Residents urged to back new building

Political Notebook

December 16, 2007|By Larry Carson

A big crowd of Oakland Mills residents is being urged to turn out for tomorrow night's Howard County Council public hearing by village officials worried that a plan to build an office building there may be in trouble.

"Oakland Mills residents, it is essential to make your voices heard to keep revitalization moving forward!" reads the bold black letters on the e-mail sent last week by Oakland Mills Village Manager Sandy Cederbaum.

"The bill is unlikely to pass without an avalanche of support from the Oakland Mills community," Cederbaum warned.

Barbara Russell, Oakland Mills' representative on the Columbia Association board and a retired County Council staff member, said, "This is getting a little more emphasis" because four of the five council members' votes are needed to approve the project.

The bill before the council would amend the current capital budget to allow County Executive Ken Ulman to use $4 million set aside for a new county office complex to buy 15,000 square feet of office condominium space in Meridian Square, a proposed four-story building set to rise on the vacant pad of a former gas station next to Oakland Mills Village Center.

Ulman said he plans to ask the council members at their legislative session Jan. 7 to table the bill for a month to enable him to answer their questions.

"What we're going to tell council members Monday is we think investing in older neighborhoods is an important public policy position," Ulman said. "I firmly believe it is an important investment."

One who agrees is Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat.

"I have the same questions [other members have], but the concept of investing in older neighborhoods, I love," she said, noting that she graduated from Oakland Mills High School and frequently visited the village center.

In addition, she said, she has been impressed with the "energy and effort" Oakland Mills residents have put into revitalization.

"It's critical," Russell said. "This project is so important to our village."

Like other Columbia village centers, Oakland Mills has suffered as retail commerce has moved away from the original Rouse Co. neighborhood concept to big-box shopping centers on major highways.

The groundbreaking for the much-heralded Meridian Square "green" building was postponed Nov. 29 because, without a guarantee of the county's purchase as a lead tenant, the developer, Metroventures Inc., can't get the financing.

Ulman announced in October that the county would buy the space, but council members' questions led him to seek their approval on the budget shift.

Council Chairwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, called the e-mail "an over-reaction to council members simply asking questions."

"The council has a responsibility to do due diligence," she said.

Watson said the main question is, "How does this fit into the overall plan for the office campus?"

That is exactly the question Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, said she wants answered.

Councilman Greg Fox, a western county Republican, agreed.

"I haven't closed my mind either way on this, but there are a lot of questions," he said.

Ulman has said the purchase would serve two purposes. Because the price tag for a complete new office-courts complex is more than $200 million, he wants to build a smaller office building and garage for about $100 million. A smaller building means the county would need more space elsewhere. At the same time, revitalizing Oakland Mills also is a worthy goal, he said.

Councilman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat who represents Oakland Mills and formerly was the village's revitalization coordinator, agreed.

"I strongly support revitalization of older neighborhoods," Ball said. "We kind of have to move beyond saying we're supportive and demonstrate support."

"This is a visionary project," he added, noting that the village center is less than a mile from Columbia's Town Center, where a huge redevelopment is planned.

A light beginning

The first monthly County Council administrative meeting under the new leadership provided by Chairwoman Watson and Vice Chairwoman Sigaty began on a light note last week.

"This is our second year," Sigaty said. "We know each other a lot better. Could we call each other by our first names?"

Sigaty asked the question as four of the five members sat at a long table in the C. Vernon Gray Conference Room in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

"That is a personal choice," Watson replied.

"I prefer to be called Mr. Ball," joked Ball, the first year's chairman, as general laughter broke out.

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