Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Council Gets Downtown Partnership Right

Last night, the County Council passed legislation establishing the Downtown Partnership, with amendments, by a 4-1 vote.  This serves as both a concrete and symbolic act to show that the Council has maintained significant control over Downtown Development, but is also interested in promoting a cooperative, deferential relationship with Howard Hughes, which owns the vast majority of the land.  I think that is a good note to take and one that the Council hit in perfect tune.

Lindsey McPherson provided one of the most concise descriptions of the DP that we've seen so far: "The partnership is a commercial district management authority that will operate as a public instrument of the county to conduct marketing, maintenance, security, transportation and other services in downtown Columbia, which is just beginning a major redevelopment." (emphasis added).  The debate up to this point has questioned whether the DP is actually a "public instrument of Howard Hughes", which I think is a mischaracterization of the bill.  The DP will be a quasi-governmental organization performing quasi-governmental tasks.

If that's the case, why do you favor allowing HH to have such a controlling interest?  The DP's funds, for the foreseeable future (8-10 years) will operate almost exclusively with HH funds.  The bill provides for periodic payments in excess of $1 million that will be paid by the "Community Developer" (Howard Hughes) for specific functions of the Partnership.  Eventually, owners of property in Downtown will pay 25 cents per square foot into the Partnership.  As John DeWolf testified, we do not want the DP writing checks out of Howard Hughes's checkbook.

As originally written, this bill scared the dickens out of me.  Without the application of the Open Meetings Act (which I do not believe is applicable) or any remaining County oversight, the original bill would have essentially allowed the Partnership to become a back-office of Howard Hughes, never to be seen again but for the prodding of County officials.  By expanding the quorum from four (the minimum number of HH representatives) to six (requiring the attendance of outside stakeholders at each meeting), the Council has prevented that from happening.  Similarly, an 11-member Advisory Panel that will be "provided with an opportunity to comment on all matters pending before the board" and authorized "to examine the partnership's books and records 'at any reasonable time'" keeps the community's foot in the door and provides a reasonable measure of oversight.

After doing some research and chatting with a good number of knowledgeable folks, I've come to believe that the County's Housing Commission may be the best administrator of the Downtown Housing Fund, but I respect the Council's interest in fulfilling the deals that were made leading up to the "capstone" legislation in 2010.  What the "housing advocates" don't seem to consider is that administrative costs and other ramp-up costs will be unnecessarily duplicative and further erode what is already a potentially insufficient fund.  My prediction is that the Downtown Columbia Housing Foundation becomes a step-sister to the Howard County Housing Commission, which ends up being tasked with the lion's share of Downtown Housing needs.

But on the meta-level, the Council proved that it is still in the mix and has a say in how the Downtown legislation will be rolled out.  Balance is necessary in all things.  I respect the advocates for Howard Hughes who think this is too much, but I think any further involvement by the County would be too much for them.  Similarly, there will be opponents who believe this is just one more give-away by the County to the developer.  That's a mischaracterization as well.  The Council brought creative solutions to a complex problem and John Dewolf left the table saying that "Everything that (the council) came up with was well thought out."  That's a big win.