Correction: The Howard County Council voted to move $5 million in state grant funding into contingency. An earlier version of this report misstated the amount.
The Howard County Council on May 24 voted to move $5 million in state grant funding for the proposed Lakefront Library in Columbia into contingency amid opposition to the plan.
Amendments to Howard County Executive Calvin Ball’s proposed fiscal 2024 capital budget now condition the release of funds from contingency upon the fulfillment of a list of obligations.
The list calls for a public engagement process open to all county residents and stakeholders to offer opinions, suggestions, recommendations, and priorities regarding uses, design and other considerations; use of a competitive bid and development process for all elements of the project, including design; the consideration of additional uses including the combination of the New Cultural Center and relocation of Arts Council functions including maker and artist spaces; and consideration of alternative financing and/or ownership of the entire project or its components, such as the parking garage.
“My primary concerns were about the exorbitant cost and the sole-source contract,” said Councilwoman Deb Jung (D-Dist. 4).
Councilman David Yungmann (R-Dist. 5) said the council didn’t appreciate having a significant project “dropped into our laps a couple weeks before budget,” adding that the proposal also came as a surprise to the County Executive late in the budget writing process. “The Library Board of Trustees didn’t even really know that this was happening.”
After the vote, Howard Hughes Corp.’s director of marketing, Casey Jones, said in a statement to The Business Monthly that the company was excited by the decision. “As the Community Developer of Downtown Columbia, we look forward to working with all of the stakeholders to achieve this transformative vision for the entire community,” Jones said.
To recap, the county in 2019 solicited bids for a new library with an affordable housing component in the Merriweather District. Costello Construction had the winning bid. But HHC worked on a different concept for the library with a different developer and orchestrated a land swap that preceded its spectacular announcement in late March.
The writers behind The Merriweather Post blog have provided some of the best context to date on the ins and outs of the proposed Lakefront Library’s financing and potential benefits.
Jeremy Dommu notes that HHC owns both the original library site parcel and the new site selected for the library. HHC’s offer to transfer the new site to the county frees up the original site to allow more affordable housing to be constructed. That’s something that the Progresssive Democrats of Howard County, the Howard County Citizens Association, and other community advocates have long insisted on prioritizing in Downtown Columbia.
Financing for the Lakefront Library would have relied on $80 million in tax incremental financing, $26 million in general obligation county bonds, $20 million in state funding, $10 million from philanthropy, $6 million in library-specific state grants, and about $1 million from Howard Hughes.
That total project cost of $143 million included $94 million for the library building, $38.5 million for site work and public parking, and $10.3 million for area and transportation improvements.
As Dommu sees it, the new library plan stands to make all of HHC’s adjacent properties more valuable, a significant benefit considering HHC has only developed about 20% of the 14 million square feet permitted in the Downtown Columbia Plan.
Why switch horses?
David Costello, president of Costello Construction, said he was not crying sour grapes over the decision which cut his company out of the loop.
“I’m more concerned about the county spending a huge amount of taxpayer dollars on a project that was agreed to without a competitive bid,” he said in an interview before the vote. “We’re fairly familiar with the procurement process in the public arena. The other seven or eight libraries we’ve built all followed the same (bidding) process, but this one is an outlier. It’s important that the public realize how irregular this is.”
In March, IMH Columbia, an entity of Costello Construction, filed a lawsuit in Howard County Circuit Court against the Howard Research and Development Corp. alleging a breach of obligations, among other complaints.
Barbara Krupiarz, director of The People’s Voice, a civic/political advocacy group, was among those speaking in opposition to the project at a Town Hall in May convened by PDHC, a civic and political advocacy group. She suggested that the $60 million difference between Heatherwick Studios’s Lakefront proposal and the original winning Request for Proposals bid could be spent on more pressing capital needs.
Asked before the vote to comment about public concerns raised during the town hall, Ball said he is still excited about the potential that the new Central Branch Library represents.
“We’ve been talking about it for over a decade and we now have an opportunity to continue that constructive community conversation with the passage of my budget, through the work of the design, and more conversation. This isn’t the end, but this is together how we’re writing that next great chapter for not only the Central Library, but for our community and community connections.”
Greg Fitchitt, president of Howard Hughes in Columbia, released the following statements to The Business Monthly before the vote:
What has been presented is a preliminary concept and design that many parties and many in the community believe has tremendous merit. The next step is further dialogue along with design and planning work to determine if this exciting idea is indeed feasible, and addressing the many questions that some community members rightly have.
“What has been presented with the Lakefront Library concept is an option for the County. The original option for the location in the Merriweather District is still a choice the County could re-initiate and pursue. The earlier RFP was issued in October of 2019 by the Housing Commission, and 4 years later there has been little progress on that concept in that location by that development team. The Council placed the FY23 (funding) in contingency which halted any progress on the project, so we thought it was worth exploring this alternative at the Lakefront with the library system, the Administration, and the Housing Commission. As the Community Developer designated under the Downtown Columbia Plan and the owner of the site, Howard Hughes is committed with the County and the Library system to make sure that all construction documentation and all actual construction work is properly bid to ensure that the County taxpayers are getting the best value for their dollars being invested in this transformative project for Columbia and Howard County.”