Nearly a year after Howard County Executive Calvin Ball announced plans for a new “iconic lakefront library” in Columbia, the project is essentially back to the drawing board.

Ball’s enthusiasm for the proposed $144 million state-of-the-art library wasn’t shared by all last year, with some complaining about a lack of transparency in developing plans for a tiered, glass-enclosed structure along Little Patuxent Parkway and overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi.

In response to concerns from residents and County Council members, county staffers identified four additional sites and began seeking public input. They are the existing Central Branch building on Little Patuxent Parkway, the former Lord & Taylor department store at The Mall in Columbia, a second lakefront location and a site in the Merriweather District.

“The community engagement process is only focused [on] location,” said Safa Hira, director of communications for the county, in an email.

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A rendering of the new library.
Howard County officials and Gov. Wes Moore in March 2023 announced plans to build a new 100,000-square-foot library overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi in Columbia. But after some residents called for a more open process, the county expanded the list of possible sites to five and began seeking public input. (Hallie Miller/The Baltimore Banner)

The county has been holding public meetings since last month on where to build a new library. A meeting is scheduled from 2 to 4 p.m. Thursday at Howard Community College’s Monteabaro Recital Hall. The county also plans to hold a public meeting from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the college’s Dwight A. Burrill Galleria and a virtual meeting starting at 6 p.m. on Thursday, March 21.

Residents can also fill out an online survey that asks them how often they visit the library, how they would rank the proposed sites, and if they think a new library is needed now or down the road.

Ball announced the new library last year with much fanfare, including an appearance by Gov. Wes Moore and a commitment of $10 million in state funds.

“The Lakefront Library project is for the people and will serve as a transformative civic and educational center for all in Howard County,” Ball said at the March 2023 announcement. “It will be a hub where education, the arts, and nature all converge to spark creativity, critical thinking, and community connections.”

That proposal for the lakefront library called for a 100,000-square-foot structure that included an auditorium, a literacy classroom, flexible community space and a digital lab. It would be twice as large as any current library building.

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Ball stressed last year that a new library has long been in downtown Columbia’s 30-year master plan. He said that his proposal would enable county officials to add mixed-income housing at a dedicated location in the Merriweather District, doubling the amount of affordable housing planned for the site.

While proposed libraries are typically not controversial, residents quickly pushed back on a project they felt they had little input on. Some voiced concerns about the process for selecting a development team.

The Howard Hughes Corp., the Texas-based real estate company that was tapped years ago to undertake the master plan, owns the land where Ball wanted to put the library. The company was named the library project’s developer without a competitive bidding process. Heatherwick Studio, the firm that designed the Vessel structure in New York City, created the eye-catching designs.

Some residents testified at a spring 2023 public hearing that the designer and developer stood to benefit more than the residents.

Shortly after Ball’s announcement, the County Council hit the brakes on the project. The county then identified additional sites for a new library that would replace the much smaller Central Branch that was built in the 1980s.

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Meanwhile, the council unanimously passed an amendment that locked in the $10 million from the state. The funds can be accessed in two sets of $5 million as long as the county holds a public engagement process, uses competitive bidding to pick a developer and meets other conditions, including documentation of an effort to find other sources of funding.

As for the new sites, Hira explained that the existing Central Branch is already in the county’s possession; the Lord & Taylor building is on the market, “making it worth exploring”; and the Merriweather District site was identified years ago as the new central library location “with Howard Hughes required to convey the land, so it was important to keep this location as an option,” Hira said.

The secondary lakefront site was identified to serve as a point of comparison with the initially proposed site.

The Governor, County Executive, and others take a photo after announcing a new Library will be built on the Columbia Waterfront, in Columbia, MD., on March 30, 2023.
Gov. Wes Moore, County Executive Calvin Ball and others pose for a photo announcing plans for a new lakefront library in Columbia on March 30, 2023. The county is now looking at five possible sites for the project.

Despite the launch of the public engagement process, some have voiced concerns on the county’s Facebook page that the project is a waste of taxpayer money. Howard County, they say, should be focused on better funding the school system and hospital.

The first public meeting about the five proposed locations drew about 50 residents, Hira said in an email.

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“There were separate stations set up for each of the potential sites, and all were actively visited, with residents making very thoughtful comments,” Hira said.

At each site station, residents received information about parking and “other pertinent information pertaining to that particular site,” Hira said.

Before leaving, residents were encouraged to visit the final feedback station to share their thoughts on their preferred library location and take a survey.

The county is hosting the community meetings with its project manager, Arcadis. This partnership isn’t new. For the new circuit courthouse, Arcadis worked as the project manager and developed the master plan options for the design and build.

At the conclusion of the community meetings, Arcadis will go through the feedback and present the results at a public meeting with the county administration and County Council

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