City has given way to another world: new apartments with facades of soft-colored siding and stone, and a recreation center with the latest in exercise gear, including a retractable-roof indoor swimming pool.
Gone are the brick low-rise buildings put up around 1970 that were not aging gracefully, along with the public housing policy that made them possible. The county is moving away from the practice of building apartment complexes strictly for low-income people, in part because of the lack of government money to support projects that cannot be sustained by people paying below market-rate rents.
"Of all the things I've been involved with as county executive, this is one I'm most proud of," County Executive Ken Ulman said last week as he stood inside the main entrance of the new Roger Carter Community Center. Built with lots of glass and exposed steel, the $15.3 million center is designed to serve the 198 new rental units next to it at Burgess Mills Station as well as the county at large.
Before the official opening that was scheduled for Saturday, Ulman ushered reporters and photographers through the center last week. He stood first by the 30-foot climbing wall near the sunlit lobby, then moved to the gymnasium with an elevated walking track, the dance-aerobics studio on the second floor with wooden floor and big glass windows facing lush trees, the training room and exercise machines.
Then, back downstairs to the centerpiece: the indoor swimming pool with its diving well, sloped entry for handicapped access, and steel and glass roof that rolls open in about 20 minutes, or closes when rain sensors in the roof say it's time to cover up.
The center, which also offers rooms for community events and preschool classes, "is going to serve so many more people" than the old Roger Carter Recreation Center, located a bit down the hill toward Ellicott City's historic district, said Councilwoman Courtney Watson, who represents this portion of Ellicott City.
Ulman told the group how he'd visited the old Roger Carter center shortly after he was first elected in 2006. He played some basketball there, and saw that the place was rundown and well "past its prime."
Soon he started working on a way to replace it, using a "new financial model."
Years later, the result is both the community center and Burgess Mills Station, which replaced Hilltop, more than doubling the number of housing units. Much of the Burgess Mills project sits atop a 130-space underground garage.
In the second phase of the project, the county will tear down the old center and put up 15 more housing units and renovate the 60 existing units at Ellicott Terrace, across from Burgess Mills.
In a third phase, a parking garage with 76 homes around it will be built at a public parking lot at the corner of Main Street and Ellicott Mills Drive, said Thomas P. Carbo, executive director of Howard County Housing. This part of the project could also include another 29 units inside the Granite Manor house and on the grounds, for a total of 105 units.
Construction of the second and third phases, both mixed-income projects, will probably begin about a year from now, Carbo said.
He said Burgess Mills Station represents a different model for building affordable and low-income housing in the absence of big federal grants. The apartments are the same regardless of who is expected to rent them, but they're divided into 107 meant to yield full market rent and 91 paid at 30, 50 or 60 percent of market rate. The rents range between $1,225 and $1,250 for a one-bedroom apartment to $2,200 for three bedrooms.
"That's how we have to do affordable housing these days," Carbo said. "We can get very good market-rate rents, so let's use the revenue to do good affordable housing and [a] community center, too."
The county took the same approach in turning the old Guilford Gardens low-income housing complex in Columbia into Monarch Mills, a mixed-income development of 269 units.
Burgess Mills — now about three-quarters complete and almost entirely leased — was built for nearly $38.7 million, a combination of grants and developer fees along with bonds and loans to be paid off with rents and community center user fees. The center cost of $15.3 million was a mix of bonds and Howard County Housing funds.
The center offers an array of fees and memberships, from $575 for an annual membership for couples under 60 years old to a $5 daily guest pass.
Ulman figures the place is bound to be a hit with county residents.
"I can't wait to see their eyes light up" when they see it, he said.