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Advocates are pushing for more affordable housing in a rebuilt Columbia downtown, even if it means allowing more than 5,500 new units, and boosters say a widened footbridge over U.S. 29 could eliminate the need for a new interchange.

The contentious housing issue will be debated again Jan. 19 at a County Council public hearing on the two Columbia rezoning bills.

Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty said that since the zoning bills do not currently require lower-cost housing, a place-holder amendment was prepared that would require that at least 15 percent of the new housing be for residents of moderate income.

"It was put in to further the discussion," she said. "There is nothing in there now."

Sigaty, a Democrat who represents the Town Center portion of Columbia, said the 15 percent figure could easily be changed, depending on what council members hear and later decide.

Another proposed amendment would require a study of school needs before the first building permit is issued, followed by reviews of enrollment projections after 10 percent and 25 percent of the housing is built. After the 1,375th unit, the developer would be required to reserve a site for a new school or provide an equivalent alternative.

Under county law, a public hearing must be held before any vote on an amendment that would substantially alter legislation. The housing amendment was filed Dec. 23, the deadline for introduction before the January meeting. Other, less substantive changes will follow, Sigaty said.

The County Council expects final votes Feb. 1 on the two bills that will pave the way for redevelopment of Columbia's downtown.

Tim Sosinski, an architect who spoke on behalf of the Full Spectrum Housing Coalition, said the county's programs for limited-income families do not help those with the greatest need - families with incomes of less than $60,000 but who make too much to qualify for public housing. If the plan fails to provide housing for residents over a broad spectrum of incomes, he said, Columbia's redeveloped downtown would be economically segregated - a place for middle- and higher-income families, from which low-wage workers would be excluded.

The new downtown would be "the ideal place for people with low incomes who don't have a car," Sosinski said at a recent County Council discussion.

A densely packed Town Center with 4.3 million square feet of new office space, 1.25 million square feet of retail, hotels, cultural amenities and more could absorb perhaps 1,100 more apartments than the limit of 5,500 being discussed, Sosinski said. He suggested offering developer General Growth Properties a higher limit on units as an incentive to get more lower-priced apartments and townhouses.

Columbia, which has more than 300 federally subsidized homes for low-income families - built in the town's first few years four decades ago - now stands as one of the few zones in the county without any legal requirement to provide lower-income housing. But those subsidies ended decades ago, derailing founder James Rouse's plan for hundreds more low-income units. If more such units were built now, the financial burden would fall on the developer or the county.

County planning director Marsha McLaughlin told the council that requiring units for low-income residents might drive the project's costs too high, jeopardizing the entire plan.

"We want to make sure it's financially viable," she said of the sweeping redevelopment, noting that many costs for such things as cultural amenities and transportation that are not required in conventional projects would come early in the plan's three-decade span.

Gregory F. Hamm, General Growth Properties' vice president and Columbia's general manager, agreed, noting that multilevel concrete buildings are more expensive to build than three-story, stick-built condominiums and apartments.

"I share her concern about the burden this can carry," he told the County Council.

GGP had originally proposed that 20 percent of the new housing be set aside for those with lower incomes, with half for families with incomes of about $80,000 to $120,000 and half for those with incomes under $80,000.

McLaughlin's staff recommended that 10 percent of the new housing be designated for the former income group and 15 percent for the latter.

GGP is now asking that no more than 15 percent of the units be reduced-price housing, or about 825 of the 5,500 units. Hamm said his company would create a fund of up to $30 million to pay for that by charging builders a $4,000 premium per housing unit and by charging commercial tenants 5 cents per square foot.

Advocates of affordable housing want 10 percent of the new residential units to be set aside for those with incomes under $40,000, with another 10 percent for those with incomes between $40,000 and $60,000. That's where the real need is, they say. But county officials, including housing director Stacy Spann, say that with federal rent subsidies no longer available, the relatively low rents that such units would require would cost far more than the fund that GGP is offering to start with a $5 million donation.

Sosinski said that with home prices dropping, people who qualify for existing county programs can often afford to buy their own homes.

How many homes and apartments should go into Columbia's redeveloped downtown is a major point of contention for some who fear increased traffic and congestion. Most officials say that if the full plan for downtown is implemented, a third interchange connection to U.S. 29 would be needed, perhaps in 15 or 20 years.

Boosters for a widened footbridge that would enable transit buses to directly connect downtown with the otherwise isolated Oakland Mills village on the highway's eastern side are using that issue to strengthen their argument.

John Slater and Fred Gottemoeller have drawn pictures of such a bridge, and say federal transportation money might be available for an innovative, transit-centered proposal. They say the wider bridge would cost up to $15 million, considerably more than the $500,000 that Hamm is offering for study and improvements.

"We don't think a third interchange is needed," Gottemoeller told the council. "As the crow flies, it's a very short trip" from Oakland Mills to downtown. "It's so obvious. You wonder why it hasn't been done before."

They say the bridge could be the key link between Howard County General Hospital, Howard Community College and the new downtown on the west side of U.S. 29, and Oakland Mills and Blandair Park on the east side, greatly increasing bus ridership. More use, they argue, would put many more people on the bridge, changing the perception that it isn't safe.

Slater said if the project is approved and sped along, federal money could pay for most of it. He said a preliminary study would cost no more than $100,000 and could be done in a year. The bridge would cost about $7.5 million to widen, he said, with about $6.4 million more needed for the approaches on both sides, plus design and contingency costs.

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