The New Cultural Center is a go! Howard County Council approves funding

The Howard County Council voted 3-1-1 to approve funding for the New Cultural Center (NCC) during the Council legislative session on Monday evening January 4, 2021. The New Cultural Center project is an innovative mixed-use development that combines affordable housing and a new countywide arts and culture center in Downtown Columbia to be located on the current site of Toby's Dinner Theater. Councilmembers David Yungmann, Opel Jones, and Christiana Rigby voted to approve funding. Councilmember Deb Jung abstained. Councilmember Liz Walsh was the one dissenting vote.


The NCC will become a centerpiece in Downtown Columbia's burgeoning Arts and Culture scene. The NCC will includes a new 340-seat theater and commercial kitchen, two 300-seat black box theaters, a gallery, dance studios, and various classrooms/performing arts rooms. Under the plan, Toby’s Dinner Theater will merge with the Columbia Center for the Theatrical Arts (CCTA) and rent the main theater, commercial kitchen, a dance studio and various classrooms. CCTA will also rent one of the black box theaters to serve as a new Children’s Theater in Howard County. The County’s Department of Recreation and Parks (DRP) will use the additional black box theater, dance studio, and classrooms to enhance County-sponsored programs in arts and culture.


174 housing units will be located above the NCC, of which 87 will be affordable units, enabling community members and artists not just to visit and perform at the NCC, but live there as well.


County Executive Calvin Ball issued the following statement. “We have worked for many years to get to this point and create a first-class art and culture center for Howard County that will spur people’s love of art and theater and will be accessible to all residents,” said Howard County Executive Calvin Ball. “The contributions that organizations like Columbia Center for the Theatrical Arts (CCTA), Toby’s Dinner Theatre, and Recreation and Parks have historically made to all residents of our community will continue in the new center. Additionally, it will be a vital component of the Downtown Columbia Plan and an important element in expanding affordable housing in the area. Thank you to the many partners who have advocated for this project and helped get us over the finish line – including former County Executives Ulman and Kittleman who each carried this project through critical steps. We’re very grateful to Council Members Jones, Mercer Rigby, and Yungmann for their support and approval of this historic project. We can now focus on next steps to see the center come to life.”


The vote comes on the heels of a new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that codifies many of the terms of the deal that has been agreed to between The Howard County Government, CCTA, and the Howard County Housing Commission. Revisions to this MOU have been made as recently as today.


During the vote, members of the Council explained the reason for their votes. Councilmember Jung cited that the revisions to the agreement are different from the original terms that she had helped to draft and negotiate, and too many unanswered questions remain. Nonetheless, citing the desperate need for more affordable housing in Howard County, Jung could not vote against the project and therefore abstained. Walsh stated her reason for voting against the project was because the structure of the deal shifted all the risk to the county while the profit centers remained with the private sector. David Yungmann, together with Jung, spent much of the last 6 months negotiating terms to the deals and he felt that the terms of the project have improved significantly since April, leading to his yes vote. Rigby and Jones have supported this project from the beginning and both voted yes.


Funding for the project will comprise of $63 million in low-income housing tax credits to fund the housing component of the project that has been awarded from the state of Maryland through a highly competitive process. With this vote, the balance of the project, $54.6 million, will be provided by the county through bond financing. Rent payments from the principal tenants to the County will finance the debt service on the County bonds.


Below is the official news release from Howard County Government:


Transformative Cultural Center for Downtown Columbia Approved 

The New Cultural Center will be the new home for Toby’s Dinner Theatre and 87 affordable housing units 

ELLICOTT CITY, MD – The Howard County Council has finalized funding for a transformative first-class New Cultural Center (NCC) in Downtown Columbia. This exciting project has been in development for more than a decade and will finally be realized, building upon the vision of Jim Rouse. The NCC will serve as the County’s new hub for arts and culture, including a new home for the iconic Toby’s Dinner Theatre, engaging arts programming, and affordable housing units. 

“We have worked for many years to get to this point and create a first-class art and culture center for Howard County that will spur people’s love of art and theater and will be accessible to all residents,” said Howard County Executive Calvin Ball. “The contributions that organizations like Columbia Center for the Theatrical Arts (CCTA), Toby’s Dinner Theatre, and Recreation and Parks have historically made to all residents of our community will continue in the new center. Additionally, it will be a vital component of the Downtown Columbia Plan and an important element in expanding affordable housing in the area. Thank you to the many partners who have advocated for this project and helped get us over the finish line - including former County Executives Ulman and Kittleman who each carried this project through critical steps. We’re very grateful to Council Members Jones, Rigby, and Yungmann for their support and approval of this historic project. We can now focus on next steps to see the center come to life.”

The NCC will be the first of five low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) developments, which is a critical component of the Downtown Columbia affordable housing plan as reflected in the Development Rights and Responsibilities Agreement (DRRA) passed by the County Council in 2016. This funding from the Howard County Council allows the construction of the NCC to begin this Summer and be completed by the Fall of 2024.

