The "ooohs" and "aaaahs" were noticeable as residents of Guilford Gardens, Howard County's public housing complex on Oakland Mills Road in Columbia, saw what could be their future.
Instead of the drab, 28-year-old townhouses and apartments that make up their county-owned development, they saw color drawings and animated pictures of glitzy apartments and stylish-looking buildings adorned with amenities such as tennis courts, a swimming pool and a community center.
Four private development partnerships are vying for the county's permission to redevelop and expand the rental community next to Guilford Elementary School into a mixed-income neighborhood. Plans call for phased demolition of the existing homes, which would be replaced with more than twice the number of units, of which 40 percent would be subsidized.
Stacy L. Spann, county housing director, said a contract could be awarded by next month, after an internal government review committee makes a recommendation to County Executive Ken Ulman, who has the final say.
The four finalists presented their plans to about 30 residents of the 100-unit complex at Guilford Elementary Monday night during a three-hour meeting.
"It's beautiful. ... I love the kitchens. Everything looks so beautiful," said Florence Joseph, 53, who said she's lived in the complex for 22 years. She was talking about the Shelter Group's presentation, which used an animated video to "walk" viewers through the grassy complex and into the apartment interiors, showing shiny kitchen countertops, recessed lighting and high-quality furniture and fixtures.
Her daughter, Royette St. Jean, 34, moved to Guilford Gardens with her mother and now lives in her own townhouse with two sons, ages 11 and 13.
Spann told the residents before the presentations began that "all of this, at the moment, is a concept."
"We haven't yet decided on the precise number of units" in the new Guilford Gardens, she said, but one thing is for sure -- "we have a zero displacement strategy." That means no current residents will need leave.
"We want folks to be back in this new development," he said.
The development partnerships are:
Earl Arminger's Orchard Development and Homes for America would build 269 units, townhouses and apartments ranging from one to four bedrooms.
Sustainable Community Partners, composed of James Rouse-founded Enterprise Homes and Jared Spahn's Ellicott City-based Oldtown Construction, would erect 261 units, including rear-garage townhouses and a 7,000-square-foot community center.
Community Builders Inc., a national firm with offices in Washington, would construct 228 units, including some "stacked townhouses." Some three-story buildings would have an apartment on the first level and a townhouse occupying the top two floors.
The Shelter Group, based in Baltimore, in partnership with Harkins Builders, plan 270 units in a $46 million project that would include a three-story building for seniors, but no townhouses.
Each has ties to Howard County and extensive experience building affordable housing in the area. Each proposed a project that would include environmentally sensitive buildings, limiting monthly utility costs. Units would range from 650 square feet to nearly 1,800 square feet.
Residents were asked to fill out a survey after each presentation. The county plans to use the survey to help decide which group would build the model community, where people of all income levels, races and ethnic backgrounds ideally would live.
More important for current residents were assurances that the new units would be larger and with more modern, open floor plans than their current homes. And everyone would have individual laundry facilities, except for a seniors' building, where doing the wash is considered a social opportunity, according to developers.