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Columbia schools brace for longterm impact of downtown development

Wilde Lake Middle School Principal Anne Swartz said the school will be ready to move into the new building in January 2017.
Wilde Lake Middle School Principal Anne Swartz said the school will be ready to move into the new building in January 2017.

When LaTonya Peters moved with her family to Columbia, she was drawn by the schools and the area's "commitment to families."

A plan, years in the making, to build around 6,400 residential units threatens the calm Peters and her husband sought when they moved to the area, she said.

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"We wanted the suburban lifestyle. If we wanted city, we had plenty of other urban choices," Peters said.

The plan, which originally passed in 2010, is now before the Howard County Council and includes a density increase of an additional 900 units of affordable housing.

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Peters' concerns echoed that of residents who stood before the council during public hearings over the summer and wondered: How will the schools, already nearing capacity in some areas, keep up to pace?

Columbia's Symphony of Lights will return to Merriweather Post Pavilion this winter after a year-long hiatus.

"We cannot simply redistrict our way out of this much enrollment growth," said Lada Onyshkevych of Wilde Lake Middle's PTSA. "Will [the school system] be forced to build urban model schools that are three or five stories high?"

School and county planners said existing controls will ensure overcrowding is tackled as the county chases a vision to make downtown Columbia a true downtown environment. This conclusion rests on a key assumption: Downtown Columbia will not produce as many students in the school system as other parts of the county, according to the county's projections. Higher-than-average rents and studio and one-bedroom apartments in high-rise apartment buildings will mean fewer residents with children who would be students, according to the county's studies.

"Downtown Columbia is such a new project in Howard County. There's going to be nothing like it," said Jeff Bronow, the Department of Planning and Zoning's chief of research.

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The county expects 6,400 residential units will bring 755 new students to the school system, 410 fewer students than the county's average for that number of units.

Although the school system's projections — which takes into account more factors than the county's method —estimate more students than the county's projections, the county will rely on its own estimates.

"No projection method is perfect and longer planning horizons are more difficult to project," said Renee Kamen, the school system's manager of school planning.

County officials frequently cite a welcoming real-life example: The Metropolitan, now fully occupied with 380 units, produced 13 students, a number 3.5 times lower than expected in other parts of the county.

Planners will use redistricting, planned additions at Swansfield and other tools to delay the need for a new elementary school and maintain capacity. But in the long-term, the redistricting strategy alone is not enough to curb overcrowding in some parts of Columbia, according to studies by the county and the school system.

A new elementary school is slated to open in 2027 and a new Wilde Lake Middle School will open later this school year with nearly 250 more seats.

Projections, revised yearly, show Running Brook Elementary School will see the most dramatic growth in the immediate area. By 2019, the school will be at 131 percent of capacity, a number that jumps to 209 percent by 2026.

Downtown Columbia's master developer, Howard Hughes Corp., is also bound by special requirements tied to development milestones.

Howard County is seeking a $127 million tax increment financing deal - the largest in the county's history and one of the largest in the state - for the development of downtown Columbia.

For example, before the county approves the 1,375th residential unit, the master developer must suggest a school site in downtown Columbia, if requested by the Board of Education.

Existing protections unique to downtown Columbia, like the development milestones, will ensure adequate school infrastructure remains, along with other laws that guide how development keeps up to pace with public facilities, DeLorenzo said.

That is part of the reason why the proposal before the council no longer limits the number of housing units the county can allocate in a given year, if the elementary school region where a school district is located exceeds 100 percent of capacity.

Currently, the county can only allocate up to 300 units per year, a number that is not feasible given the large-scale development planned and specific requirements for low-income housing tax credit projects, said Carl DeLorenzo, the county executive's director of policy and programs.

The county's public facilities ordinance, which dictates how public facilities keep up to place with new development, has not been updated in nearly a decade.

The school system will continue to examine the full depth and breadth of the impact of downtown Columbia's development.

"I know what the immediate needs are," Kamen said. "The whole systemwide need is we will need a new middle school. Exactly where that middle school is and how it'll be filled is a question that is not just related to downtown redevelopment."

A plan as long range as downtown Columbia's redevelopment rests on flexibility, officials said.

"We want to make sure that we don't over plan or under plan," Bronow said. "A lot of thought was put into planning for the impact on schools and we will revisit constantly to ensure wekeep up to pace. When you have a 30-year plan, you constantly have to revisit."

This story has been updated. 

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