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June 2023 Downtown Development News Roundup


There are a number of local stories that I have been following that have been deserving of a long-form investigation and analysis in typical The Merriweather Post style, but given my busy schedule of late, I have been unable to give these stories the attention I would otherwise like. Instead, I’ve compiled this article that provides a brief overview and some thoughts on a number of Downtown Development stories I have been following.


HoCo By Design before the Howard County Council

The Howard County General Plan is a big deal. It establishes a long-range policy framework that will guide land use, growth, and development decisions in Howard County over the next 20 years. It specifies the type, location, and amount of new housing and development that will be added to the County over the coming decades and includes provisions regarding affordable housing, accessory dwelling units, “missing middle” housing, transit-oriented development, adequate public facilities ordinance, Columbia village centers, the redevelopment of the Gateway office park, and much more.


After a multi-year, iterative process developing the plan, the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning has sent a draft 2040 general plan, dubbed HoCo By Design, to the County Council for approval. This is the part of the process where the rubber hits the road, as the Council must approve and adopt the plan to make it official. The Howard County Council has now turned its attention to this responsibility and has scheduled worksessions and public testimony sessions over the summer to consider the plan. The first public feedback session was held on Wednesday June 14 and a great number of organizations and individuals provided feedback. While some individuals provided testimony in opposition to the plan, they were outnumbered by supporters. Over 25 organization and individuals spoke in support of the General Plan and encouraged the adoption of specific provisions including expanding housing supply to keep pace with job creatinine the County, adopting the recommendations from the Housing Opportunities Master Plan to increase housing affordable, taking steps to de-concentrating low-income neighborhoods, redeveloping Gateway into a mix-use community, and increase transit-oriented development. You can watch the June 14 public hearing here.


The next opportunity for public testimony is July 19. Sign up is available now.


The New Cultural Center, an update

The New Cultural Center is slated to combine an arts and culture center (including a newly built home for Toby's Dinner Theater) with mixed-income housing development above it.

Funding for the The New Cultural Center was approved by the County Council in January 2021 with plans to begin construction 2 years ago but the project has been delayed due to increased construction costs. The New Cultural Center (excluding the housing component), was originally estimated to cost ~$65 million when the Council appropriated funding for it in early 2021, but the original design for the building is now estimated to cost north of ~$85 million to construct, a ~31% increase, which is typical of increases seen across the real estate industry over the past 2 years.


Updates regarding the new cultural center were provided during the County Council's April 26 Capital Budget worksession. Instead of seeking new revenue sources to close the funding gap on the original design, the County has been in process of redesigning the cultural center to reduce its cost so it can be built using approved funding. Originally designed to house the arts and cultural center on the first two floors, the NCC plan is being revised to contain Toby's dinner theater and its commercial kitchen, 2 blackbox theaters, an art gallery and classroom space on a single level. The scaled back plan would eliminate certain elements from the original plan, including an expansive 2-level lobby with staircase and the "fishbowl" dance studio above the NCC entrance that is prominent in renderings. In total, the cultural center would be reduced in size by approximately ~33%.

A rendering of the original design plan for the NCC. This design is being revised to reduce costs.

The housing component (Artist Flats), comprised of 174 mixed-income units, would be unaffected by these changes and had it not been for the delay in the new cultural center, this mixed-income housing aspect could have proceeded on schedule. This illustrates the added complexity caused by combining a public amenity and housing, each with their own financing sources.


At this point, all indications I have seen state that the NCC groundbreaking is slated for early 2024.


The Battle over Lakefront North

The legal battle between IMH Columbia (an entity of local construction company Costello Construction) and Howard Hughes Corporation over the Lakefront North area began in Howard County Circuit Court this month. Court proceedings have been ongoing this summer and are scheduled through mid September.


The subject of the lawsuit is a 6-acre site on the banks of Lake Kittamaqundi where the vacant and dilapidated Cross Keys Inn currently sits. IMH purchased this parcel in 2017, which also contains the Marriott Lakefront Hotel, and having renovated the hotel, IMH is now hoping to transform the vacant inn into mixed-use commercial and residential. Howard Hughes Corporation is attempting to halt their rival developer's plans by asserting covenants they acquired from their purchase of Howard Research and Development (the entity originally created by the Rouse Company to oversee and control the initial development of Columbia) give them control over other property in Columbia. IHM contends that now-deceased Howard Hughes executive John DeWolf had already granted IHM approval. IMH is suing Howard Hughes citing they are improperly applying the outdated covenents.

A marked up map I created showing property owners at the Lakefront. Green = Howard Hughes, Red = IMH

Meanwhile, Howard Hughes Corporation's Lakefront North development that is adjacent to the IMH property is moving forward. The site development plan for the initial phase of Lakefront North, which will add 701 residential units (including 77 affordable units) and 19,013 sqft of retail, was approved by the Howard County Planning Board during their June 1, 2023 meeting. While the Planning Board responsibility is limited to determining whether the development plans for the parcel in question are permitted in accordance with allowable uses for this parcel per New Town Zoning, issues related to the IMH property were presented in the testimony provided by IMH investors David Costello (President and CEO and Costello Construction), Brad Canfield (Operator of Merriweather Post Pavilion), Richard Talkin (founder of land-use law firm Talkin & Oh), and Kingdon Gould III ( DC developer and co-owner of the Lakefront Kincade Office Building) during the April 10, 2023 planning board meeting. The testimony provided a fascinating look into the battle, relationships, and animosity between several local multi-millionaires and a billion-dollar corporation over the development of one of the few parcels of developable land in Downtown Columbia that is not owned by Howard Hughes Corporation.


