Columbia Mall Development Meeting

Plans for the development of the Columbia mall were displayed at a meeting at HCC on January 17. (Noah Scialom, Patuxent Homestead / January 17, 2012)

New development plans for the Mall in Columbia call for a large amount of retail space to be constructed at the heart of the mall's existing physical footprint in downtown Columbia, according to plans revealed at a community meeting Tuesday, Jan. 17.

The proposed 75,000-square-feet "lifestyle center" would replace the mall's L.L. Bean store and either replace or make changes to a parking garage and surface parking lots between the AMC Columbia movie theater and Nordstrom.

Tuesday's meeting attracted more than 50 residents, who were provided a presentation on the plans by consultants to the mall's owner, General Growth Properties, Inc., and shown initial renderings of where the development would be built.

In total, the project will remove 30,000 square feet of existing retail space and add one or two two-story buildings that connect to the outdoors through outward-facing storefronts. It will be the first phase of broader changes at the mall that will come with the planned redevelopment of the downtown area in years to come, planners said.

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Many details about the project, including what retailers may fill the new retail space, what will happen with the L.L. Bean store and whether the project will include a parking garage of its own, have not been determined, according to Katie Essing, the mall's senior general manager.

"All of those details will follow as the process moves forward," Essing said. "It's really a first step, and it's really important to hear the feedback from the community."

Cy Paumier, an urban design consultant who used to work for the Rouse Company, said he was underwhelmed.

"It's boring," he said. "It's very repetitive. We've heard most of this before."

Architect Bob Tennenbaum, who welcomed Paumier at Rouse in the late 1960s, agreed, questioning why the planners wouldn't provide more details.

"When people walk out, everyone's going to say, 'What is it?'" Tennenbaum said. "When Jim Rouse did it, there was a goal."

'Shut up and listen'

The meeting became contentious during a question-and-answer session, with residents accusing the planners of withholding key details.

Planners noted that the mall and its partners in the project are subject to a new, 16-step land development review process for Columbia and its downtown neighborhoods. That process requires a phased approach to development and community dialogue before plans can be set in stone.

Jim Whitcome, senior development director for GGP, showed his frustration with the limitations that process placed on him and his fellow developers, bristling when residents asked for more information and at one point asking a colleague, "Can I tell them that?"

Residents at first seemed unconvinced that his hands were tied.

"You're hiding a concept that we all know you have," Tennenbaum said during the session. "Don't imagine that we're going to walk out of here and say, 'Wow, this is terrific!'"

Whitcome responded, "I don't like being accused of holding things from people," before adding he is anxious to move through the process and get to the point where he can show more detailed plans.

Cynthia Coyle, of Harper's Choice and a member of the Columbia Association's board of directors, said she came to the meeting "with the greatest hopes" for the mall, but felt the planners' presentation was weak.

"Don't take away that we mistrust you," she said to the planners. "Take away that it's a bad presentation.

The mood only calmed after a few residents stood up in support of the planners.