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Where will the Merriweather District kids go to school?

After the news broke last week about the pop-up hotel set to open in a portion of the Juniper building at The Merriweather District, a fierce debate broke out on the Howard County MD Facebook Group about the impact that the redevelopment on Downtown Columbia will have on our county.

We are currently at the 10 year mark of the 30-year Master Plan guiding the redevelopment of Downtown Columbia into, quoting directly from the plan itself, a

"diverse, mixed-use, livable, physically distinctive and human-scaled place with a range of housing choices and recreational, civic, cultural and educational amenities. These goals remain as relevant today as they were 40 [now 50] years ago, when Rouse first broke ground on Columbia. The planning challenge today is how best to complete Rouse’s vision of a “real city” by creating a vital Downtown Columbia in which residents can live, shop, work, entertain, exercise and enjoy cultural opportunities in an enriched natural setting.

As detailed in a fantastic 2018 feature in The Urban Land magazine, the ambitious plan for Columbia is approved to include about 14 million square feet of new downtown development, roughly half the size of downtown Baltimore, including an additional 5,500 market-rate residential units, 900 units of affordable housing, 4.3 million square feet of new office space, 1.3 million square feet of new retail space, 640 new hotel rooms, and new public parks and paths; all centered around one of the premier outdoor concert venues in the country.

In the 250 comments written in the Facebook discussion debating the redevelopment, people excited about the plan point to the benefits that a vibrant downtown will have on walkability, transit, sustainability, art, culture, restaurants, nightlife, community, and people. Those opposed to the redevelopment cited concerns about traffic, crime, developer greed, nostalgia for the past, affordability, but mostly about school capacity. Where will all these new children go to school?

Greg Fitchitt, regional president for the Howard Hughes Corporation, jumped into the Facebook conversation to offer some data. His post (excerpting only his points on schools):

Regarding school kids as it relates to Juniper and to Downtown Columbia, here are some facts, for those who are interested:
1. For school year 2019-2020, the total HCPSS enrollment from the 817 apartments most recently developed in Downtown Columbia (the Metropolitan, TEN.M and m.flats) was a total of 51 students (K-12), or 0.062 students per unit. This student generation rate has been consistently between 0.05 and 0.07 students per unit since the first new apartments were delivered in DTC in 2014. For elementary school kids, the rate in 2019-2020 was 0.035 students per unit.
2. This translates to about 6 total K-12 students per 100 apartments. While this number may strike some people as low, it is not surprising when you consider that most of the people renting the apartments in DTC are either young professionals who do not yet have kids, or empty nesters.
3. The student generation rate at Juniper should be similar. Juniper has a higher ratio of studios and 1 bedroom units than the Metropolitan and TEN.M.flats, which would suggest a lower rate, but it also includes 24 affordable units, which may yield a higher student generation rate.
4. Students in Downtown Columbia attend Running Brook Elementary, Wilde Lake Middle and Wilde Lake High. These students have been planned for and included in the school capacity projections since before the units were constructed. HCPSS projected the student generation rate conservatively for these units, at a rate of I believe about 0.15 students per unit, or 2x to 3x the actual student production.
5. Running Brook was projected at 90.7% of capacity for the 2019-2020 school year, Wilde Lake MS at 85.7%, and Wilde Lake HS at 94.2% of capacity.
6. In addition to school surcharge fees paid with new development and supplemental contributions for infrastructure, HHC last year contributed 3 school sites (32 acres total) worth $17,500,000 to HCPSS for free. The County has also designated a portion of the new property taxes generated by DTC development to fund $45,000,000 for construction of a new elementary school.

