A rendering shows the planned 100,000-square-foot library and affordable housing project in downtown Columbia. Rendering courtesy of Heatherwick Studios.
A rendering shows the planned 100,000-square-foot library and affordable housing project in downtown Columbia. Rendering courtesy of Heatherwick Studios.

Plans for a signature glass-fronted lakefront library in Downtown Columbia will receive more analysis, and more public input, under a compromise reached by the Howard County Council this week.

Instead of full approval to a multi-year commitment for $144 million project that would be built with a combination of state, county and donated funds, the council agreed to a pause of sorts: Up to $10 million in state grants could be spent over the next year on planning and design for the civic building.

At the same time, Howard County will undertake a robust public engagement process to examine the merits of the project and its components, as well as potential alterations and alternatives.

The five-member council unanimously approved a set of conditions on the project during its final vote on the county executive’s FY24 budget earlier this week. The library project received significant criticism from some vocal community members and several council members for its cost and the relative speed with which it was moving ahead. That project, plus debates over school funding and a commitment to more affordable housing in the county, received the most debate during the annual budget process.

Overall, County Executive Calvin Ball’s $2.1 billion operating budget contains a record $1.1 billion for the Howard County Public School System, with $71.6 million more than the minimum Maintenance of Effort standard required by the state.

Some council members said they were concerned about the criticisms leveled at the library project – and that the project did not receive the full authorization as proposed. “I’m disappointed that the message got lost in looking at the price tag and not looking at the details,” said Councilmember Opel Jones. “When you get down to the nitty gritty, it was about $100 million dollars of county money that would be spent, with the other amounts being covered by state and other grants.”

Jones said the proposed library would be “one of the gems in the county,” and also chided council members who, with a handful of citizens, he said, could have potentially “stonewalled” the entire project.

A Wednesday voting session to approve the budget was delayed by more than an hour as council members negotiated with the executive branch and other stakeholders to develop an agreeable path to move the project ahead. Among the conditions set in budget amendments:

  • Minority business enterprises should be prioritized throughout the project;
  • An expanded public engagement effort is undertaken;
  • A competitive bidding process is undertaken for the project design and construction;
  • The Council will be updated on all design proposals;
  • The Council will receive an update on the possibility of combining the new cultural center and arts council activities into the site; and
  • Howard Hughes Corporation, which is the community developer for Downtown Columbia and the owner of the site, will explore ways it can fulfill its obligations to tenants without using library garage parking.

Under the consensus agreement, the county executive’s office will meet with the council no later than January 31, 2024 to provide project updates.

The library project was announced as part of Howard County County Executive Calvin Ball’s 2024 budget in late March. The event was a cause for considerable attention as both newly installed Maryland Governor Wes Moore and Ball were lauding the lakefront library as a sign of progress.

“This county moves fast,” Governor Moore said. “This county moves bold. This county sees everybody.”

But the proposal soon ran into headwinds over the the $144 million price tag, and the 500-space library garage, which council critics estimated had a per-space price tag of $78,000, twice the cost of construction of other garages, including Columbia’s proposed new cultural center.

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.

Some proponents of the original proposal, including the county executive’s office, were quick to acknowledge the unanimous vote to move ahead the library got Wednesday

“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,” Mark Miller, a spokesman for the County Executive’s Office, said in an email.

And Howard County Council Chair Christiana Rigby is enthusiastic on the library proposal, but she recognized concerns of fellow members in a previous recorded budget meeting. In an email to Fishbowl, she wrote:

“For a project of this magnitude, it’s completely appropriate for there to be more opportunity for more discussion and public engagement, in addition to the opportunities available during the legislative process. It’s also a great opportunity for the community to learn more about what our incredible library offers, and share in creating this vision of downtown Columbia.”

Councilmember Deb Jung, who represents the area containing the project, said during the vote that she supports a library at the lakefront location, and wants to ensure that community questions are fully answered. Her colleague, Councilmember Liz Walsh, praised Jung for helping pull together a compromise that received unanimous support.

The county library system’s president and CEO, Tonya Aikens, was also looking forward to next steps.

“We thank County Executive Ball and the county council for unanimously approved funds in support of the lakefront library,” she said in an email. “We look forward to partnering with them, the community developer, and other stakeholders, as well as further engaging the community.”

On Thursday, the library system released a fuller statement that added: “We look forward to hearing more from our residents as we collaborate to create the best spaces and learning experiences for our community and have already scheduled new listening and engagement sessions as part of this process. Since the Lakefront Library project was announced, we have received feedback from approximately 2,000 people. Over the next few months, we hope to build on these engagement efforts and to capture the vision of the community for this future downtown HCLS branch to better serve the growing needs of
our residents.”

Greg Fitchitt, president of the Columbia region of Howard Hughes Corporation, wrote the company was “excited” about the funding commitment and working with stakeholders on the project.

Fitchitt added, “While we do have approval to move forward with the 15 story mixed-use proposal for the lakefront site, which was approved by the Howard County Planning Board in 2018, we are committed to working with the County, the Library System, and other community stakeholders to bring the vision of the Lakefront Library to life.”

“I’m just happy that the library is going forward,” said Jones, the council member, adding that he believes all questions can be answered to satisfy the conditions set for releasing funds. “We’ll do our due diligence to have whatever meetings, or whatever question-and-answer periods that we need to get the money out of contingency, and get the library going full steam ahead.”

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  1. Much like when the Washington Post states when reporting on Amazon that the paper is owned by Jeff Bezos, I would suggest the Baltimore Fishbowl also post a disclaimer when reporting on projects where your co-owner, Ken Ulman, is involved. But since you didn’t, I’ll provide the background: As stated in the County Council hearings on this matter, Mr. Ulman’s Margrave Strategies is being paid a consulting fee by Howard Hughes in relationship to the Lakefront Library project. The success of the project is directly related to Mr. Ulman’s company’s success. As with much of this project that was conducted in secret over the past year, a little more transparency would be appreciated.

    1. You are right, Ken Ulman is an investor. He owns only 6 percent of Baltimore Fishbowl and has nothing to do with the running or operating of the website. But you are right, it should be disclosed, and I am glad you have done so. I am the majority owner of Baltimore Fishbowl.

    2. Ms. Dunn, thank you for replying and for creating this website given the virtual news desert when it comes to actual reporting on Howard County. I still have concerns when Mr. Ulman makes statements such as this when he was first announced as an investor:

      “‘I look forward to connecting Fishbowl’s readers with the thought and business leaders throughout the region,’ Ulman said in a statement.”

      To me, that sounds like it’s more than simply an investor and implies involvement in bringing in contacts such as those from Howard Hughes to promote their views an article such as this, a function that aligns with what a company like Margrave Strategies does. Given the vague response from Howard Hughes’s Greg Fitchitt at the Council hearings about what Mr. Ulman’s involvement in the library project is, this is the kind of “connect your own dots” result that will occur. However, I will take your word that this did not occur and appreciate your response.

  2. I understand this library will have a makers section. I would like to suggest a longarm quilting machine for it, because few are available to the public and rental is expensive, especially considering how many quilts are finished this way for local charities. These vital machines are becoming more commonplace in libraries. Also, please comment if you know another place for me to further this request.

  3. You completely missed the point that council members and community members were concerned that the County Executive proposed to hand over a sole source contract to a private developer with a high price tag in this case. You also missed the point that a contract had already been awarded for the same size new library and parking garage in the Tif district through a competitive bid process.

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