Initial plans for redevelopment at The Mall in Columbia were presented to the public by mall owner General Growth Properties (GGP) at a pre-submission meeting on Jan. 17.
Touting the meeting as a chance for citizens to see the plans and provide input before the redevelopment process is initiated with the Howard County Council, GGP officials appeared unprepared for the evening’s major snag: Many members of the audience found it difficult to understand what the presentation was supposed to accomplish and had even more difficulty understanding what they were being asked to provide input on.
As for details of the redevelopment, GGP officials were initially reluctant to say little more than that they envisioned removing 30,000 square feet of existing retail space and adding 45,000 new square feet, to create 75,000 square feet of so-called “lifestyle center” space.
Can I Say That?
At the beginning of the presentation, GGP Senior Director of Development Jim Whitcome summarized the county’s new development approval process and informed attendees that they would not see any specific building plans, renderings or discussions of possible tenants so early in the process.
Whitcome said he was limited by the new development process in his ability to describe any future vision for that space, but acquiesced to characterize it as “two two-story buildings at the most. It will improve the connection through the mall. It will improve public space, and there will be an art program somewhere in the process.”
Pressed by Wilde Lake resident Julian Levy and Alan Klein, spokesman for the Coalition for Columbia’s Downtown, to identify the specific retail space planned for destruction, Whitcome eventually confirmed that space to be the existing L.L. Bean store.
He later acknowledged that an existing parking garage and surface lots between the movie theater and the mall may have to be changed or replaced to improve traffic and pedestrian circulation paths.
That information led to the following interaction.
“Is that something that the process said you shouldn’t say?” Levy asked.
“Yes,” Whitcome replied.
“Then the process is wrong,” Levy said.
Waste of Time?
Michael Pieranunzi, vice president of Century Engineering, which is involved in developing the plans, said that the initial concept plan is intended to set up general requirements for such things as building heights and other general development aspects.
“What we’ve tried to do is make sure we honor the adjacent amenity areas,” he said. “We also want to honor the pedestrian connections in the downtown guidelines.”
Whitcome acknowledged that more detail would be available at the beginning of the Site Development Plan process.
Brian Spencer of Development Management Group, a GGP consultant, added that this initial step in the land development process is focused on a set of design guidelines and an implementation plan. “This is all we’ve got,” he said.
But Linda Wengel, a member of the Columbia Association’s Town Center Architectural Committee, said she was disappointed with the information being presented.
“I can’t believe that, when the county initiated this process, [it] intended for people to turn out and hear so little,” she said. “Perhaps we need to go back and clarify what they intended to happen at these pre-submission meetings, because it is kind of a waste of time.”
Bob Tennenbaum, who was the chief planner and architect for Columbia back in the day when GGP was known as The Rouse Company, echoed her complaint.
“You’re hiding a concept we all know you have, and you’re working backwards from that concept,” he told the GGP presenters. “You’re not telling us anything about the concept. There is a drawing somewhere, and if it changes, fine; if economics doesn’t make a piece of it work, we understand. Don’t imagine that we’re going to walk out of here and say, ‘Wow, this is terrific.’”
At times during the pre-submission meeting’s sometimes heated question- and-answer session, Whitcome expressed his own mild frustration concerning the county’s lengthy development process. “I’ve worked all over the country and internationally, and this ranks in the top 10% or 20% of difficult areas to work in,” he said.
“The thing that I find the most frustrating in my job is a county or a jurisdiction having authority that doesn’t know what they want,” he said. “The new county process is new to me and complicated to me; I’m having trouble getting my mind around it. I’m trying to play by the rules. I don’t mean to say that the county has a bad process … [it’s] a complicated process.”
Despite GGP’s efforts to be forthcoming, some attendees implied that the new process doesn’t do enough to build trust between the community and developers at the outset, when it is needed most.
“It’s hard to trust when there’s a big gaping hole … and we don’t know what it is,” Klein said. “I understand you don’t want to spend money to do [design work] before you have permission, but one thing you could do is … say what your vision is.
“What is the concept that you think this redevelopment will help customers, will help Columbia, will help Howard County?” he queried. “That’s the part that is missing.”
Sorting It Out
As to what is to be understood by the concept of a lifestyle center, Whitcome said it generally means open air. “It may be covered, but it’s never conditioned,” he said.
Klein summarized the systemic irony of the process in a later letter to the editor of the Baltimore Sun.
“What actually calmed the mood down was GGP finally sharing their concept for the project,” he wrote. “If GGP had led off with this information, rather than forcing residents to pry it out of them, the whole meeting would have been totally calm and over in a fraction of the time, since the proposed redevelopment seems essentially innocuous.”
Howard County’s Department of Planning and Zoning Director Marsha McLaughlin confirmed that the first step in the new development process has been set up to allow developers to come forward with design guidelines for their projects and move on from there.
“It may be that [Whitcome and other GGP officials] aren’t entirely clear about what’s happening at this stage, and they’re right not to want the FDP [Final Development Plan] presentation to be a duplicate of what they will be showing at the start of the Site Development Plan process,” McLaughlin said. “What’s happening at the mall is relatively minor, so there’s really not much to show. However, we will be giving some coaching to [developers] about what they should be presenting when they come before the planning board in this process.”
According to Spencer, GGP hopes to have an approved Final Development Plan by late spring or early summer and then begin seeking approval for the Site Development Plan before finishing building permit drawings and submitting for land development and building permits.