Ulman bill would expedite ownership change of Merriweather

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman has proposed a bill that would force downtown Columbia developer Howard Hughes Corp. to relinquish ownership of Merriweather Post Pavilion earlier than anticipated, a move Ulman hopes will expedite the redevelopment of the aging concert venue and other public improvement projects in downtown.

Ulman said, though excited by the progress of Howard Hughes and others on commercial projects, such as the addition of a Whole Foods and a 380-unit apartment complex called Metropolitan Downtown Columbia, he is frustrated that civic improvements to downtown, such as Merriweather and a planned pathway connecting east and west Columbia, are lagging.

"I am very excited about how much progress we are seeing in Downtown Columbia," Ulman said in a news release. "However, there is a real risk that community enhancements which we long envisoned are lagging. We simply can't allow that to happen."

The legislation, which is being proposed as an amendment to the Downtown Columbia Plan approved in 2010, would change when Howard Hughes is required to deed the pavilion to the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, a nonprofit set up to be the steward of the concert venue.

Under the current plan, Howard Hughes must turn over the pavilion to the commission for $0 before it develops 4 million square feet in downtown. The proposed plan expedites that deadline to 500,000 square feet, the same as the pathway, which will connect Blandair Park and Howard County General Hospital.

If Howard Hughes does not comply with the requirements in the plan, the county's Department of Planning and Zoning can withold issuance of building permits for future projects, which could stifle downtown redevelopment.

According to Ulman, Howard Hughes' next project, a $125 million mixed-use development in downtown's Warfield neighborhood that includes 437 residential units, would move the needle past 500,000 square feet,   meaning that, if the bill were passed, the project would be frozen until Merriweather was deeded to the commission.

The legislation would also change considerations for affordable housing. Under the plan, Howard Hughes needs to pay between $2,000 and $9,000 per unit for the first 5,000 units it builds in downtown to the Columbia Downtown Housing Commission, which uses that money to build affordable housing.

The fees are divvied out in staggered tiers, with Howard Hughes paying $2,000 for the first 1,500 units, $7,000 for the next 2,000, and $5,000 for the 2,000 after that. 

The legislation proposes frontloading the fee structure, which Ulman said will help jumpstart affordable housing in downtown.

"The Columbia Downtown Housing Corporation has been frustrated and adamant that we do more to ensure that those units promised are delivered," Ulman said. 

The amendment also places restrictions on Howard Hughes as it relates to affordable housing, stating that the county can withhold building permits on projects if they don't provide "evidence of moderate income housing units have been created."

"There is no gurantee in the current legislation (that affordable units will be built)," Ulman said. "We put the tools in that those units would be delivered. ... But yet we haven't seen any yet. This will be a guranteee that those units will be delivered over time."

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