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Howard council considers impact of downtown Columbia plan

The Metropolitan, adjacent to The Mall in Columbia, is among new housing built in the downtown Columbia area.
The Metropolitan, adjacent to The Mall in Columbia, is among new housing built in the downtown Columbia area. (Photo by Nate Pesce)

Howard County Council members have been sifting through a dizzying array of numbers as they look for the best way to ensure there are affordable housing options in Columbia as the planned community redevelops and urbanizes its downtown area.

Just how many students new, high-density housing will produce, how many parking spaces new residents will need – and the economic impact of each development scenario upon the county: Council members have been contemplating all these numbers since September, when Columbia's affordable housing watchdog group and developer Howard Hughes presented their joint plan for affordable housing.

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Backing up the numbers are pages upon pages of analyses and memoranda, assembled by county administration staff, public finance consulting firm MuniCap Inc. and the Howard County Public School System. The most recent executive summary for a fiscal impact analysis comparing the joint recommendations to the approved Columbia development plan is 149 pages long.

A few numbers stand out.

Student yield is one, and it's important -- the number of new students in Columbia could influence the expensive prospect of school-building. The county's projections differ significantly from the school system's: County planners estimate new housing in Columbia will generate 741 new students, while Howard County Public Schools projections anticipate 2,200 new students.

The reason for the difference, according to Department of Planning and Zoning Chief of Research Jeff Bronow, is that the county's estimates are based upon a standing yield of .121 students per new housing unit, a figure that's based on actual yields from apartments in downtown Columbia now. The school system, meanwhile, is using its model for feasibility planning, which governs planning for capital projects and includes factors such as apartment turnover, estimated pre-school move-ins, new construction yields and how many students remain at the same school from grade to grade.

Bronow told the council the school system's model is effective in the short-term and medium-term – long enough to plan a 10-year capital budget. But, he wrote in a Nov. 2 memo, "it doesn't work as well when trying to analyze the direct impacts due to a single large development over a longer time-frame, such as what is proposed in Downtown Columbia."

Parking ratios are also a big consideration as the council makes its decisions. Howard Hughes has requested a reduction in the parking spaces required for studio and one-bedroom apartment units, and the Department of Planning and Zoning has endorsed the idea in its own memos to the council.

Currently, the parking ratio required for new developments in downtown Columbia is 1.65 spaces per bedroom, regardless of apartment size. DPZ's recommended revised ratio for studio and one bedroom apartments is 1.3 spaces per bedroom, which would translate to 1,039 fewer parking spots downtown.

"The standards should reflect the fact that there's a shift toward studio and one bedroom units and away from multiple bedroom units," Planning and Zoning Director Valdis Lazdins told the council. According to estimates from Howard Hughes, the developer plans for half of its apartment units to be studios (15 percent) and one-bedroom units (35 percent), while 40 percent of its units will be two-bedroom and just 10 percent will be three-bedroom, in line with the company's aim to attract Millennials and Baby Boomers looking to downsize.

Some council members expressed concern about accommodating parking needs, given Columbia's relative lack of transit options compared to other metropolitan suburbs.

"It seems to me that if you're taking away parking, you need to have some other option," said Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a Democrat.

Lazdins said his analysis includes comparisons to other transit-limited, higher density developments, such as the Rio in Gaithersburg.

"I've heard some say if you don't have congestion, you don't have a successful place," he added.

Estimated net fiscal impacts of the project on the county vary from $803.9 million – for the joint recommendations with a high student yield scenario – to $1.1 billion, for the joint recommendations with a mix of affordability levels in the housing developed.

But ultimately, said Keenan Rice of MuniCap, "the decision probably does not depend upon fiscal impact. We looked at all these different scenarios on the fiscal impact and it's positive."

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