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Transforming Downtown Columbia En Route to More Change

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Downtown Columbia, with an already altered landscape, has even more changes on the horizon as the plan for redevelopment continues to unfold.

Columbia is already recognized as one of the first and most successful planned communities in the world, pointed out Greg Fitchitt, vice president of development for The Howard Hughes Corp.

Since the last residential neighborhood, River Hill, was finished more than a decade ago, some people have viewed Columbia as “already completed,” he said. But he wishes people would recognize Columbia as “a real city,” not just a “better suburb.”

Fitchitt believes the 2010 plan for redevelopment is creating a downtown Columbia in which people will live, work, play, shop and eat — “a real city,” he said, adding, “By this time next year, there will be another 500-plus people living downtown.”

In 2014, Whole Foods, Seasons 52 and Maggiano’s opened, as did the outdoor expansion at The Mall in Columbia. There is, he added, “more to come along the street in the Metropolitan next year.”

With new Class A office space under construction, within two years downtown Columbia will pass 1 million square feet of new development. “This momentum is just the beginning of the 13 million square feet entitled by the plan,” he said. “We are on the way to creating a 21st century downtown here, and the most important thing is to let people know that the Columbia of today and tomorrow is not the Columbia of yesterday.

“It is building on those strengths of the past,” said Fitchitt, to create a city for the future.”

Major Acquisition

With the Metropolitan bringing the first new apartments in more than a decade to downtown Columbia, and the Rouse building being repurposed to hold the Whole Foods grocery store, as well as Haven on the Lake, 2014 was a year of major projects.

“Having more people living downtown and being able to walk to entertainment, recreation, dining and shopping is absolutely central to the plan,” said Fitchitt. “But saving the original Frank Gehry-designed Rouse building by taking out an entire floor and moving in Whole Foods, along with the Haven on the Lake, is equally inspiring.

“When you walk through Whole Foods today, it almost feels like the building was meant for [it],” he said, “and it’s certainly the most beautiful grocery store I’ve ever been through.”

In December, Howard Hughes announced the acquisition of six office buildings in downtown Columbia that totaled 700,000 square feet and are valued at $130 million. The purchase of those buildings, commonly known as 10–60 Columbia Corporate Center, more than doubled Howard Hughes’ commercial holdings to more than 1 million square feet.

All told, that figure represents half of the downtown Columbia office market.

Not Aging, Changing

The Mall in Columbia, which celebrated its 43rd year last summer, has always played a vital role in the history of Columbia, said Ashley York Venable, the mall’s senior general manager.

The mall has grown and changed along with the community, said York Venable. “It is my hope that we will continue to deliver a broad selection of retail, dining and entertainment options. As the community grows and changes, both demographically and economically, our vision is to remain a place for the community to meet, shop, eat, share a coffee or catch up on the latest fashion trends, while offering a fresh and exciting shopping experience to our shoppers.”

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman also said he was looking forward to the continued growth of the downtown area.

“I’m excited about seeing our downtown grow into a vibrant, attractive destination that draws young and older people into the heart of Columbia,” he said. “It should be artistically appealing and economically successful, and I’m confident it will be.”

Addressing Traffic, Parking

The projects completed in 2014 in Downtown Columbia have been diverse and carefully planned, said Mark Thompson, director of downtown redevelopment for Howard County. “The range and complexity of these projects reflect the tremendous opportunities ahead for Downtown Columbia,” he said. “The plan lays out a framework to transform a traditional suburban town center into a dense, mixed-use environment.”

As downtown Columbia evolves, Thompson assured people that plans for new development will include addressing the impacts on traffic and parking. “New approaches will be needed and are, in fact, part of the plan that will facilitate this transformation,” he said.

From an economic development perspective, Downtown Columbia will be home to new businesses, and existing companies will find themselves in a good location to grow, said Larry Twele, CEO of the Howard County Economic Development Authority.

“We think the plans to improve connectivity, to make downtown a more walkable, liveable community, will stimulate economic development not only for Howard County, but the entire region,” he said.

In 2015 and beyond, Downtown Columbia can become even more of an economic engine for the county.

“It will require addressing the issues that come with growth such as parking and traffic congestion, but as long as developers are working with the community and responsive to concerns,” said Twele, “we believe the kind of economic development spelled out in the master plan is a win-win for Columbia, Howard County and the entire region.”