A proposal to build a massive $144 million library and garage on the lakefront in Columbia has raised legitimate concerns throughout the community. The lack of transparency surrounding the project unveiling is cause for alarm.
On May 15, community organizations came together to hold a town hall on the proposed Lakefront Library. Everyone who spoke was in support of libraries and especially expressed support for the Howard County Library System.
But community members who spoke also shared concerns about the proposal to demolish the existing library to make an exit ramp for Howard Hughes Corporation and build what some described as the “Pyramid at Lake Kittamaqundi” and the “Taj Garage” at the lakefront.
After engaging in a request for proposal process for the Merriweather location, the library system and Howard Hughes Corp. appear to have completely changed the plan without stakeholder engagement. In fact, many are not convinced that a new library needs to be built. The existing library is still in good shape, and much of the needed upgrades could be made for much less money, these community members say. Those who support a new library being built still have concerns about the large price tag and the extent to which Howard Hughes Corp. controls the project.
We ask, “Who will benefit from the proposal?” The proposal to move the library greatly benefits Howard Hughes Corp., so taxpayers should not be saddled with costs to accommodate a corporate entity’s needs. Accordingly, if Howard Hughes Corp. — a multibillion-dollar company — wants the existing library site for an exit ramp, then it should pay for all the costs associated with moving it, including new parking where their existing structures enormously benefit.
The very small amount of affordable housing associated with the library project can be accommodated without such a high-priced library. This issue begs the question: Where are 1,000 affordable units that Howard Hughes Corp. has previously promised? To date, only 24 have come online. Solving and addressing homelessness in Howard County would require just a fraction of the $144 million.
Tax increment financing revenue can be used for other projects in the county. Accordingly, the $80 million tax increment financing revenue should be used to meet Howard County’s many urgent needs: ballooning deferred maintenance of the school system, the declining level of school bus service, school classroom trailers and a shortage of teachers and counselors. The $144 million could go a long way to addressing these needs.
Lastly, Howard Hughes Corp. proposes to unilaterally amend the Development Rights and Responsibilities Agreement by changing the plans, budget and location of the central library, while it rejects the notion that the county can also make changes to the agreement. Based on the county solicitor’s advice, the county has declined to exercise its rights under that agreement.
This is extremely wasteful, as is shown in the parking garage plans. While standard parking garages cost anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000 per space, the proposed library garage, at $39 million for 500 spaces, would cost $78,000 per space.
Our community organizations urge the County Council and County Executive Calvin Ball to reconsider the proposed Lakefront Library project and to instead reallocate this large amount of taxpayer dollars to meet the immediate, pressing needs of our county.
Our organizations — the Howard County Citizens Association, HoCo Watchdogs, Indian Origin Network of Howard County, Our Revolution Howard County, Progressive Democrats of Howard County and The People’s Voice — represent a cross section of Columbia and Howard County residents. We ask the County Council to maintain strict oversight regarding the Development Rights and Responsibilities Agreement and amend it to put in place better accountability mechanisms to prevent Howard Hughes Corp. from making unilateral changes.
Hiruy Hadgu is president of the Progressive Democrats of Howard County and a Howard County Citizens Association board member.