An aerial rendering of the proposed lakefront library. (Courtesy Howard County Library System)

The unveiling of plans for a new Columbia lakefront library March 30 was nothing less than stunning. The renderings showed a fabulous design by a world-renowned architect on a plot above the iconic plaza that is at the heart of Columbia.

County Executive Calvin Ball was beaming as he revealed the design and then introduced Maryland’s always beaming new governor, Wes Moore, who pledged the state’s financial support — nobody knew that was already in his capital budget, except probably Howard County Sen. Guy Guzzone, chair of the budget committee.

County leaders lined up in gushing praise: the library CEO and its board chair, the county council chair, the downtown developer, the head of the housing commission that would get more affordable units from the deal, the president of the Columbia Association that owns the plaza and lake, the superintendent of schools, the community college president.

What was not to like?

It turns out, there was a lot that was not to like.

A hint of the questions the project faced came in what was missing from the 1200-word county press release touting the event — the cost of the proposal, $144 million. That is $50 million more than the already-approved plan for a new central library less than a mile away in the Merriweather District.

Missing also was any public involvement in the process that led to the unveiling. There had been no hearings, no county requests for proposals, not a public murmur of what was to be. “I didn’t know about any of this,” complained County Council Member Liz Walsh, who became highly critical of the plan. 

Emerging details

The details of the plan slowly emerged in the weeks that followed in County Council’s hearings and work sessions on Ball’s capital budget and in research by citizen activists upset by the proposal.

What those council sessions and citizen digging uncovered was a process driven almost entirely by Columbia’s developer, the Howard Hughes Corp. and its subsidiary, Howard Research and Development, the original corporation set up by Jim Rouse and company in the 1960s to build Columbia.

It was Hughes through HRD that was donating the land. It was Hughes that paid $600,000 for the design concepts by London-based Heatherwick Studio, a firm that had never designed a library before. It was Hughes that the county was supposed to grant a sole-source contract to hire and oversee the architects and construction firms that would actually execute the plan, a process typically managed by the county itself.

Developing downtown   

There is inherent distrust of a large developer like Howard Hughes, as there was of the Rouse Co. before it, especially after the revered Jim Rouse left the company he founded in 1979. 

Hughes was given 30 years to develop the kind of vibrant urban core for Howard County that Rouse envisioned but finances kept his company from fulfilling. The Merriweather District has begun to create that mix of apartments, offices and restaurants that appeal to a new generation of residents. Some armchair architects and amateur planners, including elected officials, scowl at what Hughes has done, but developers in general build what the market wants on the land they own — not what sidewalk superintendents would like to see.

But Hughes cannot do just anything it wants. The overall downtown plan was hashed out with county officials and community engagement in 2010. Then individual projects must go through the usual planning and permitting process.

Some opponents of the new library plan maintain that what is proposed is so different that the downtown plan must be amended by the county council to comply.

Part of that original plan was a new central library underneath an apartment building in Merriweather. That more modest plan for a new central library was already in the works. The bids to build it were actually accepted four years ago. The winning bidder, Columbia’s Costello Construction, has built three downtown buildings including its lakefront headquarters, renovated the lakefront hotel it bought and owns much of the land that Hughes doesn’t. And yes, they’ve built libraries, including the airy Elkridge branch. Under the new Hughes proposal, Costello is cut out of the project.

Pros and cons

Library CEO Tonya Aikens is understandably enthusiastic about the lakefront library, calling it “a generational investment.” The previous plan was “very challenging” to the kind of programs she’d like to offer, with the same “constraints” as the current central branch. That building will eventually be torn down regardless due to new road construction and its longtime lack of parking.

According to Greg Fitchitt, the head of Hughes’ Columbia unit, the impetus for the big change came from his new boss, Jay Cross, who joined the company in late 2020. After touring Columbia, Cross “had a different idea of what [the library] should be,” Fitchitt told the council. He envisioned this public facility “right at the civic heart of this community …. It was really compelling to him.”

Having this “truly iconic library,” on the lakefront increases the appeal of Columbia’s downtown, increasing the value of the project, much as the Merriweather Post Pavilion, built at the very start of Columbia, increased the appeal of the new planned community. Based on his experience at Hudson Yards in New York City, Cross had also worked with Heatherwick on a major structure there.

David Costello of Costello Construction testifies at the Howard County Council hearing on the library (Howard County Council video)

Developer under fire

Fitchitt came under fire during two long sessions of tough questioning from the council, even from Council chair Christiana Rigby. She clearly liked the plan but had “a lot of questions about the garage,” and its $38 million cost, which was due to putting two stories underground, Fitchitt said.

Council member Deb Jung, who represents the West Columbia district that includes all of downtown Columbia, said, “I love the idea of the library on the lake … It’s a beautiful rendering. It’s an exciting building,” but “I don’t trust the numbers.” 

“How do we know that it will be $90 million in three years?” she asked, especially since Heatherwick has “a terrible reputation for consistently going over budget.” “All the projects we build in downtown Columbia are on budget,” Fitchitt responded. And another architect might actually do the detailed plans.

The county residents who attended a May 15 meeting held at the current central library to oppose the plan talked about unmet needs in the county. Some had little to do with spending on a library, such as long waiting times in the emergency room at the hospital and homelessness. But besides their objections to the lack of transparency, the common theme was the pressing needs of the school systems and the 250 trailers at the county’s 77 public schools. That’s where the money should be spent, they said, not on a fancy new library. 

Construction company owner David Costello acknowledged “we have a vested interest here,” but based on building libraries in Howard and Montgomery counties, he called the estimated cost of the lakefront library “astronomically expensive.” 

While he is also pursuing a lawsuit against Hughes on other issues, his proposal is simple.

“Let’s give the county the land and let’s build a library” with the usual bidding process, not the sole-sourcing to Hughes, which Fitchitt insists they must have in exchange for donating the land.

“Let’s do it the right way,” Costello said.