Re-imagined plans for the Howard County Library System’s Central Branch replacement are poised to transform both the Lakefront and Downtown Columbia’s mixed-income housing opportunities.
Originally envisioned for the Merriweather District, the new library will instead move to the Lakefront. The change will enable the construction of at least 240 units of mixed-income housing at the original site, twice the number as originally called for in the Downtown Columbia Plan.
Gov. Wes Moore joined Howard County Executive Calvin Ball on March 30 to announce the county’s intentions for the new library.
“It will be a hub where education, the arts, and nature all converge to spark creativity, critical thinking, and community connections,” Ball said.
Moore praised the county for forward thinking that will benefit multiple community stakeholders.
“This is some of the most desirable real estate around and what did you choose to anchor it with? A library,” Moore said. “It’s anchored in education, in community uplifting, in community involvement and in community space. That’s the power of what we’re seeing here.”
Funding for the Lakefront Library will be included in Ball’s proposed Fiscal Year 2024 Capital Budget, which will be submitted to the Howard County Council by April 1. Pending Council approval, design for the project can begin later this year with the anticipation of breaking ground no later than 2026.
Moore added that his administration plans to finalize a budget that includes direct investments for the Downtown Columbia Library and for affordable housing.
The 100,000 square-foot structure will be the first library of its kind in the region. Designs unveiled were created by Heatherwick Studio, an internationally recognized firm that created the landmark Vessel public art structure in New York City, and other distinctive buildings throughout the world.
Amenities at the new Lakefront Library will include a learning kitchen, maker space, and a digital lab, as well as an auditorium. It will also provide additional space for classes for all ages, Project Literacy and workforce development initiatives, equity initiatives, and more.
“It will allow us to be super intentional in the way we are providing places for our youngest community members,” said Tonya Aikens, president and CEO of HCLS. “We can do a lot more interactive learning and engagement with preschoolers. Our current location has no teen space, so this will also allow teens to engage in ways that are meaningful for them.”
HCLS will offer a series of community engagement in the coming weeks, she added, where county residents can provide input on what they would like to see included in the new library.
The library will be built on land provided by The Howard Hughes Corp., which serves as Downtown Columbia’s community developer. Howard Hughes is also providing the land for the affordable housing units, as called for in the Downtown Columbia Plan.
Howard County Council Chair Christiana Rigby noted that more than 95% of Howard County residents have a library card, “but right now Howard County and Downtown Columbia lack housing options for everyone. The proposed iconic Lakefront Library and Merriweather affordable housing will strengthen Howard County by fostering community engagement, supporting economic mobility and enhancing our quality of life.”
Elizabeth Homan, chair of the Howard County Housing Commission, said separating housing from the library creates an important and independent path forward for new mixed income housing in the downtown.
“[W]e can now move with greater speed to increase the supply of desperately needed affordable housing for the county’s residents,” she said.
Peter Engel, executive director of HCHC, said the location for the affordable housing site hasn’t yet been finalized and will likely be dependent on what location is chosen for the Downtown Columbia Transit Center.
“Given that we’re going to the state for funding, the earliest we might be able to move forward would probably be in 18 months.”
The library’s location at the Columbia Lakefront – on land currently serving as the northern parking lot for Whole Foods – will further activate one of the central areas of Howard County.
“Construction should not impact any of the programming or the amenity spaces currently in use by the Columbia Association,” said Greg Fitchitt, president of the Columbia Region for the Howard Hughes Corp.
He added that the library will include a parking component to compensate for the current Lakefront parking that is being lost.
“Columbia has always been driven by a socially radical vision,” said Stuart Wood, partner and group leader for Heatherwick Studio. “A walkable, planted building that emerges from the Lakeside landscape will house an amphitheater for events, play areas and light-filled rooms designed for working and learning anything from cooking to IT. This will be the community center everyone in Howard County deserves.”