New Ellicott City housing complex idea surprises neighbors

Near Hilltop Housing redevelopment

February 10, 2011|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

Howard County housing officials' newly revealed plan to build a 76-unit apartment house and parking garage on public land in downtown Ellicott City has caught residents and nearby business owners by surprise.

"Transparency, community involvement and shared concern about the preservation of Historic Ellicott City has vanished from this dialogue overnight," Fels Lane resident Bill Withers complained in an e-mail. He and other residents who live near the Hilltop Housing public housing complex were taken aback by the proposal, which came after months of meetings about the older and larger plan to demolish and rebuild an expanded, mixed-income community in place of Hilltop's 94 units of aging public housing.

The idea, according to deputy county housing director Thomas P. Carbo, is to redevelop a county-owned parking lot, near Hilltop just behind the 1790 Thomas Isaac log cabin on Main Street, into an L-shaped, four-story apartment complex designed to fit the look of Ellicott City's business district. The county's Housing Commission is the legal entity that owns and operates public housing.

The plan first came to light Feb. 1, when Carbo presented it to a local historic preservation group. The idea, Carbo said, is to use the opportunity of the Hilltop redevelopment to add this extra element.

The new residential buildings would shield a multilevel garage that would provide spaces for residents and still add 30 more public spaces. About 60 percent of the new one- and two-bedroom residential units would be market rent, or unsubsidized, he said. The county government owns the lot, not the Housing Commission, which means an ownership transfer of the land would have to be approved by the County Council.

"It's a concept," Carbo said, that will not be part of the first phase of the redevelopment of Hilltop Housing nearby. "We wanted to see what feedback we'd get on it," he said. The point, he said, is that while the Hilltop project is under way, "we could help finance additional parking. It would be a good time to do it, all at once."

The county's Housing Commission is scheduled to hear about the idea Tuesday, and a public information meeting on the first phase of the Hilltop project, which Carbo said is separate, is to be held at 6 p.m. Feb. 23 at the Roger Carter Recreational Center, at the foot of Fels Lane.

Many leaders in Ellicott City said the idea is so new that they're not sure what to make of it. County Councilwoman Courtney Watson, who represents the area, took that view, saying it needs "a lot more study."

Ed Lilly, president of the private Ellicott City Restoration Foundation, said his group was briefed by Carbo; the group is not opposed outright, he said, but feels caution is needed.

"We think It is an interesting idea," he said, adding that he also wants more study and feedback from residents. "This is too fast," he said.

Joan Becker, a board member of a similar group called Historic Ellicott City Inc., agreed. "I'd need to know more."

Mary Catherine Cochran, vice president of the larger group Preservation Howard County, said the lot is "premium property" in the land-scarce Main Street area. She thought the idea might work with retail at street level topped by apartments and with a three-level garage. "This is probably not the right plan for that lot," she said about Carbo's proposal.

Grace Kubofcik, president of the county League of Women Voters, isn't excited about the idea, partly because it would remove one of two possible sites for a future parking garage that the Ellicott City business district may need.

"Once that [land] is committed to that, the eventual need to have a garage in downtown there is lost." In addition, Kubofcik said, "I was not convinced of the need for the housing," since the Hilltop redevelopment is expanding the number of units.

Angela Tersiguel, president of the Ellicott City Business Association, said her group discussed the issue but also feels much more information is needed.

"We were completely surprised and caught off guard that this information is just coming out," she said. "There's not enough information to make a decision."

The Hilltop project is part of a major shift in public housing in the county aimed at converting older, economically segregated public housing developments into mixed-income, high-quality, premium communities with more units and amenities. The market renters would provide more money for maintenance and keep the community economically self-sustaining, county housing director Stacy Spann has said.

The $50 million Hilltop project would more than double the number of units, while providing a new, larger recreation center in what would be called Ellicott Heights. The housing commission is under way with a similar conversion of Guilford Gardens, a 100-unit public housing complex in east Columbia that is becoming Monarch Mills.

Carbo said he had no cost estimate for the new apartment complex/garage proposal.

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