Council to consider $8.5 million renovation of Harper House

100-unit building is among Columbia's biggest, oldest for subsidized housing

September 05, 2010|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

Once considered for demolition, a nine-story building that is one of Columbia's oldest and largest for subsidized housing could undergo an $8.5 million renovation and expansion if the County Council approves.

Two resolutions due for introduction Tuesday night before the County Council would allow financing through the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development.

Harper House, a 100-unit building for low-income residents in the village of Harper's Choice, could get more two-bedroom units, larger one-bedroom apartments, a new activity room and energy-saving features.

The plan would not displace any current residents, officials said, though some would be moved to vacant apartments while construction is under way. Nine units are now empty.

Known as Abbott House when it was built between 1971 and 1973, the building was one of the earliest examples of Columbia developer James W. Rouse's vision to make the planned community a place where people of all incomes could live together. But the building has become outmoded, officials said.

County housing director Stacy L. Spann praised the renovation plan.

"Our main job is supporting and developing high-quality, well-designed affordable housing," he said. "This comports with that."

Most Harper House residents earn less than $42,000 a year.

The site is located within close walking distance of the Harper's Choice Village Center and is also near Swansfield Elementary School and Howard County General Hospital.

Work could begin in December, said Chickie Grayson, president and CEO of Enterprise Homes, the Rouse-founded affordable housing nonprofit that has owned the building since 1997, when a less-extensive $2.2 million renovation was done.

Four years ago, Enterprise officials were promoting the idea of demolishing the building and redeveloping the property with 110 larger, more-modern apartments in three- and four-story buildings spread across the site, much of which is now a little-used parking lot. Some of the new units would have been available to people of limited income.

That plan would have provided a separate, 64-unit apartment building for senior citizens, who now live among younger families and singles.

But Grayson said the recession made that plan impossible.

"Given the economic climate and the status of what's available, we're not there at this time," she said.

Instead, the new plan calls for a nine-story addition that would include eight two-bedroom units. Reconfiguration of the existing structure would allow the elimination of the seven tiny efficiency units and would enable one-third of the 42 one-bedroom units to be enlarged.

All of the apartments would get new kitchens and bathrooms, energy-efficient windows, low-flow plumbing fixtures and energy-saving appliances, and the building would get an energy-efficient roof and new heating and cooling system. Together, the changes could save an estimated 21 percent on utilities, which are included in the rent.

Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a West Columbia Democrat who represents the area, said she has visited apartments at Harper House and found them "very small."

"I think it's a good idea to renovate the building," she said, adding that a "real" community activity room "would be wonderful."

Cynthia Coyle, Harper's Choice's elected representative to the Columbia Association Board of Directors, called the proposal "a wonderful improvement and facelift for an aging building."

Delores Counsellor, 50, a resident at Harper House, said she hadn't known about the project, but is pleased at the prospect.

"I think it's very nice here," she said. "I think that's a good idea."

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