Ellicott City residents criticize Hilltop Housing plan

Residents question county project to demolish public housing, replace with mixed-income residences

February 24, 2011|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

A crowd of more than 100 Ellicott City residents hurled questions and criticisms at county housing officials over plans to demolish and rebuild Howard County's 43-year-old public housing complex at a meeting at the Roger Carter Recreation Center on Wednesday night.

People complained about the estimated $15 million cost of a proposed larger recreation center, skeptically questioned traffic conditions, worried about school crowding and suggested that mixing low-income and full-price renters in the same complex might not work.

"We are all so scared," Alix Latona, president of the nearby 40-home Chapelview Community Association, said before the meeting. One man at the meeting even criticized the choice of the crowded exercise room used for the session, which is required by law before any plans can be submitted to the county.

"This is a pretty poor layout," said Leopold Greco from the back of the room. "Don't try to do this again in this room." County Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, watched the meeting from the back row and said later she'd like to see a second meeting held in the larger County Council chamber, to give residents a "better overall view" of the situation.

Under discussion was the first phase of the project, which would include demolition and reconstruction of the county-owned 94-unit Hilltop Housing public housing complex along Mount Ida Drive, including construction of a 45,000-square-foot recreation center at the north end of the 13-acre property along with 204 new residential units. The center would have indoor swimming and a high school-size gym, child care, meeting and exercise rooms, a climbing wall, indoor track and various fee-based county programs. It would be open to the general public and is close enough to the county government complex that workers could walk there, and county lots could be used for parking after hours.

"It is in all appearance a market-rate project," said Thomas P. Carbo, deputy county housing director.

The whole project would be built to the latest green-technology standards, and the apartments and townhouses would all be of the same quality, with low- and high-income renters mixed throughout. But although county officials and developers argued the new housing would improve the area and add value to nearby homes, some just weren't happy.

"We're more worried about our green stuff," said Tom Marshall, 48, who lives in the Chapelview development on a ridge just west of Hilltop. "I paid $500,000 for my $350,000 house," he said referring to the recession's effect on its value. "It's not going to get any better for us. This is going to impact us negatively." He criticized the recreation center, saying, "I moved out of Columbia. I don't want to be in Columbia north."

Mike Goyette, whose house overlooks Hilltop at the end of Chapelview Road, said he'd rather see a planned two-level garage located elsewhere or better disguised. Barry Horwitz, his neighbor across the street, feels the garage would be far too close. "We look right down on it," he said.

Sherry Fackler-Berkowitz complained that the extra apartments would add to traffic woes, while others pointed to another apartment complex nearing completion on nearby Rogers Avenue and 150 townhouses planned across the street that will make things worse.

Elsie Ham, who said she moved from one of the original old wooden shacks on Fels Lane into the new Hilltop in 1969, said current residents fear they'll be pushed out and their children won't be able to use the new center. "These people up here are scared because they don't know if they'll have a home to live in."

Carbo said every current resident can stay in a brand-new unit at the same rate they pay now.

One man who refused to divulge his name questioned whether unsubsidized renters paying up to $1,900 a month would agree to live next to families paying half that or less. Carbo said it is a concept that has worked "all over the country," including Howard County.

The key, Carbo said, is to build high-quality homes in a desirable location and hire strong management. That's the formula the county Housing Commission is planning for Hilltop, he said. County growth-control laws will delay the project if roads or nearby schools might be overburdened.

A second phase to come in eight to 12 months would include demolition and replacement of the 60-unit Ellicott Terrace apartments nearby, also owned by the county's Housing Commission, and destruction of the Roger Carter Recreation Center, which would be replaced with 14 units of housing. An added possibility is transformation of a county-owned parking lot south of the recreation center into 76 apartments and a two-level parking garage, though Carbo has said that idea is not included in the current plan and would not move forward without public backing.

The entire $53 million project is the latest example of Howard County's policy shift away from having economically segregated communities of subsidized housing. Ulman administration officials believe rebuilding Hilltop and Guilford Gardens in Columbia as mixed-income, high-quality complexes will help integrate low-income families into society and also give the projects a source of income for long-term maintenance and renovations. They hope the new recreation center and other amenities at Hilltop will help attract unsubsidized renters.

Hilltop was built in the late 1960s as a county-funded replacement for the town's African-American community's ramshackle, rented wooden cottages on Fels Lane that lacked indoor plumbing. The current recreation center was built as a segregated elementary school and was later used as the county's sole police station.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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