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Plans to be unveiled Thursday for new residences, retail in downtown Columbia

By David Greisman, dgreisman@tribune.com

3:06 PM EDT, October 24, 2011

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After years of hearing and debating about the redevelopment of downtown Columbia, residents will have the opportunity this week to view details about the first residential/commercial project scheduled to be built near the mall.

Howard Hughes Corp. will present its plans for 817 residential units and more than 76,000 square feet of retail space Thursday, Oct. 27 at 6:30 p.m. in room 400 of The Rouse Co. Foundation Student Services Hall at Howard Community College.

"I think it's very positive for downtown Columbia and Howard County to see a project of this size and impact moving forward," said County Council member Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat who represents District 1. "It will employ a lot of people during the construction phase, which is important, and it will provide a much needed boost to the vitality of downtown Columbia and what we're trying to accomplish there."

Three buildings would be constructed on two parcels of land to the west of the Columbia mall, between the northern end of Broken Land Parkway and the road that loops around the mall.

One building would have 14,000 square feet of retail space and 390 residential units. It would sit on a 4.78 acre parcel of land, according to documents Howard Hughes filed with the county government.

Another would have 29,680 square feet of retail space and 267 residential units. The third would have 32,418 square feet of retail space and 160 residential units. Both of those would sit on a 5.45 acre parcel of land that will be divided by Twin Rivers Road, which will be extended east toward the mall. The residential units would be one or two bedrooms and average about 1,000 square feet, Robert Jenkins, vice president of engineering for Howard Hughes, told The Baltimore Sun.

The buildings will become part of the new Town Center neighborhood of Warfield.

"It'll be different than the rest of Columbia, which happens to be suburban and countrified," said Suzanne Waller, the Columbia Association board member representing Town Center. "But people have told me they're hungry for some alive-ness in the downtown and I think this will certainly bring the alive-ness and people."

One of the parcels presently serves as overflow parking for the mall. With that gone, Howard Hughes is seeking to put overflow parking on about 2.6 acres of a grass owned by a subsidiary company and located between Governor Warfield Parkway and a parking lot near the lower level of Nordstrom's.

Waller is concerned about what the new development will mean for traffic and parking. Already, she said, the streets around the mall during the "late afternoon and morning times are almost at gridlock."

And future construction would add more traffic concerns — Warfield alone is slated to have another 1,000 residential units and another 283,780 square feet of retail space. In total, downtown Columbia is slated to have up to an additional 5,500 residential units.

"This is the first salvo," CA board chairman Michael Cornell said. "This is a relatively small fraction of the total that's going on. Whatever the fallout is from an additional 800 units, you're going to multiply that by seven to get the full impact of what the 5,500 units are going to do.

"I think this is a good first test case for how things are going to be handled," he added. "But in the long run there's got to be improvements to the infrastructure."

Waller and Cornell emphasized the need for alternative forms of transportation such as buses, trolleys or shuttles to and from downtown for those parking outside of the area.

Columbia will also need to be made more walkable and bicycle-friendly, including expanded pathways, they said.

County government legislation that paved the way for downtown Columbia's redevelopment has regulations ensuring that the increased traffic and parking needs will be dealt with, said council member Mary Kay Sigaty, a Columbia Democrat whose 4th District includes Town Center.

The buildings are the second project being pitched for downtown Columbia. Columbia Association is seeking to transform Symphony Woods, which encircles Merriweather Post Pavilion, into a park with walkways and, potentially, a fountain, restrooms, a stage and a café.

Both the Symphony Woods Park and Warfield construction projects are just beginning the process of receiving government approvals.