The Howard County Council added a competitive bidding process to access state funds for a new lakefront library in Columbia, a project for which the Howard Hughes Corp. had been selected.
County officials revealed plans for the new library in March and said they expected it to become the community’s crown jewel. At 100,000 square feet, the library will cost around $144 million and will include other amenities such as an auditorium, a literacy classroom and a digital lab, officials said.
The Howard Hughes Corp. was announced as the project’s developer and awarded a sole-source contract, meaning it was issued without a competitive bidding process, while Heatherwick Studio created the designs. The Howard Hughes Corp. owns the land on which the library is to be built.
But the council unanimously passed an amendment on Wednesday afternoon that now says the $10 million can only be used if there is a competitive bidding process for the site and building design, including the architecture and engineering.
In a Thursday statement, Greg Fitchitt, president of Howard Hughes Corp.’s Columbia region, said the company is “excited by by the Howard County Council’s unanimous decision to advance the Lakefront Library Project.”
“As the Community Developer of Downtown Columbia, we look forward to working with all of the stakeholders to achieve this transformative vision for the entire community,” he wrote.
Councilwoman Deb Jung, who said she has been concerned about the large cost and sole-source contract, framed the requirements as a way to “slow things down and make sure we’re doing this right,” as well as a way to “pursue a more reasonably priced project.”
The amendment requires that there be a “public engagement process” to hear suggestions and recommendations from residents, among other requirements, to access $5 million of the state funds.
Another $5 million goes into a contingency fund, which the council can release later in fiscal year 2024 if even more conditions are met, including documentation of an effort to find other sources of funding.
“This funding will allow the County to continue work on design for the Lakefront Library project and engage in discussions with the Howard County Library System, the County Council, county residents, and all external stakeholders to determine the potential changes that may be made to the project,” said Mark Miller, a spokesperson for the Howard County government.
The space will host speakers, author talks and other public events, according to the March announcement. Renderings of the site show splash pads and tall water fountains outside the glassy building, as well as courtyard space, patios and benches. Inside, the digital renderings include floor-to-ceiling windows, wooden floors and a large chandelier.
According to a breakdown of the project’s funding sources, $80 million will come from tax increment financing — a tool that allows developers to use property tax revenue to pay back government-backed bonds — set aside for downtown Columbia. Another $26 million will come from bonds from the county’s budget, $10 million from philanthropy, $20 million through state funding and $6 million through library-specific state grants, among other sources.
In a Wednesday statement, a spokesperson for the Howard County Library System said the organization “looks forward to continuing to engage our community around this project.” According to the statement, the library system began surveying people about the new branch in 2019, and also had listening and information sessions after the pandemic.
“Our goal has always been, and continues to be, to create the best spaces and learning experiences for our community,” the statement said.
Several Howard County civic groups and dozens of residents had previously spoken against the project, in part due to what they called a lack of transparency, with one person saying that “everything about this proposed library has been done in secret.”
Councilwoman Christiana Rigby said the amendments would help both the council and the public understand more details about the project, which can “really only be known through additional planning and exploration.”
Meanwhile, Councilman David Yungmann criticized those involved for essentially dropping a significant project “in our laps a couple weeks before budget, or as we’re getting a budget book,” he said.
“I don’t understand on what planet people think that all of the governing bodies responsible for these things can just take a rendering and a proposal and jump on board with a $140 million project,” Yungmann said. “In the future ... we need more collaboration, we need to know these things are coming.”
The council approved a $2.16 billion budget for fiscal year 2024 that includes $1.1 billion for the school system and an $8.6 million increase in funding for the Howard County Police Department.