Maryland Gov. Wes Moore joined Howard County Executive Calvin Ball on Thursday in Columbia to announce the county’s new flagship library and an expansion of mixed-income housing that officials say will be cornerstones of the city’s future.
“Today we start writing the next great chapter in our history,” Ball said. “A project for the people that will serve as a transformative civic and educational center for all.”
Located on the Columbia Lakefront, the planned 100,000-square-foot facility will be twice the size of any existing library in the county and is envisioned as a communal space for a rapidly expanding population.
After designs are finalized and pending funding approval by the County Council, Ball said a groundbreaking would be held by 2026.
“This is some of the most desirable real estate that we have, not just in the county, but in the state,” said Moore, speaking against the backdrop of a sparkling Lake Kittamaqundi. “Everybody wants to be right here. And what did you choose to anchor it with? A library.”
Initial plans for the Lakefront library were made by award-winning English designer Thomas Heatherwick, whose projects have included the “Vessel” visitor attraction in Hudson Yards, New York, and the Olympic cauldron for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
Ball said funding for the library would be included in his proposed fiscal 2024 capital budget, which will be submitted Friday to the Howard County Council. During his remarks, Moore said the proposed state budget would also directly invest in the project.
Final costs for the Lakefront library are estimated at $144 million, according to county spokesperson Mark Miller.
With its tiered levels of gardens, auditorium and various classroom spaces, the new library will serve as a physical and symbolic heart of downtown Columbia, a planned community of more than 100,000 residents.
“We think of this area as the welcome mat to Columbia,” said Dennis Mattey, interim president and CEO of the Columbia Association, a nonprofit that manages open space and community amenities in the city. “This [library] is going to be the welcome mat for Maryland.”
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Opened in 1981, the county’s existing Central Branch library located on Little Patuxent Parkway is slated for demolition under Howard County’s Downtown Columbia Plan, which calls for a range of new visual and performing arts initiatives across six new and reconfigured downtown neighborhoods.
The announcement shifts the library’s proposed location away from the Merriweather District, where the new Central Branch was initially planned to be co-located with mixed-income residential apartments. The change means the original Merriweather site can now be devoted solely to housing units, operated by the Howard County Housing Commission.
Officials have long sought to curb housing insecurity in the county, where 1 of 4 residents rent their homes and pay $300 more than the state average, according to a report by the Howard County Library System and Morgan State University.
“Advancing the creation of affordable housing is critical to the economic health and vitality of Howard County,” said housing commission chair Elizabeth S. Homan.
Housing commission Executive Director Peter Engel said the group plans to build at least 240 mixed-income housing units at the Merriweather site and that construction could begin as early as fall 2024, pending state funding approval.
While praising the dedication of Howard residents to education and public service, Moore said the library will serve as a symbol of civic engagement for all of Maryland.
“I remember a few years back walking around here with [former County Executive] Ken Ulman and just talking about this,” Moore said. “How this was going to be an opportunity to build something that is not just a shining jewel for Maryland. We’re talking about how this is gonna be a shining jewel for this country and for this world.”
An earlier version of this story said Housing commission Executive Director Peter Engel said the group plans to build at least 240 mixed-income housing units at the Merriweather site and that construction could begin as early as fall 2023, pending state funding approval. The Howard County Times regrets the error.