Howard County housing officials are planning a major overhaul of two Ellicott City public housing complexes and the nearby Roger Carter Recreation Center as plans to redevelop a third, Guilford Gardens, move closer to fruition.

Hilltop Housing, the county's oldest public housing complex, just off the Main Street historic area of the county seat, would be transformed into a new mixed-income community able to support itself financially, according to county housing director Stacy L. Spann. Similarly, the Ellicott Terrace garden apartments across Fels Lane from Hilltop would be improved and the county-owned recreation center would be "enhanced," Spann said. A single house next to the Carter center is also included in the Request for Proposals offered to developers.

"We're going about it in the same way" as at Guilford Gardens in Columbia, Spann said. Shelter Development was selected for the $46 million Guilford Gardens project in April 2008, and construction is getting closer.

The Oakland Mills Road complex is to increase from 100 homes and apartments to 269 mixed-income units in new buildings. Spann said 116 of the new units will be for limited-income renters and no one will be forced out. The redevelopment is to be done in phases, so residents can move to the first new buildings before more are demolished.

No firm plan for the Ellicott City projects exists yet, Spann said, because he doesn't want to limit the creativity and imagination of private developers interested in the project. Current tenants there would not be forced out either, according to the plan.

"What this does for us is it gets us to a place where we have created a more robust [real estate] portfolio," Spann said. Proposals could range from improving the current buildings to tearing them down in phases and building a new community with more homes.

County officials were planning by year's end to whittle the nine firms applying for the contract down to three or four, each of which would then be invited to prepare a proposal, probably by late February, said Tom Carbo, deputy housing director. Spann told the county housing commission on Dec. 15 that a final plan could be chosen in May.

William A. Ross, the acting commission chairman, said he's encouraged by the idea.

"Thank God they can do it now. There is a great need for Hilltop to be addressed," he said.

County Council Chairwoman Courtney Watson, a Democrat who represents Ellicott City, also favors the project.

"I am encouraged that Hilltop will get some needed attention," she said.

Built in 1969 to replace a row of wooden rental cottages without indoor plumbing that served as Ellicott City's African-American enclave, Hilltop has 94 brick town houses and apartments on a hilly 12-acre site, plus a 2006 apartment house for low-income seniors. In 1968, Howard County had a three-commissioner form of government, which authorized building Hilltop entirely with local funds. At the time, Fels Lane filled with mud after nearly every heavy rain, and the lack of plumbing allowed untreated waste into the stream that ran behind the homes.

Officials say the 40-year-old buildings' plumbing, heating and cooling systems have major problems, but Spann's biggest worry is that the residents' rents are typically so low that the housing commission has to pump about $300,000 a year into the complex to keep it operating. After several attempts, he persuaded the Housing Commission to authorize the first increases in Hilltop's rent structure earlier this year.

As at Guilford Gardens, the county also hopes to increase the number of units, including more for low-income renters, while building environmentally green, attractive and modern buildings that will draw in unsubsidized tenants who want to be within walking distance of Main Street and county offices and courts.

Ellicott Terrace is a 60-unit garden-style brick complex on just under 4 acres within sight of Hilltop, which sits just above the former site of the Fels Lane cottages. The Carter center, which was built as a segregated elementary school for Ellicott City's African-American children, later served as the county's police station before its expansion and conversion for recreational and educational use. It is also the site of the county's only publicly owned and operated swimming pool.

Residents have been kept abreast of the plans, Spann said, and several said Tuesday that they know something is coming, even if they didn't attend the community meeting last fall.

Still, some worry that the change could boost their rent or bring other unwelcome changes.

Joe Fuller, 84, lived on the old Fels Lane and has been in Hilltop since it was built, he said. Not knowing details of the redevelopment plan make him a skeptic, he said.

"I don't see what they could do here," he said. "I'm a Section 8 senior. Where am I going to live?"

Sara Gonzales, 47, and her son, Chris, 16, said they've lived in Hilltop since 2000. She expressed resignation about the county's idea.

"It doesn't matter what I say" about the plan, she said. "They do what they want."

But the idea of living in a new building for the same rent was appealing.

"That'd be perfect, but it's too good to be true," Chris said. "It's like a fairy tale."

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