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Columbia Spotlight Shifts, Shining Back on Lakefront

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For what was once considered the center of a nascent downtown, the Columbia Lakefront hasn’t gotten much attention in what seems like a long time.
It’s seemed that, though the Downtown Columbia Master Plan has been approved for several years and a number of projects are underway or already finished, the buzz has focused elsewhere, moving from the area around The Mall in Columbia to Merriweather Post Pavilion, Symphony Woods and the Merriweather District. But now, the light is shining back on the Lakefront.

It’s with the beginning of the 16-step Lakefront project — the first two steps of which are complete — that the interest of the locals is turning toward the banks of Lake Kittamaqundi, with a completion date for the whole thing set for 2019 by main stakeholders The Howard Hughes Corp. (HHC) and Columbia Association (CA). The project will include 180,000 square feet of office space, more than 500 residential units in three buildings (two condominiums, one apartments), street-front retail and restaurants, and more parking.

Greg Fitchett, senior vice president of development for HHC, said that while the in-renovation-mode Merriweather Post Pavilion “is the beating heart of Downtown,” the time has come to shine that bright light on the Lakefront, which he calls “the soul” of Downtown.

Early Stages

While there are several distinct neighborhoods in the Downtown Columbia Master Plan, Fitchett divides that area into three sections: The Mall in Columbia and its surrounds; Merriweather Post Pavilion and “The Crescent”; and the Lakefront.

To follow the Lakefront project timeline from the beginning, the pre-submission community meeting was held a few weeks ago and attracted “about 50 people,” he said; next up was the design advisory panel, which included the observations of six design professionals and about 20 other attendees, in mid-June.
Both meetings went well, Fitchett said. “We got a lot of positive feedback from the community.”

And now come the next 14 steps.

Next on the agenda is the formal submittal to the Howard County Planning Board, Fitchett said, “which will span the property from Whole Foods to the old exhibit buildings, as well as the building with Clyde’s, the old Copeland’s deck and the space that is now occupied by the American City Building (which is scheduled for eventual demolition) and its parking lot.”

HHC and CA hope to complete the first eight steps this year, second eight next year, then start construction in 2019.

“The final development plan is really the first step in the process,” Fitchett said, “where the streetscape, housing density and design guidelines will be discussed.”
Among its highlights, he said, “will be new amenity spaces. The old ones, like the existing plaza with the pavilion, fountain and dock with the bell tower, are owned by CA and will be part of what is called the Lakefront Connection, which will link Little Patuxent Parkway to the Lakefront, essentially in the footprint of the American City Building. It will feature close to an acre of new space.

By Design

HHC is working with CA on the Lakefront project because CA owns most of the space; HHC owns some next to Whole Foods that also will be part of the final design. The organizations also have hired a design firm, Groundswell Design Group, of Philadelphia.

“[HHC and CA] were both impressed by Groundswell,” said Fitchett. “They’ve done great work in Philadelphia and elsewhere around the country, and what they’ve done elsewhere concerns existing and underutilized public spaces, especially those that are adjacent to water.”

On that note, Fitchett pointed to the example of Spruce Street Harbor Park, also in Philadelphia, which features many of what he termed “simple activations” — like cantilevered seating areas that hang over water at what www.visitphilly.com lauds as “one of the best urban beaches in America.” A floating restaurant and plenty of LED lighting are among its other features.

One attraction that already seems to be part of the plan would certainly get plenty of locals and visitors to stop on by. “We’re proposing a public neighborhood square of 25,000 square feet to the north of Whole Foods. That’s one of the features of the Downtown Master Plan, and we hope to accelerate its development. The big fountain will still be there and another part of the site would be for a proposed veterans’ monument.”

Take a Walk

That’s just one of the ideas that HHC, CA and Groundswell are discussing to make the Lakefront more usable, said Jane Dembner, director of planning and community affairs for CA.

“People like owning property on, and being near, the water, and that’s our main body of water in Columbia,” said Dembner, noting the 2014 completion of the pathway around the lake, the use of which “has doubled since. And [the Lakefront] is flat, so that makes it more usuable.”

One of the more interesting aspects of the project is that HHC is adding green space, “which is required in every neighborhood, no matter what’s already there.”

Saying that ideas and efforts are preliminary thus far, Dembner said that CA wants to “do everything at the same time HHC does,” as both entities invest in respective plans for the Lakefront and work together to make it the walkable attraction that it was intended to be.

“Frederick now has the Riverwalk, but it didn’t always,” she said. “It’s beautiful. We want to enhance what we have, as they did. CA already has much going on at the Lakefront, like free yoga, movies, concerts, model boat races, ice sculptures, etc. We want to enhance its function as our central gathering place.”

As for Groundswell, Principal David Fierabend said the firm has gained an understanding of the psychology of how people connect with space, and of many best practices concerning activating space along a waterfront.

“While the final concepts are still in development, people can expect to see many artful influences through landscaping and materiality,” Fierabend said.

Focus, Vibrancy

From the county level, Val Lazdins, director of planning and zoning, thinks the proposal for the Lakefront is a great step forward for Downtown.
“It shifts the focus from The Crescent, which is the most visible public amenity area, but when people drive by on Route 29, they mainly see trees; so this new project at the Lakefront is an opportunity to set a new standard in terms of architectural design,” said Lazdins.

The American City Building, which was designed at the very outset of Columbia, was something that was needed at the time, but has stood out like a bad advertisement for the 1960s since and is part of the reason why a drive by the Lakefront doesn’t really offer a passerby any sense that much is happening there.
“Now, we can change the architecture by including more iconic designs that will attract more people to Downtown,” Lazdins said. “[Famed architect Frank] Gehry’s Rouse/Whole Foods building presents a real opportunity to move that design quality forward and help anchor the Lakefront as one of the key destinations in Downtown.”

Many of the locals may not realize that Downtown was once the first place anyone who came to Columbia went. “When Columbia was a younger city, the Visitor Center was Downtown, since it was the marketing focus for potential residents and employers. It was where the action was,” said Lazdins.

Such thinking is key to the project’s success, said Mike Davis, senior partner with Davis, Agnor, Rapaport & Skalny, which operates from its offices on the Lakefront. “The design of the buildings will be critical,” Davis said. “Cutting-edge architecture that can draw people Downtown will boost this project forward and give all Columbians something they can be proud of.

“Yes, there must be appropriate public spaces and an effective transportation system that relies on more than just cars,” he said, “but the thrill of our new Downtown will be in its architecture.”

“In the big picture,” said Brad Rogers, principal with Advanced Placemaking, of Baltimore, “Howard County won the battle of the 20th century that became the model, and it needs to remain relevant to the 21st century by creating the kinds of vibrant urban centers that young people are looking for.”
“It’s really exciting to be working on the Lakefront project,” Fitchett said. “It may sound like a cliché, but what went around — albeit 50 years ago — is finally coming back around in Downtown Columbia.”