The Howard Hughes Corp. (HHC) has initiated the first step in the process for redevelopment in downtown Columbia. Adhering to the process adopted in the General Plan Amendment in February 2010, Hughes officials held a public meeting on Oct. 27 to present concept plans and materials regarding the first phase of proposed development, as well as to allow residents to ask questions.
Approximately 80 residents attended the meeting, which focused on Parcels C and D in the Warfield Neighborhood, both owned by the Howard Hughes Corp., and Lot 39, which is owned by Columbia Land Holdings Inc.
Parcels C and D, both 12-acre lots, are located just west of the Mall Ring Road and east of Broken Land Parkway on the Columbia Mall’s west side; Lot 39 is located north of the ring road between Little Patuxent Parkway and the northern mall entrance road.
According to accompanying documents filed with the Design Advisory Panel, anticipated yields when Phase 1 is completed are expected to include a total of 817 residential rental units and 76,098 square feet of new retail space tentatively spread among three buildings.
A future phase is expected to add up to 1,000 residential units and an additional 283,780 square feet of retail.
Robert Jenkins, vice president of engineering for HHC, said the Warfield Neighborhood Concept Plan documents contain designations of open and amenity spaces, civil engineering plans showing development areas, density allocations, height restrictions and neighborhood design guidelines to be used to establish the design criteria for future buildings and roads.
“What you won’t see [yet] are buildings proposed for the development or any renderings; we just haven’t gotten to that point yet,” Jenkins said. “Once we get through this process in the near future, the buildings will actually be presented in [another] pre-submission community meeting.”
The only specific plan at this point, he said, is that Lot 39 will be developed to the standards of a permanent parking lot to be used as overflow capacity to replace lots on Parcel C that will be lost or inaccessible during construction.
“There is no building development proposed for [Lot 39],” Jenkins said.
HHC must navigate eight different land planning processes before the Final Development Plan is approved.
Brian Spencer, a consultant for HHC, said he is hopeful that can occur by spring, which would allow the developer to move on to developing building plans and begin the eight-step Site Development Plan process.
“Each of the development plan processes … allow for multiple opportunities for community input and involvement,” Spencer said.
The concept plan for the Warfield Neighborhood includes four-story, seven-story and nine-story buildings, as well as new roadways and traffic connections.
Residents attending the meeting offered cautious praise for the initial concept plans, but unhesitatingly announced their concern with certain aspects, lending a strained element to what amounted to a coming-out event for HHC’s new Senior Vice President John DeWolf, who heads the company’s development operations in Columbia.
In particular, residents acknowledged apprehension concerning the potential interference that building massing and placement could have on a smooth integration and physical transition to existing neighborhood areas.
Joel Broida, a Town Center resident, warned that the initial construction of rental units could affect the nature and character of the neighborhood he lives in.
“Putting in three buildings with 817 rentals is like setting up a hotel,” Broida said. “The [occupants] are transient. They do not become part of the neighborhood and take pride in it.”
DeWolf described the proposed apartments as “high-end” and unlike anything in the current downtown market.
“We intentionally are going to peg it above the market,” he said. “I honestly believe that’s the future, that for-rent is going to be a huge, big thing … and when we do have a project to talk about, we’re going to talk about it in those terms.”
As to the necessity of integrating ground floor retail into apartment buildings within walking distance of The Mall in Columbia, DeWolf said the corporation is envisioning something more akin to Bethesda Row.
“It’s a different form of retail,” he said. “I believe malls are not the future and are going to get deconstructed as we go along.”
Sense of Relief
The biggest question of all — when will development actually begin — can’t be answered or even ballparked at this time, owing to the nature of the land planning process.
“We’d love to get through it [in] a lot quicker than a year,” DeWolf said, noting that other factors come into play as well: “We’re one financial guy away from getting this done.”
When development does move forward, however, DeWolf asserted that HHC will remain the principal developer.
“We’re not even a year old so we don’t have a model at this point, but in the case of any joint venture, we’re going to control it,” he said.
Lin Eagan, a Columbia-based real estate agent and co-founder of the Columbia 2.0 citizens’ advocacy group (which pushed for approval of the General Plan Amendment), expressed relief that the redevelopment process was finally beginning in earnest.
“I know a lot of people who have been interested in downtown Columbia as a place to live, but after the WCI Tower saga nobody really wanted to play that game anymore,” she said. “This is really an important meeting that’s going to give people a look at the process and what lies ahead.”
“This is what we’ve all been waiting for,” said Howard County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty (D-Dist. 4). “Obviously we heard some concerns, but none of them were big concerns and nothing we didn’t already know about. After so many years of effort, it’s great to see something start to move forward.”