“Moving forward with this project means that families of all economic backgrounds have the opportunity to not only enjoy the Downtown Columbia area, but live there as well,” said Councilwoman Christiana Rigby. “I am looking forward to the day when our community can celebrate the arts and honor our collective humanity together at the New Cultural Center.”

"I'm ecstatic that this project is finally coming to fruition! The New Cultural Center will provide a wealth of resources for residents and will offer much needed affordable housing – all that is well over due,” said Councilmember Opel Jones.

“This is a great day for the arts and workforce housing in Howard County,” said former Howard County Executive Ken Ulman. “The New Cultural Center builds on the foundation we laid ten years ago and is central to the future of Downtown Columbia. As James Rouse said, ‘cities must be fun,’ and this progress will not only spur economic development but is what our community expects and deserves. Thank you to County Executive Ball for seeing this project through.”

The NCC will be located on the current site of Toby’s Dinner Theater, which was also contemplated in the Downtown Columbia Plan. The design includes a new 350-seat theater and commercial kitchen, two 300-seat blackbox theaters, a gallery, dance studios, and various classrooms/performing arts rooms. Toby’s Dinner Theater will merge with the Columbia Center for the Theatrical Arts (CCTA) and rent the main theater, commercial kitchen, a dance studio and various classrooms. CCTA will also rent one of the blackbox theaters to serve as the new Children’s Theater in Howard County. 

“I can’t believe it - I’m so excited,” said Toby Orenstein. “I want to thank everyone who worked so hard to make this possible. This theatre will be for everyone – for adults and kids, we won’t disappoint the people of Columbia.”

The County’s Department of Recreation & Parks (DRP) will use the additional blackbox theater, dance studio, and classrooms to enhance County-sponsored programs in arts and culture. The Howard County Arts Council will curate the gallery space.

"This location will allow the arts to be more easily accessible by Howard County residents and it will enable our department to better execute a broad and engaging Cultural Arts Plan,” said Raul Delerme, Director of Howard County Recreation & Parks. “Among the opportunities we envision are gallery exhibits, teaching arts classrooms, an area for arts lectures, visual and digital arts programs, and a space for varied dance classes. All of these will provide significant opportunities and benefits for our residents.”

A countywide arts and culture center in Downtown Columbia was envisioned by the community over 10 years ago and was ultimately incorporated into the Downtown Columbia Plan. The vision for the center evolved further in 2016 when it was included in the affordable housing plan for Downtown Columbia as one of the public amenities that would also provide mixed-income housing. 

The Columbia Downtown Housing Corporation looks forward to the groundbreaking for NCC and Artists Flats this summer,” said Chair of the Columbia Downtown Housing Corporation Pat Sylvester. “We appreciate the tireless efforts of the many partners who brought us to this point, including our summer NCC workgroup members, the Housing Affordability Coalition and PATH. We remain committed to working with the county and all our partners to achieve the full vision of the Downtown Plan and creating a place all of us can call home.”

The total cost of the project, including the affordable housing component, is estimated at $131 million. The Howard County Council approved the $55 million in general obligation bonds necessary to move the project forward. There is also $65 million for the housing component in secured tax credits from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development and other sources. And finally, an additional $10 million of TIF bonds for the parking garage component of the project.

“Now more than ever, Howard County needs high quality housing that is affordable to a broad range of residents so that individuals and families can build their lives from a stable base,” said Howard County Housing Commission Executive Director Peter Engel. “The COVID pandemic has hit low and moderate wage earners much harder than the rest of the population. Artists Flats will be our first big effort in downtown to create the equitable housing plan that is envisioned for Columbia. The Housing Commission is grateful to the County Executive and the Council for maintaining the vision for housing affordability and backing the Commission’s efforts to bring that vision to reality.”

NCC Timeline

Assumes Approval of Funding in January 2021

· Summer 2021 – Land sale occurs, construction of main theater and parking garage begins

· Fall 2022 – Construction of main theater completed; original Toby’s Dinner Theater closes, and it moves into new space

· Winter 2023 – Construction begins on balance of New Cultural Center

· Fall 2023 – Construction of residential begins

· Summer 2024 – Construction of New Cultural Center completed

· Fall 2024 – construction of housing and parking garage completed

· Dec. 2024 – LIHTC deadline met

FURTHER READING - PRIOR THE MERRIWEATHER POST ARTICLES ON NCC

Realizing Toby's Dream: The "Coming Together" of Arts & Housing in Downtown Columbia, July 9, 2020

TIF, LIHTC, and GO: Notes from the 9/14 Council Meeting on the New Cultural Center, September 23, 2020


DISPELLING MYTHS ABOUT THE NCC

PART 1 : Clearing Up Misconceptions, November 10, 2020

PART 2: Concentration of Affordable Housing, November 11, 2020

PART 3: New Housing or New Schools, November 16, 2020

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