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Hilltop redevelopment gets mixed reviews

For some, the plans to redevelop the Hilltop Apartment complex, a low-income housing community in historic Ellicott City, into a mixed-income community with more than double the number of current units will provide a much-needed boost to an aging community.

For others, however, the change will mean more traffic to an already congested area.

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On Tuesday, July 5, the County Council introduced two resolutions related to the first phase of the Hilltop redevelopment.

One resolution is to approve the $36 million financing, which includes $25 million in tax-exempt housing bonds issued by the state, as well as low-income housing tax credits and various loans. The other is to approve a payment in lieu of taxes agreement, which is standard for most affordable housing developments.

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A public hearing on the resolutions, the last needed for the project to begin, will be held July 18, and a vote is scheduled for July 28.

Built about 40 years ago, Hilltop Apartments is a 94-unit complex serving low-income families. It's owned by the Howard County Housing Commission, the county's public housing authority.

Next to Hilltop, is a 60-unit, low-income housing community called Ellicott Terrace Apartments, which the commission purchased in 2009. Down the street from both properties is the county-owned Roger Carter Recreation Center.

"All three facilities are aging properties that are in dire need of work and also aren't the best use of land in that area," Deputy Housing Director Tom Carbo said. Thus, the commission plans to demolish the current facilities and build what housing officials see as a bigger, better community.

During phase one of the redevelopment, the current Hilltop units will be torn down and replaced with 198 units, which will include a mix of garden-style apartments, town homes and manor homes (several units within what looks like a large single-family home). Of the 198 units, 90 will be rented at reduced rates to low-income families, and 108 will be rented at market value.

"We're providing what is a first-class, superior-designed, energy-efficient, amenity-rich community," Carbo said.

As part of phase one, the commission is building a new 45,000-square-foot recreation center with an indoor pool, basketball court, climbing wall, fitness center, classrooms and a multipurpose room. The commission plans to lease the facility to the county, so it will be available for public use.

Phase two: Demolition

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During phase two of the redevelopment, which is estimated to cost $16.5 million, the Ellicott Terrace units will be torn down, and about 75 units — including 45 to be rented to low-income families — will be built. The Roger Carter center also will be torn down.

Carbo said similar legislation related to phase two is expected to go before the council at the end of the year or early next year.

During demolition of the existing units, some residents will be relocated to other Housing Commission properties. All residents will have the opportunity to rent units in the new community once it's finished.

The 273 units being built during both phases will end up as one community with the same name and a third-party property manager, both of which have yet to be determined.

If the council approves the resolutions, phase one construction is expected to begin by the end of the year. Phase two will likely be about a year behind. The entire redevelopment is slated for completion sometime in 2014.

The mixed-income community will be the second created by the Housing Commission, which is currently redeveloping the low-income Guilford Gardens, in Columbia, into Monarch Mills, a mixed-income property.

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Having market-priced units alongside low-income units allows the property to be financially self sustaining, Carbo said.

"A very important part of this is these older properties really did not support themselves, and the county was needing to provide constant subsidy," he explained.

According to an independent market study conducted by Lipman, Frizzell & Mitchell LLC, a Columbia-based real estate consulting firm, the property manager should have no problem renting the units.

"The high quality apartments in multiple design formats, excellent location and abundant employment opportunities in the growing Howard County economy make the subject very appealing," the study reads.

Support, opposition

Over the year-and-a-half of planning, Carbo said the commission has had regular contact with the surrounding community, and received a mixture of praise and criticism. In response to critics, he said the commission has made several changes to the proposal, including improvements to the landscaping plan, and adjustments to the design and layout of the recreation center.

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Bill Withers, a resident of nearby Fels Lane, initially had concerns about Hilltop but has since changed his mind.

"The (latest) designs that they've shown us have really taken into account people's concerns," he said.

Withers said he now supports what is a scaled-back proposal.

The same cannot be said for some nearby business owners.

"We reached density years ago here in the historic district," said Ed Williams, co-owner of Main Street's Mumbles and Squeaks Toy Shoppe. "It's just so congested here, and that's the basic problem."

Sherry Fackler-Berkowitz, co-owner of Great Panes glass studio, said she could accept the proposal if it were scaled back even further but not as it is.

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"This is the most dense area of Howard County already. So now, they're making it more dense," she said. "It's not very well thought out."

The redevelopment, along with two other housing projects in the area, Fackler-Berkowitz said are "going to block off the historic district ... When the traffic gets horrendous, people aren't going to come in here."

But not all business owners feel the same. Adon and Jane Phillips, co-owners of Country Crafters, said they have no objections to the redevelopment.

"It means more people coming down here to eat and spend money," Adon Phillips said.

"We're OK with anything that will help bring business down here," Jane Phillips added.

Council member Courtney Watson, a Democrat who represents historic Ellicott City, said the big question in any development is how much density is too much.

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"In this case, the density was required to make the project financially viable and to be able to add the market-rate housing, which overall will benefit the community," she said. The benefits, she noted, include increased property values, more people to shop on Main Street and a property manager who will provide better maintenance of the community.


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