Several Howard County civic groups and dozens of residents have spoken out against the development of a massive, $144 million library that’s planned for downtown Columbia’s lakefront.

Howard County Council members will vote on the county’s budget for the project, which includes $10 million in state funding, on Wednesday. If the first round of funding for the project is approved, the library will become the largest capital project in Howard County history funded with taxpayer dollars.

More than 50 locals gathered last week in Columbia’s Central Branch library, along with many more participants online, at a public hearing to voice their concerns. Chief among them were what some called the proposal’s lack of transparency, a sense that the county didn’t need a new library and the idea that the designer and developer stand to benefit more than residents. Since then, three of five County Council members proposed amendments to the project’s budget that would put more restrictions on how the funds could be spent.

The library, slated to be built at 10285 Little Patuxent Parkway along Lake Kittamaqundi, is expected to stand at 100,000 square feet and would be suited to host public speakers, author talks and other public events. It would have an auditorium, a literacy classroom, flexible community space and a digital lab, officials said when plans were announced in March. The new library would eventually replace the Howard County Library System’s Central Branch, a much smaller facility built in the 1980s and located about a quarter-mile from the lakefront site.

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Designs for the library were created by Heatherwick Studio, while the Howard Hughes Corp., which owns the land, will serve as the project’s developer. Howard Hughes was awarded a sole-source contract, meaning it was issued without a competitive bidding process.

“I love the idea of the library on the lakefront, but not the price tag or the nature of the sole-source contract. The concept is beautiful. But the price tag is too high,” said council member Deb Jung.

She and council member Liz Walsh co-sponsored an amendment that essentially moves all the money for the project into a contingency fund. This means “the money can’t be touched” because contingencies have to be discussed with the council before the money is released, Jung said.

Councilman David Yungmann proposed another amendment that suggests moving $7.5 million in state grant funding with $2.5 million to be “conditioned,” according to the bill’s text.

At last week’s public hearing, a number of residents expressed concerns about the cost of the project.

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“We think that fixing the existing library could be done for a much cheaper price than this $144 million price tag on the lakefront library proposal,” said Jake Burdett, co-chair of the progressive community group Our Revolution. “And then if we were to just renovate the existing library and scrap the lakefront library, what could all of that extra money from that $144 million be spent on instead?

Burdett and others said the funds could be better used to address maintenance issues and overcrowding in schools. They pointed to the reputation of the school system as a major draw to the county.

“Theres’s a disconnect here,” said Hillary Ogg, a Howard County school teacher and parent who loves libraries but doesn’t support the cost of the lakefront library proposal. “Teachers are trying to make use of what we have, and then to have a proposal like this presented. It just doesn’t add up. There are too many things that need to be fixed before something extra like this can be adopted.”

Initially, the county had planned for the new library to be part of the Merriweather District, a new mixed-use development less than a mile from the lakefront site and adjacent to the Merriweather Post Pavilion concert venue. But some residents said communication about the plans for the library had been lacking until Howard County Executive Calvin Ball and Gov. Wes Moore unveiled the new lakefront site on March 30. Ball’s office did not respond to questions about the project in time for this article.

Barb Krupiarz, the secretary of the political organization The People’s Voice, said that “everything about this proposed library has been done in secret.” She added that she and her husband had begun joining the online meetings for the the library system’s board after the announcement.

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“It was concerning to me that the library Board of Trustees didn’t vote on approving this project until two and a half weeks after the county executive presented the capital budget to the county council in April. And in past years they’ve approved their capital budget requests way in advance of the county executive presenting his budget,” she said.

In December, the Howard Hughes Corp. announced that ground had been broken for a four-story, $45.8 million medical office building on the same parcel where the lakefront library is expected to be. The company clarified Wednesday that the library will be located on the surface parking lot north of the Frank Gehry Whole Foods building, while the medical office building will be on the south side of Whole Foods.

Greg Fitchitt, president of Howard Hughes Corp., Columbia Region, said in a statement late Tuesday that the company is the successor to the Rouse Company, the original developer that planned the city of Columbia in the 1960s. Howard Hughes is committed to working with county and library system leaders to bring a “world-class amenity to the Lakefront,” he said.

“The vision for the library is to create a center for educational resources and a true community anchor, serving as a regional landmark and gathering place for all of Howard County,” Fitchitt said.

Fifty-year resident Dan Hajdo doesn’t see how the library being built downtown will serve students or the county’s overall library system. “All those things that are good about the new library are already served in the local branches,” he said. The lakefront location also isn’t close to any schools, he said.

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“This project should just be called the Howard Hughes Profit Branch,” said Hajdo. “This is their land and they want this to increase their profit margins by increasing their land value. And that’s not to say that the community couldn’t benefit by accident, but the problem is we’re paying for it.”

But Christie Lassen, director of communications and partnerships for the Howard County Library System, wrote in an emailed statement that “replacing the current Central Branch with a new, larger library has been a part of the Downtown Columbia Plan since it was unanimously adopted by the County Council in 2010.”

According to her, the Central Branch is “undersized for the current community, does not offer many of the rooms and spaces available in other branches, and is able to accommodate only a fraction of the programming and space needs that the community demands.” Once the new library is built, the current one will be demolished to make way for a road realignment and additional housing.

“Libraries are about bringing people together to share knowledge, learn from each other, and build community. The new Lakefront Library will have twice the space as the current Central Branch that will be used for early childhood education, teens, community meetings, Project Literacy (which currently has a waiting list of 40 to 90 people due to space constraints), and more,” Lassen added.

Still, some residents are skeptical of the county’s plans getting away from what they see as libraries’ primary function.

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“Libraries used to be just books; now it’s to provide information of all sorts. And our e-book collection stinks,” said resident Angie Boyter. “So if we’re talking about libraries, I’d say let’s forget about all the fancy buildings and be more worried about our services, which could be provided for a fraction of this [project’s] cost.”

Boyter, a retired chief of policy review and control for the contracting office of a U.S. defense agency and a former president of the Friends of the Howard County Library, said she has seen the way that the contracting has been handled. She’s distressed by the fact that it’s sole sourced, by the lack of public input and by the cost to build the new lakefront library compared to branches that have been built prior. “I would’ve been been fired if we performed this way,” she said.

This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Jake Burdett’s surname.

Penelope Blackwell is a Breaking News/Accountability reporter with The Banner. Previously, she covered local government in Durham, NC, for The News & Observer. She received her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Morgan State University and her master’s in journalism from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. 

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