Harper House renewal proposed

Plan would replace outmoded structure with smaller buildings

October 18, 2006|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN REPORTER

Enterprise Homes would like to tear down one of Columbia's oldest subsidized housing buildings and redevelop the site with lower-rise apartments - including some for sale to limited-income families.

If the very preliminary concept goes forward, Harper House, a nine-story, 100-unit building near the Harper's Choice Village Center, would be replaced with 110 larger, more modern apartments spread among lower-rise buildings on the same site, at Harper's Farm Road and Cedar Lane.

The building, formerly known as Abbott House and completed in 1971, changed names after a $2.2 million renovation done in 1998. It was part of developer James Rouse's plan to make Columbia a place where people of all income levels could live, but was built in an era when subsidized units were often separated from other homes, rather than sprinkled throughout a community.

Enterprise officials said they haven't arranged financing and their plan is just conceptual, but the 35-year-old building is outmoded and, as with most apartments housing senior citizens now, the very large parking lot is often nearly empty.

"There's a tremendous amount of underutilized space," said Christine Madigan, a vice president of Enterprise Homes, a non-profit affordable-housing firm founded by James Rouse that operates Harper House. "This is really not the way affordable housing is built today," she said.

Madigan and Jean M. Vieth, an architect, said their idea is to replace Harper House with a four-story, 64-apartment building for seniors, and spread other apartments in three- and four-story townhouse-looking buildings around the site.

Instead of mixing seniors with family apartments, as Harper House does now, the plan would give older residents their own building, with apartments that would be up to 250 square feet larger, and with community rooms that Harper House lacks. Currently, one apartment is kept vacant for community use.

In addition, the concept plan would provide about 30 units for sale to moderate-income families, and would have 10 more units than at Harper House. Enterprise officials said the new senior building could be constructed on the parking lot before the current building is demolished, minimizing displacement of residents, all of whom have Section 8 federal rent subsidies.

With buildable land so scarce and expensive, redevelopment is one way to get more affordable housing for moderate income people, Madigan said.

But several members of the county's Housing Commission and Housing and Community Development Board questioned the redevelopment plan during a recent presentation.

"What is the matter with Harper House as it stands today?" asked Michael G. Riemer, a member of both county housing bodies.

The idea of demolishing such a sturdy concrete building bothered him, he said.

Leonard S. Vaughan, Howard's housing director, said the building's mix of seniors and families sometimes leads to friction. High-rise buildings are not the best environment for children, he said.

But Jeffrey Kinstler, a Housing Commission member, worried about possibly displacing "people at the bottom who can ill-afford to have a place to go." If they can't get into the newer housing, what guarantee is there, he asked, that even with a portable Section 8 voucher they could find a new affordable place in Columbia?

"They currently have a roof to go with their voucher," he said.

Other members wondered if there was a way to get more than 10 additional apartments from a redevelopment plan.

"I would love to see a plan with more units," said Shaun Eddy, a housing board member.

Juanita Robinson, 66, a 20-year Harper House resident who also sits on the Harper's Choice Village Board, said she had not heard about the redevelopment plan, but the idea of larger units and a separate building for seniors sounds good.

"That sounds great to me, as long as they are going to keep the seniors in mind and the families in mind, I'm fine with it."

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