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Downtown Columbia redevelopment deal could be revised

A public financing deal could be up for major changes before the council's vote, which is expected on Nov. 7.
A public financing deal could be up for major changes before the council's vote, which is expected on Nov. 7. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun)

A $90 million public financing deal to fund the redevelopment of downtown Columbia is up for major revisions as master developer Howard Hughes overhauls its core.

The Howard County Council is scheduled to vote on the deal as early as Nov. 7. At a work session on Monday, council members hinted they plan to introduce a series of amendments to the deal, which would be the largest TIF in the county's history.

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The proposed deal uses tax increment financing, a public financing tool that earmarks future tax revenues from the development to pay back county bonds and other costs associated with new development.

"I can't envision the TIF passing as it was given to us," County Council Chairman Calvin Ball said Monday. "There are going to be changes if it is going to pass."

Currently, the county plans to own the $51 million garage for private and public use and finance it with the TIF. The county plans to seek a change that would grant Howard Hughes rights to own and finance a part of the garage.

Even though the developer and the county would share ownership of the garage, the county will still be able to charge parking fees if it desires, Carl DeLorenzo, director of policy and programs for the Kittleman administration, said at Monday's work session. The proposed change would not change the amount of the TIF.

The administration plans to introduce details of the changes over the next several days, DeLorenzo said.

The deal would fund the front-end costs of public infrastructure like roadways, water and sewer lines and the parking garage in the Crescent, a 60-acre parcel of land slated for high-density, urban development.

The TIF is expected to bring in more than $400 million in additional revenue over the next 35 years. Although the TIF does not directly fund a new school or new library, the development is expected to bring in enough revenue to fund capital projects like a new school, according to Stan Milesky, the director of the county's finance department.

All amendments to the deal are due to the council by Nov. 3.

The garage, currently financed by the TIF, would expedite the ownership transfer of Merriweather Post Pavilion, a popular outdoor amphitheater, from the developer to the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, a nonprofit organization. Merriweather supporters argue the garage will give the outdoor pavilion a permanent parking solution. The pavilion currently uses a patchwork of private and public spaces, including some areas slated for future development.

Councilman Greg Fox said he plans to propose an amendment that would require the developer to turn over the pavilion within a certain period of time, if the TIF is approved by the council.

Council members pressed Howard Hughes' vice president of development, Greg Fitchitt, for access to draft escrowed agreements between the developer and the commission that lay out parking plans for the facility. Fitchitt said he will accommodate those requests, which council members said were necessary to determine if the TIF meets Merriweather's parking needs.

Ian Kennedy, executive director of the commission, cautioned that the "sleet of amendments to the TIF" may reach "a tipping point" beyond which the developer could seek a different program.

County officials, including Stan Milesky, the county's director of finance, have said the county "could wait forever" to redevelop downtown Columbia without the TIF.

Last month, public financing of the garage came under scrutiny after a group of six local developers said it was unfair for the county to fund a garage that benefits a private developer.

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Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, the council's most vocal critic of the deal, has called the deal a gift for the developer.

On Monday, Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty said the council should also consider earmarking projected revenues from the TIF for a new school in Columbia.

The county projects the deal will bring in more than $400 million in additional revenue over the next 35 years.

"There is some skepticism the money [for the school] will not be there," Sigaty said.

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