Friday, June 22, 2012

Trouble in Paradise

You might think that,with the long awaited and much debated Columbia Town Center redevelopment process finally underway, the county council would be celebrating their accomplishment and working to move things forward as smoothly as possible.

Hardly. Last night, two of the council members got fairly testy with the developer over what appears to be a fundamental misunderstanding of business , capital and risk. 

In a work session on the enabling legislation for a new Commercial  District Management Authority (CDMA) for Town Center, tempers were raised and threats were implied over the issue of who will control this authority. As it has been proposed by the exec, the Downtown Columbia Partnership would be governed by a board of seven members, four of whom would be from the Howard Hughes Corporation, giving HHC majority control.

Jen Terrasa and Calvin Ball seem to think that's a bit too much. They expressed a certain discomfort with allowing a developer to have so much control over the Town Center redevelopment program, even though it isn't the county's money at risk. 

This is a potential deal killer for HHC.

They are the ones putting real money into Downtown Columbia Partnership, both in new commercial development fees and in funding public amenities. In addition to immediately stroking a check for $1.5 million for affordable housing, HHC will be funding the renovation of Merriweather and a variety of transportation and environmental initiatives. Estimates of their total investment in Town Center runs into the tens of millions.

Of course they want to control the authority, at least initially. They are the only ones with real skin in the game. As John DeWolf told the council, HHC is still committed to the project as long as they can manage the risk. He further suggested that they are uniquely qualified to accomplish that. He wryly pointed out that when HHC took over this project “there wasn’t anyone else lined up outside the door to buy this (Town Center redevelopment) separately.”

Greg Fox and Courtney Watson seemed to get that. They attempted to get their council colleagues to give HHC some sort of reassurance that they’d work this out. HHC is up against some critical dates in the development process and needs to have this resolved sooner rather than later. Calvin and Jen balked. Mary Kay Sigaty, the current council chair, was silent.

Two out of five, not good. Trouble in Paradise.

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