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Final Long Reach Input Session Explores Housing

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Howard County residents received planning updates and heard the preliminary results of a housing study at a September community meeting that was focused on the redevelopment of Columbia’s Long Reach Village Center.

The meeting offered community members one final chance to provide input and discuss ideas before the draft ReImagine Long Reach Village Center plan is presented on Nov. 10.

“I really appreciate the ideas we’re getting,” Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman told the participants. “I’ve been told we’ve had more than 300 suggestions [from previous sessions]. There are no wrong ideas, and we need to make sure the final plan is what everybody here in Long Reach and Howard County wants.”

Mark Thompson, the county Department of Planning and Zoning (DPZ)’s director of downtown redevelopment, provided an update on interim actions the county has already accomplished at the Village Center.

“We’re now into stabilizing the property and have undertaken a number of beautification projects and cleaned things up,” he said. “We are working with other stakeholders and are taking their wishes and ideas into consideration.”

Based on input from previous information sessions, Thompson said residents have expressed a strong desire for dining and food stores at Long Reach.

“We have met with some of those types of stores to see what their level of interest would be,” he said. “It’s a very difficult retail market, but that’s a piece we’ll continue to explore.”

Weighing Anchors

The idea of combined anchor purposes at Long Reach Village Center is a new option that the county has taken into consideration.

“Many people have said we don’t need to just have an arts focus, we can have an arts and recreation or arts and food focus,” Thompson said. “That would broaden the appeal and reduce some of the long-term risk. Another idea was to include Howard County as a potential anchor and … we need to explore what those uses might be and what impact that might have on the long-term plan.”

Previous input sessions revealed support for a housing component, Thompson said, but concerns have also been raised regarding potential traffic congestion and the impact on schools.

“Any sort of plan with a housing component would have to move through the DPZ process, which would require proper mitigation of any traffic impacts or capacity for additional students,” he said.

Generally, Thompson said, participants favor a more open design with a pedestrian/cyclist orientation, and desire an expansion and enhancement of public gathering spaces that would restore the Village Center as a place where the community can gather.

“We’re hoping to create a little bit of that with our Fall Courtyard Series, where each of the [entertainment] dates will coincide with an exhibition at the Columbia Association’s Art Center,” Thompson said.

The Housing Factor

After reviewing comments from the June input session, facilitators sought outside expertise to acquire a better understanding of the potential market acceptance of housing at Long Reach Village Center and to determine what format of housing would make the most sense.

To that end, Founding Principal Bob Lefenfeld of the Columbia-based Real Property Research Group (RPRG) began a housing market analysis focused on the Long Reach market area in late August.

“Hopefully, in the next several weeks we’ll be coming up with some suggestions and answers,” Lefenfeld said, although he did share some insight.

According to a preliminary analysis of initial findings, the Long Reach market area has grown by approximately 953 people and 366 households per year between 2000 and 2010, a growth rate of about 1.1%, compared with the county’s growth rate of about 1.5%, he said.

“Over the last five years this market has slowed,” he added, which is to be expected in an established area.

Projections show a more or less stable growth rate of about 200 households a year.

In terms of housing types, roughly three-quarters of households are owner occupied and approximately 23% are rental units, Lefenfeld said.

“The rentership rate has gone up,” he said, with projections suggesting a likely increase from 20% rentership to 60% rentership in net new households during the next five years.

“People are not buying homes as investment and shelter as they did in the 1990s and the early part of the last decade,” Lefenfeld said. “They’re focusing on shelter, and millennials are delaying getting into home ownership.”

Overall, calculations that indicate a probable demand for about 216 additional rental units in the market are spread over the next five years, he said. “That’s our first indicator that we ought to consider rental housing.”

RPRG will begin working on an analysis of for-sale housing after the rental analysis is completed, Lefenfeld said.

End In Sight

In the final roundtable exercise of the community engagement sessions, participants focused on economic sustainability, connectivity, community spaces, and building site and design.

Common desires included dining and small-scale grocery options, arts-related retail stores, amenities that support the existing community and housing, but participants also suggested some uses that would make the Village Center unique and create an alternative public draw.

Amenities, such as a bike-share location or an Uber ride sharing center, have been discussed; and a collaborative partnership with the education system to open a practicum that would allow students to run a business or operate a restaurant to gain work experience were among the more non-traditional ideas submitted for consideration.

With the conclusion of community engagement sessions, it’s now DPZ’s task to take the public input and feedback into account and develop a draft plan that will be presented for review on Nov. 10.

“The county council will put the final touches on that, review it and consider the plan within their normal legislative process,” Thompson said, making modifications and eventually passing the plan by resolution, after which the county will advertise the property for sale.

“We feel that a stabilized asset with an approved ReImagine Long Reach Plan will represent a very attractive opportunity for a developer to redevelop per the guidelines set forth in the plan,” he said.