Ellicott City apartments and garage just an idea, officials insist

Proposal needs public consensus to move forward

February 17, 2011|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

A proposed 76-unit apartment house and two-level parking garage on public land just off Main Street in historic Ellicott City won't go forward without community support, Howard County Housing Commission members were promised by county housing officials last week.

"There is no effort to move that forward, at the moment," housing director Stacy Spann told the four commission members at a meeting Tuesday night in the county's Gateway building in Columbia."There's no movement afoot on that whatsoever. There's nothing there. It's a concept," he told members. None expressed an opinion on the idea.

Residents who live near the proposed added project expressed alarm that after months of hearing about plans to demolish and rebuild the commission's Hilltop Housing and Ellicott Terrace public housing, suddenly a new element had been tacked on.

"We seem to have gotten their attention and we will watch closely," said Bill Withers, a Fels Lane resident who lives near the public parking lot where the new apartments and garage are proposed. He and others reacted to a letter from a law firm announcing the idea as part of the larger Hilltop/Ellicott Terrace redevelopment. Leaders of several historic preservation, business and civic groups have said they want more information about the idea and suggested possible problems it could cause.

The new concept is for the commission to acquire a small county-owned parking lot just off Main street behind the 18th-century Thomas Isaac log cabin near the foot of Ellicott Mills Drive, and build an L-shaped 76-apartment building and a two-level parking garage, all designed to fit into the district's historic look.

After some residents complained about being caught by surprise, Spann and deputy county housing director Thomas Carbo said they had told residents this was merely an idea they wanted public reaction to, not a concrete plan.

"That's what you do. You can't spring it on them," Spann told the commissioners. A community information meeting on the first phase of the $50 million redevelopment of the Hilltop project, including the county's Roger Carter Recreation Center and the 60-unit Ellicott Terrace apartments, is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Carter center. The garage/apartment idea might come up, but is not part of the formal agenda because there is no plan yet to submit a proposal to the county.

Phase I involves demolition of the existing 94 units at Hilltop, along Mount Ida Drive, which were built by the county in the late 1960s. Replacing them would be a new, larger recreation center, which would include an indoor swimming pool, built on the north end of the property, plus 204 units of mixed-income high-quality rental residences designed to attract unsubsidized market-rate renters along with the low-income public housing residents already there.

"The [new] recreation center is the linchpin," Carbo told the commissioners. "You want that built as soon as possible" to help attract market-rate renters.

Howard has revised its public housing policy to eliminate economically segregated communities and provide enough income from market-rate renters to pay for ongoing maintenance and renovation costs.

Spann said he hopes to close on financing for the project by year's end. Phase II, including replacement of the current Roger Carter Center with 14 new homes and replacement of Ellicott Terrace, would follow. If the public approves, the parking lot/apartment project would be part of that second phase.

Because the existing recreation center is owned by the county Department of Recreation and Parks, the commission approved a resolution Tuesday night asking the County Council to approve transferring ownership of the land to the commission. A vote is needed by April, Carbo said, to allow the commission to apply for low-cost financing by an April 12 deadline under an expiring federal stimulus program. Without ownership, Spann said, the commission can't get low-cost financing for that parcel.

If the added idea of developing the parking lot goes forward, Carbo said the existing 94 spaces would grow to 260, boosting public spaces by about 30. The new apartments would be unsubsidized one- and two-bedroom units.

Withers said he is skeptical of the idea that the lot will add public parking. He thinks residents and their visitors would use more spaces than expected, reducing public parking for people visiting Main Street. But Carbo, like Spann, stressed that nothing concrete is planned for now.

"This is just an idea, a concept," Carbo said, echoing Spann's comments. "If we can't get support from the community, we won't go forward."

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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