For my two cents, I'm encouraged by and supportive of Howard Hugh's plans for Lakefront North, but also would also like to see the IHM site developed into something that provides community value and makes better use of this prime location than letting a old vacant inn continue to sit on the site. By attempting to block a rival developers plans, the lawsuit also exemplifies HHC's business strategy of maintaining monopoly-like power over cities by controlling the supply of commercial space and preventing other developers from offering competing commercial spaces. While you can't fault HHC for attempting to exercise legal rights to protect their own profit, I think HHC's actions could negatively impact the affordability of living or doing business in Downtown Columbia. Having a separate business also leasing retail and residential space that competes with HHC for prospective tenants could provide a check on the cost of leasing space in Downtown Columbia, which is good for both the businesses looking to lease space in Columbia and the housing affordability for renters, but bad for HHC's bottom-line. It is also worth noting that the ruling in this lawsuit may have broader implications outside this particular parcel, as the ruling could also impact HHC's ability to enforce covenants to prevent redevelopment of other parcels elsewhere in Columbia, including village centers.


For more on the lawsuit, the Baltimore Business Journal did a more thorough detailed write-up: Downtown Columbia developers locked in lawsuit over Lakefront site, May 10, 2023. To view court records, search case record C-13-CV-22-000212.


Street Names in Lakefront North

The 3 new streets being added to Lakefront North now have street names. Rustling Sky Way, Singing Stone Terrace and Distant Star Lane. The names are inspired by the work of the late Lucille Clifton, who was Maryland Poet Laureate from 1979-1985 and a Columbia resident. See the press release below for more information.

Quick Hits

  • Greg Fitchett of Howard Hughes Corporation gave an excellent presentation to the Columbia Association Board of Directors during the June 8, 2023 meeting in which he provided an overview of the history, status, and future plans for Downtown Columbia. I highly recommend watching it if you want a better understanding of the Downtown Columbia plan and all that Howard Hughes plans to build.

  • Blackwall Barn and Lodge is slated to be the next restaurant to open in the Merriweather District. Greg Fitchett revealed during his CA presentation that they are aiming for a late summer opening.

  • The Collective Offshore outdoor patio is now open and the restaurant has expanded hours to include lunch service starting at 11:30 am daily. If you haven't been yet, what are you waiting for?! It's great!

  • The plans for Bark Social, the hybrid dog park/bar, coming to Downtown Columbia went before the Planning Board earlier this month. If you want a better understanding of the planned design and concept, you can watch a recording of the June 15 planning board meeting.

  • It's a great weekend of summer music at Merriweather Post Pavilion for us forty-something rock fans who came of age in the 1990s! Weezer last night was fantastic. Dave Matthew Band tonight. Watching bands I love perform in our communal backyard is one of the things that make living in Columbia so special!

  • The Lakefront Library is moving forward. The County Council joined together to unanimously approve a FY24 Capital Budget that permits $5 million of state funding to be used to advance planning and design this fiscal year, and provide additional opportunities for public feedback. The Baltimore Fishbowl did a great job recapping the story. Planning for Columbia lakefront library will move forward, with more public input, May 26, 2023, Baltimore Fishbowl.

  • District 4 Councilmember Deb Jung's recent newsletter included incorrect and inflammatory information about the "Jug Handle" off-ramp that will be built from US-29 into the Merriweather District, stating that the exit ramp would be located at the site of the current Library central branch and will block the ability to walk or bike between Merriweather District and the Lakefront. Both statements are wrong. The Jug-Handle off-ramp will end in the Merriweather District at the intersection of Merriweather Drive and Symphony Woods Road. Also, the changes on and alongside Symphony Woods road should create opportunities to improve bike and pedestrian connections between Merriweather District and the Lakefront over the current round-about route. She also fails to mention all the the additional affordable housing units being added to the Merriweather District now that the new central library branch is being added to the Lakefront. I get that Ms. Jung represents the interests of a constituency of voters who are generally opposed to growth and development, but as the councilmember representative of Downtown Columbia residents, she has the responsibility to at least provide factual information to the public.

Councilmember Deb Jung's Latest Newsletter

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HHC is acting like a bully here, just like they did with the DRRA There is little "affordable" housing being built at HHC's properties. Unlike all other developers in the county, HHC is only being required to put in 5% MIHUs (80% Howard County AMI) --eg 24 affordable units in Juniper and 30 in Marlow out of 400 to 500 units each. All other Howard County developers have to put in at least 10% (with offset payments), or 15%, or 20% depending on the zoning and type of housing. This is not a level playing field. Plus they got 900 bonus units of housing for pushing off building truly affordable housing (60% Baltimore MSA AMI) on others'--mainly Howard County-owned land--property…

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Do you have any plans of the offramp proposal? I did reply to Deb's office asking about this, but have not heard back.

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Thank you for this very informative article. I don’t understand why the Howard Hughes Corporation is able to maintain a monopoly - blocking Costello Construction from creating a viable mixed use development that will enhance the area of the old original hotel, currently an eyesore . David Costello is a visionary who has enhanced the lakefront with his mixed use Merriweather property and the new Merriweather Autograph hotel. What Costello Construction is proposing will help offset the costs the new proposed affordable housing by creating a tax generating high quality mixed use opportunity.

Lisa S. Price

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"two cents" 😉

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Good article, btw🙂

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