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Affordable housing and infrastructure plans for downtown Columbia [Commentary]

Howard County Executive

As Columbia approaches its 50th year, planning for the future of downtown Columbia is underway.

The 2010 Downtown Columbia Plan set the stage for a thriving downtown space and I am pleased that our administration has put together a consensus-driven legal framework for sustainable development throughout downtown Columbia.

Through a collaborative process, including much public input, we have produced a road map for the development of downtown, adhering to James Rouse's vision of creating a space where residents can live, work, shop, interact, recreate and find entertainment.

When completed, we will welcome more than 10,000 new jobs, 4.3 million square feet of commercial office space, a hotel and conference center and 6,400 new residential units.

As county executive, I am committed to preserving our quality of life and set forth five key guidelines for the affordable housing and tax increment financing (TIF) proposals:

1. Protect the taxpayers of Howard County;

2. Ensure the development of affordable housing;

3. Minimize financial risks for county government;

4. Put in place a comprehensive plan to sustain this development and the future of downtown Columbia;

5. Ensure predictability for county government, residents, housing advocates and The Howard Hughes Corp.

The affordable housing legislation reflects an agreement between Howard County government, the Housing Commission, the Columbia Downtown Housing Corp. and The Howard Hughes Corp. It incorporates stakeholder input and developer concessions to produce a strong plan that will provide a full spectrum of housing units in every market rate project so that affordable and low income units are not concentrated to one building or area.

Supported by the Planning Board and housing advocates, this plan will replace the fee program put in place six years ago. That plan included no mechanism to build affordable housing, resulting in no affordable units built to date. Our approach will open opportunities for households earning 30 percent to 80 percent of the area's median income, including our teachers, health providers and public safety personnel, so they can live and work in Howard County.

We've also reduced the risk to the county and our taxpayers by legally binding Howard Hughes to facilitating the development of these units, shifting the risk and obligation from public entities to the developer.

I have heard concerns about impacts to traffic, schools and our aging public facilities, such as the Banneker Fire Station and Central Library. The proposed TIF will fund critical public infrastructure such as water, sewer, roads and parking facilities. In addition to these improvements, the increased revenue from the new development will be used to build new facilities, including a library, fire station, arts center, transit center and elementary school.

A combination of new roads and expanded public transportation options, including a possible Bus Rapid Transit connection on Route 29, will alleviate congestion and provide better transportation alternatives. A 2,450-space public parking garage will provide the necessary parking for new retail and commercial growth, as well as for Merriweather Post Pavilion's visitors. Using only the increased tax revenue from the new development will ensure that taxpayers are not burdened with these costs.

While commonly requested by major developers to finance infrastructure projects, the TIF and special taxing district protect taxpayers by transferring the risk to the developer. Projects such as National Harbor and Arundel Mills have benefited from similar TIF proposals.

We are fortunate in Howard County to have a destination like Columbia to serve as the centerpiece for economic development and to have a community that values diversity. I am confident that the proposals we have put forward will sustain our quality of life for future generations.

Allan Kittleman is the county executive for Howard County.

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