Howard County Council Chair Christiana Rigby supports the proposed lakefront library project.
Howard County Council Chair Christiana Rigby supports the proposed lakefront library project.

As the Howard County Council digs into the county executive’s proposed budget for the coming year, some Howard County Council members are embracing a signature project: an iconic new library right on downtown Columbia’s lakefront.

According to Council Chair Christiana Rigby, over 90 percent of Howard County residents have and use their library card.

“To say it is one of the most used institutions in the county is, I would say, an understatement,” she said.

She notes that a waterfront library was in the original 1960s plan for the creation of Columbia, Maryland by legendary community builder Jim Rouse.

A library at Lake Kittamaqundi in Columbia had been part of builder James Rouse’s original design of the planned community.

But some council members are raising questions as they dig into details during budget hearings. A 500-space public garage is estimated to cost $39 million out of the $144 million overall cost for the project. One council member compared the garage to the Taj Mahal in India during a recent hearing on the library proposal.

“My biggest concern is really the garage,” said Council Vice Chair Deb Jung, who represents District 4, which includes the lakefront, at a recent budget work session. She said the garage was “way overbuilt, way overpriced.”

Jung said that based on her research, parking spaces should cost anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000 each. The proposed library garage would cost around $78,000 per space. She also noted that the garage for Columbia’s proposed new cultural center was anticipated to cost $13.8 million for 468 parking spaces, or around $28,000 per parking space.

In responding to Jung’s inquiries on parking costs, Greg Fitchitt, president of the Columbia region of the Howard Hughes Corporation, which is developing much of downtown Columbia, noted that much of the garage would be below ground.

“Underground parking is the most expensive kind of parking that you can build,” he said. “From a planning and aesthetic perspective, the best place to put it is underground, so you don’t see it,” Fitchett explained. ”It’s also a cast-in-place, or poured-in-place structure, which is more expensive. But that’s the structural requirement for the kind of building that is being proposed.”

The Howard Hughes Corp. is providing the land for the proposed library and garage. Fitchitt told councilmembers that his firm was not able to publicly disclose the appraised value of the waterfront lot, but that it was provided internally to the county council. Cushman & Wakefield, the firm that conducted the appraisal, made that part of the terms of doing the review in a short amount of time, Fitchett said.

David Yungmann, the sole Republican on the council, representing District 5, expressed reservations about the library project in an email to the Fishbowl.

He is concerned about the amount and use of tax increment financing for the project – a funding source based on the overall increase in property value with the Downtown Columbia footprint being built out by Howard Hughes.

“The project as proposed is a bloated waste of space that overwhelms the existing buildings that are proposed to remain in place,” Yungmann said in his email last week. “Suffice to say, I have lots of reservations.”

He proposed combining the lakefront space with other arts and culture spaces proposed for downtown.

“While I am far from willing to approve this project,” he wrote, “I’m open to modifications that could make it more palatable.”

Opel Jones, the District 2 representative, remains bullish on the proposal. Like Howard County Executive Calvin Ball and Gov. Wes Moore, who attended the library proposal’s unveiling, Jones sees the new library as essential progress.

“My feelings are that it is an amazing plan,” he said in an interview this weekend. “I’m very happy to support it. I think it will be one of the best, if not, the best, library systems in the entire United States.”

A new library in downtown Columbia has long been a component of the Downtown Columbia Plan, which was approved by the Council in 2010 and updated in 2016, to replace the aging Central Branch of the system. A different site had previously been identified for the library, but many community leaders as well as Howard Hughes are rallying around the lakefront location. The company enlisted Heatherwick Studio, known for the Vessel in New York City and other notable buildings, to draw the dramatic design.

Howard County Library System President and CEO Tanya Aikens agrees having a new library on the waterfront would be progress. She noted costs could come down on the project as the design is refined.

In addition to all the new learning spaces and programming, she wrote in an email Monday, the library will include the only public parking spaces and public restrooms on the lakefront.

“It most definitely is an example of progress,” she wrote. “Placing this beautiful new library next to the jewel of our community, the lakefront, underlines the importance of having a place that is welcoming to all in an environment that has historically represented those values.”

She also noted if the library doesn’t get built on that site, the lot was previously approved for a 15-story office building. So, she believes, this is a unique opportunity for Howard County to claim this prominent space for the public.

Right now, final approval for the project is uncertain. While Jones and Rigby appear supportive, Yungmann and Jung remain skeptical. Council Member Walsh of District 1 did not provide a response to press inquiries.

Supporters of the project have noted that for the coming fiscal year, the only spending on the project would come from a $10 million state grant that would be used to refine design and planning, and no county funds would be immediately used. Of the estimated total cost, $26 million would come from county general obligation bonds.

Council members could place conditions on the plan, or negotiate for other changes. Budget amendments are expected to be prefiled this Friday. The budget itself is likely to be voted on as early as May 24.

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