First, it's worth noting that that as part of the school redistricting approved by the HCPSS Board of Education in November, starting next year, the elementary school assignment for most of downtown Columbia, including the Merriweather District and all the apartments by the mall, will change from Running Brook Elementary to Bryant Woods Elementary. Bryant Woods has an excellent administration, is beloved by parents, and has an energetic teaching staff that boosts one of the highest teacher job satisfaction ratings in the county. It's the very first elementary school in Columbia, and also the smallest, with a capacity of just 361 seats and it's already overcrowded. The school currently operates at 125% utilization, and while school redistricting was projected to give the school slight relief (down to 112% utilization), due to redistricting exemptions and a recent influx of new students, capacity utilization may actually increase. Certainly, cramming all the elementary students living in and around downtown Columbia into the smallest school in the county is not a sustainable solution.

The data that Fitchitt presented regarding the small number of students anticipated to live in The Juniper makes sense. Most of the units in the Juniper will have only one or two bedrooms, and, other than the affordable units, I can't imagine many families spending the market rate of ~$3,500 a month for a 1,500 sqft 3 BR apartment.

Yet, on a macro-level, the downtown development will contribute to an increase in the county's population of children. Think about the empty nesters who move into the Juniper only after selling their single-family house to a young family with school-aged kids or the young professionals that first come to Columbia to work, live, and play in our cool new urban core and decide to stay to start a family of their own. My family is Exhibit A of a urban family who, upon deciding to leave the city for a suburban lifestyle, was attracted to Columbia, in part, because of the exciting development planned for downtown. Time will tell if my family is an anomaly or trend, but I'd wager that other families will see how the downtown development makes one of the best places to live in America even better, and be drawn towards the houses within close proximity to town center. Bottom line is that the creation of thousands of new housing units, thousands of new jobs, and a thriving vibrant downtown is going to increase our population, and that means an increase in the number of students, even if those children are not living in the new luxury apartments themselves.

But it's not just my idle speculation on the impact the downtown development will have on student growth; the 2019 HCPSS Feasibility Study accounts for planned development and new housing units in their forecast of student enrollment. The study projects average enrollment growth of ~1.2% per year over the next decade, which equates to 8,000 new students by 2030. The study also shows that student population exceeded school capacity in 2019, with that gap projected to continue to grow into the thousands until new capacity is added, as depicted in the following graph that BOE member Vicky Cutroneo has posted on her Facebook page.

To keep up with growth, additional school capacity needs to be built. The good news is that many school renovation and new construction projects are in the works or on the table:

  • Talbott Springs Elementary School is slated to be replaced in 2022,

  • Hammond High will be renovated.

  • The county's 13th High School is planned for Jessup.

  • Renovations and additions planned for Dunloggin MS, Ellicott Mills MS, Oakland Mills MS, and Centennial HS are included in the Feasibility study.

  • The Howard Hughes Corporation donated land in Clary's Forest, Dickinson Park, and Huntington Park to HCPSS's land bank for potential construction of elementary schools.

  • The land bank additionally includes sites at Hawthrone Park, Faulkner Ridge, and Marriottsville Road.

  • An additional site in Turf Valley is being acquired.

The redevelopment of our urban core is going to bring with it an increase in property tax revenue for our county, which is earmarked to support public infrastructure improvements including a new fire station ($30m), library ($40m), arts center ($20m), transit center ($9.5m), and a new elementary school ($45m), presumably at the Clary's Forest site. Additional funding for these school projects may also come from the $2.2 billion Maryland 'Built to Learn Act' legislation that just passed the Maryland House of Delegates and has the endorsement of Gov. Larry Hogan. If enacted, the legislation will provide $132 million to Howard County to build schools. The FY21 Board of Education's Capital Budget Request asks for $99 million next year, and an additional $409 million for the five-years thereafter to fund capital improvements to schools.

To conclude, the answer to ensuring that our schools have room for our students is not to oppose smart development; but rather to work collaboratively with all stakeholders to ensure that the schools necessary to support the growing population that comes with the creation of a dynamic new urban core are funded and built. Doing so will help ensure that all residents of Columbia, whether they have been here for 8 months, 50 years, or have yet to arrive, have a great place to live, work, play, and learn.



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