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Howard Hughes' $144M Library Project In Maryland Threatened With Loss Of Public Funding

The Howard County Council is threatening to withhold $10M in public funds for a library project awarded to The Howard Hughes Corp. in Downtown Columbia unless the county puts the proposed development through a competitive bid process. 

A rendering of the library Howard Hughes planned in Downtown Columbia.

Legislators voted unanimously Wednesday to amend the county's capital budget to cut off the project's access to $10M in state funds unless County Executive Calvin Ball's administration meets their demands, which include providing legislators a summary of all design and building proposals and justifying to lawmakers the county’s eventual choice of project, developer and site.   

Residents and elected officials have ramped up criticism of the project's $144M price tag and the decision to award a sole-source development contract to Howard Hughes Corp., which owns the land along Lake Kittamaqundi where the library is envisioned. 

Council Member Deb Jung, who represents Columbia, told Bisnow Thursday she believes a project like what is being proposed at the new library building requires a “full and fair competitive process.”

If the county council hadn't taken this action, she said “it may have been a sole-source contract.”

Now that the project is going out to bid, the library's final location is uncertain. 

“I hope it’s on the lakefront," Jung said. "But either Howard Hughes would have to win the bid, sell or swap the property [for that to happen.]”

Jung disputed the claim that moving the library to the lakefront would increase the number of affordable housing units two- or threefold. That is because an existing development plan for the current library site already included building affordable housing units.

She said there is also another piece of county-owned land adjacent to the existing library. That land is also slated for the development of affordable units. Howard Hughes wants to swap that land with the county to build the new library on the lakefront.

“No, there will not be any loss of low-income or moderate-income apartments regardless of where the library is located," Jung said. 

Mark Miller, a spokesman for Howard County Executive Calvin Ball, told Bisnow Thursday that the $10M in state funds set aside for the library remained in the capital budget for the fiscal year starting July 1. 

The council voted to approve $5M for the library if Ball's administration abides by conditions such as opening the project to competitive bids, launching a public engagement process and reporting on the project's progress to the council by the end of 2024, Miller said. 

Additionally, the county council set aside another $5M in the county’s contingency fund, which Miller said the council could release later if the administration meets lawmakers' demands. 

"This funding will allow the county to continue work on the 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," Miller said in a statement.

Despite lawmakers' actions potentially scrapping Howard Hughes Corp.'s proposal for a lakefront library, Columbia Region President Greg Fitchitt said the company is "excited" by the decision.

While the council's vote on Wednesday means the county may approve a competing library proposal, it also leaves open the possibility of the county selecting Howard Hughes' plan if it wins the competitive bid process and the administration complies with the council's other requirements.    

"As the Community Developer of Downtown Columbia, we look forward to further working with the County, the Library system and the community as the project moves forward," Fitchitt said in a statement. 

The controversy over the library marks a sharp turn from an event in March when the county announced the project. Speakers including Ball, Fitchitt, Gov. Wes Moore,  and Howard County Council Chair Christina Rigby praised the proposed library's importance and potential.

A spokesperson for Howard Hughes Corp. didn't respond to a request for comment on this story. But when the library proposal was first announced, Fitchitt praised Howard Hughes Corp.’s collaborative approach to community development. The Texas-based company is redeveloping Downtown Columbia into three reconfigured neighborhoods with about 14M SF of residential, office, hotel, retail, cultural and public space. 

“As the community developer, we have always been committed to a collaborative planning approach to provide the very best spaces for all residents and visitors to our town," Fitchitt said in a March release. "We are more than thrilled ... to bring this incredible community anchor to the lakefront, in a way that brings even more affordable housing sooner to Downtown Columbia.”

Backers previously praised plans because moving the library from its current location in what is now known as the Merriweather District allowed Howard Hughes Corp. to double the affordable housing it could build in that neighborhood. 

“The proposed iconic lakefront library and Merriweather affordable housing will strengthen Howard County by fostering community engagement, supporting economic mobility and enhancing our quality of life,” Rigby, who voted to withhold funds this week, said in March.   

UPDATE, MAY 26, 10:40 A.M. ET: This story has been updated with new comments from Howard Hughes' Greg Fitchitt.