Monday, August 1, 2016

Toby's and The Great Big Deal

Friday the County Council tabled the Downtown Columbia legislation until September. In the meantime, Tischler-Bise has been chosen to--wait, let me quote directly from the headline of the Howard County Times article by Fatimah Waseem--

Bethesda firm selected to conduct 'independent' review of Columbia $90M public financing deal

Can someone explain to me the use of 'independent' in that headline? I may be missing something, but it doesn't exactly inspire confidence. By "public financing deal" they mean, of course, the TIF everyone has been talking about, but not the whole TIF (170 million) just the first 90 million. So that's what's happening on that front.

What I really want to talk about is the plan for a new cultural arts center. Almost as soon as I posted my enthusiasm for this project the last week, more information started coming out of the woodwork. Nothing is as simple as I want it to be, apparently.

The most important thing to know about this current plan for a cultural arts center is that, the way it stands now, it is irrevocably tied to the approval of the Downtown development plan (and TIF) mentioned above. That was the bit I didn't know when I posted on Tuesday. This makes no sense to me, but if course it makes great sense to the Howard Hughes Corporation.

The land in question (all but a small increment) is owned by Toby's Dinner Theatre. So if Toby Orenstein owns the land, why can't she move forward with this plan independently? Well, because Howard Hughes has covenants on the land. And it behooves them to tie their approval to the Great Big Deal that they want to see accomplished. That's business, right?

Ms. Orenstein has lived through so many possibilities and iterations of a new home for her theatre that I imagine she is weary and worn out from waiting. If you've gotten your hopes up that many times, you just want someone to keep their commitment and make it happen. Toby has given so much to the community and here she is, waiting yet again for big entities to negotiate with other big entities while her dreams hang in the balance.

The orginal plans for Symphony Woods/Inner Arbor Plan placed a new Toby's in a much more central location. Do you remember? I still think that's the ideal place for it, but with that portion of the plan years out of reach, I'm sure Ms. Orenstein has run out of patience. Now Toby's is still stuck in the same, less prominent location, with the added indignity that she can't even build on her own land* without Howard Hughes' permission.

Why can't this plan move forward somewhere else? The County owns the former Patuxent Publishing site, for example. Why don't they step in and get the ball rolling for the new cultural arts center over there and rescue Ms. Orenstein and this project from this ridiculous hostage situation?

Both Toby's and a new cultural arts center should be given pride of place in the new Downtown. Ms. Orenstein's commitment to the community and to the arts is long-standing and ongoing. County Executives and County Councils have come and gone while Toby's has continued to give high-quality theatre to the County and beyond.

Now is the time for the County Executive and the County Council to show leadership by refusing to let a Cultural Arts Center be a pawn in the Great Big Deal. If Howard Hughes won't allow Ms. Orenstein to use her own site, then get moving and find her a better one. I dare them to look her in the face and say it's not a priority.

*The plan for a cultural arts center, as it is presently drawn, shows the building situated in such a way that it necessarily includes the small increment of land that Howard Hughes owns. However, that land is not essential to this project and the plans could easily be redrawn to fit entirely on the land owned by Toby's.


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