Howard County and Howard Hughes Corp., the principal developer of downtown Columbia, have begun discussions about renovations to Merriweather Post Pavilion and other public improvements in downtown.
The talks come less than a week after Howard County Executive Ken Ulman proposed legislation that would hasten the redevelopment of the concert venue, which is owned by the developer. The bill would force Howard Hughes to turn Merriweather over to a county nonprofit five to 10 years earlier than originally agreed upon.
The bill also would accelerate the construction timeline of other public improvements, including a multi-use pathway connecting east and west Columbia and affordable housing. Further, it would allow the county to withhold issuing building permits to the developer for future commercial projects, which includes the $125 million Warfield mixed-use apartment development near The Mall in Columbia and the 5 million square-foot mega-development on the Crescent, which will include a mix of office, retail, civic and residential uses.
Howard Hughes Senior Vice President John DeWolf, who said the developer was disappointed and caught off guard by the bill, declined to comment on specifics of the talks, but said there is "constructive, ongoing dialogue" between the developer and the county.
Likewise, Ulman said in a statement he is "pleased with the tenor of interaction" between the county and the developer since he announced the bill on March 13.
"Since we introduced the bill there have been a lot of conversations throughout the community, and with stakeholders," Ulman said in an interview. "I'm optimistic that we'll be able to make progress in a way that Howard Hughes, the community and the county can feel good about."
The bill is proposed as an amendment to the mutually agreed upon Downtown Columbia Plan, a master document created to guide the massive development overhaul in downtown. The plan was approved in 2010 after years of collaboration between the county, the public and General Growth Properties, which at the time was the successor to the Rouse Company as the principal land owner in Columbia. Howard Hughes, a spinoff corporation created by GGP, assumed ownership and oversight of the developable land in 2010 after GGP emerged from bankruptcy.
Currently, the plan requires Howard Hughes to turn over ownership of Merriweather to the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, the nonprofit, before it develops 5 million square feet in downtown. The amendment would expedite that timeline to 500,000 square feet of development, which Howard Hughes will exceed with its next project.
Howard Hughes must also complete building the multi-use pathway before hitting the 500,000 square-foot threshold. Currently, construction on the first two stages of the pathway is underway, and Howard Hughes is scheduled to present plans for the final two phases to the community at 6:30 p.m. on March 27 at the Other Barn. A project spokesman estimates the first two phases to be completed in the spring, with construction commencing on the final stages in the summer.
Ulman said he proposed the bill because he was frustrated that public improvements promised in the plan weren't being delivered fast enough. Chief among those are renovations to the pavilion, which a study commissioned by the county estimated to be $24.6 million.
"I have a sense of urgency in everything I do," Ulman said Monday. "I think the urgency is really from the study that we had updated, that shows the need for the improvements. ... We want to make sure we keep pace and deliver the community aspects in the plan."
Ulman added that the recent progress of the Inner Arbor Trust to build an arts park on 16 acres in Symphony Woods, located adjacent to the pavilion, was also a reason for the bill. Ulman deflected the notion that the urgency is tied to his term as executive, which expires in December, but said it reflects his, and the county's, commitment to downtown issues.
"I think it's fair to say, and it's not just me, that I've spent a lot of time working on issues in downtown Columbia," he said.
The bill is scheduled to go before the Howard County Planning Board on April 19. After that, it would be sent to the County Council for vetting and possible approval.
There are at least a few in the community who are concerned that, if the bill were passed, Howard Hughes could seek legal action or other recourse — which could trigger an indefinite freeze on downtown development.
"It the legislation passes and Howard Hughes is denied a building permit, that would be much too far," said Linda Wengel, chair of the Board of Directors for Town Center Village, a homeowner's association that encompasses downtown.
In addition the Warfield, Crescent and pathway projects, which are in the pipeline, Howard Hughes is responsible for other projects in downtown. The other main projects on Howard Hughes's plate are the $100 million 380-unit Metropolitan development, also by the mall, and the renovation of the former Rouse Co. building into a Whole Foods, both of which are currently under construction.
Recently completed projects include the renovation of Clyde's of Columbia and the addition of Petit Louis Bistro, both located on the downtown lakefront.
"It doesn't help anyone. It's a lose-lose situation," Wengel said of a potential development freeze. "Who wants to be surrounded by a bunch of lots half-finished?"
Suzanne Waller, Town Center's representative on the Columbia Association Board of Directors, said she remains hopeful that outcome can be avoided.
"Downtown development is very important to the future of Columbia. I'm counting on Howard Hughes and the county to work this out," she said.
Waller added she doesn't think a development freeze is likely.
"I think Howard Hughes has an investment in the community. I see no reason for them to pull out," she said. "We've hit a bump in the road, let's get it taken care of."
When asked if he thought about a downtown development freeze as a possible outcome, Ulman said: "It is fair to say I've thought all this through. ... I take into account all the information I have when I introduce legislation."
The more the two sides talk, the less likely it would appear that legislation will be necessary.
"I am 100 percent committed to those goals," Ulman said. "I would only consider withdrawing the bill if those goals are met. ... If there are other solutions that arrive at the same goal, I am absolutely open to that.
"We are all trying to make progress. A lot of good people are working very hard to make progress in these important areas. I believe that will happen," he said.
County Council chairman Calvin Ball, who represents a portion of Columbia, said he shares Ulman's optimism.
"I definitely think that there's opportunity for the county and Howard Hughes to work together," he said. "I think that we can get there. I'm hopeful we can get there."
County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, who represents downtown Columbia, echoed Ball.
"I think that there will be a lot of discussion about it," she said. "I think that it's incumbent on us to pay attention to what's going on. Our job is to make sure that the community gets out of the development what the community expected."