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GGP plans 'open-air plaza' at Columbia mall

Restaurants, retail will replace space occupied by L.L. Bean

By Lindsey McPherson, lmcpherson@patuxent.com

1:58 PM EDT, July 25, 2012

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An "open-air plaza" surrounded by yet-to-be-selected restaurant and retail tenants is planned to be built at the Columbia mall in the space currently occupied by L.L. Bean, mall owner General Growth Properties announced Tuesday, July 24.

GGP presented its site development plan for what has been termed a "lifestyle center" to about two dozen Columbia residents at a pre-submission community meeting held in the Rouse Student Services Building at Howard Community College.

The plan is to remove 30,000 square feet of retail space, all of which is currently occupied by L.L. Bean and the small surface parking area behind the store.

"When we remove that store, it's going to allow us to expand to about 75,000 square feet of new retail shops and restaurants, and about 25,000 square feet of open air plaza," said Jim Kreps, senior director of design for GGP.

Names of potential tenants for the new space are not being released at this time because negotiations are still underway, according to GGP Senior Development Director Jim Whitcome.

"At this point, we have a tremendous amount of (interest from) retailers, many of which are new to the market," he said.

Asked if some of the existing mall tenants could move to the new outdoor space, mall Senior General Manager Katie Essing said: "It's a possibility."

Though the mix of restaurants and retail has not yet been determined, Essing said the corner spaces on either side of the plaza are envisioned as restaurants to continue the chain that currently runs from The Cheesecake Factory to P.F. Chang's. The rest of the space along the plaza is envisioned as retail.

The plaza, planned to be 55 to 65 feet wide, will be located directly behind the existing fountain in front of the L.L. Bean store. The fountain will remain and will be refurbished, Whitcome said.

The open-air plaza is planned to directly connect with the Warfield neighborhood, where Howard Hughes is building a mix of residential and retail on empty parcels across the parking lot.

"Overall, we're creating a new outdoor environment ... and at the same time some very exciting and interesting tenants that will unfold," Kreps said.

At the end of the plaza will be an entrance to the mall, located where the J.Crew store is now. The space had been previously used as an entrance before the L.L. Bean store was built. Public restrooms, accessible only from outside the mall, will be located directly to the left of the entrance.

J.Crew is moving to another space within the mall, just a few storefronts down from its current location, in about four to six weeks, Essing said. As construction on the entrance is not expected to begin until 2013, she said the space will be used for temporary tenants, likely one serving holiday shopping needs.

L.L. Bean, which has been in its existing space for about a decade, volunteered to downsize, according to Whitcome, who said negotiations for relocating the store are still in progress.

"We are in constant negotiations with them, and we want them to stay … but at this point there's no resolution," Whitcome said.

Tom Metzger, store manager of the L.L. Bean who attended the meeting, also cited the ongoing negotiations.

"We are still interested in the Columbia area," he said. "It's just a matter of finding the right retail space for us."

The downsizing, Metzger explained, is in line with corporate plans to operate smaller stores.

Parking concerns

Though no additional parking is required or planned to be built as a part of the project, several residents raised concerns about it, noting that finding parking already is difficult at times.

Town Center resident Helen Ruther asked questions about what would happen to the part of the parking lot that would be needed to make the direct pedestrian connection to the Warfield neighborhood that's depicted in the Master Plan for downtown Columbia development.

GGP officials did not directly answer the question, saying the parking lot in front of the plaza would not be touched as a part of this project. The amenity space required by the Master Plan, GGP added, does not have to be developed until 50 percent of the neighborhood perimeter has been developed.

Ruther and Columbia resident Ursula Kondo both raised concerns about handicapped parking. The handicapped spots in front of the L.L. Bean are "always taken," Kondo said.

Whitcome said additional handicapped spaces will be designated on the southeast end of the Oak Garage (often referred to as the Nordstrom parking deck), where a new stairway and elevator will be built. The exit from the elevator and stairway will lead to a 23-foot wide walkway between the two buildings on the left side of the plaza.

Regarding the overall parking complaints, Whitcome said: "Everybody would like us to, and we would like to, design (parking) for Black Friday ... but that's difficult to do."

County parking requirements vary by uses, so exact parking requirements won't be specified until GGP selects the mix of restaurants and retail it plans to use in the new space. However, with the mix that's envisioned, Whitcome said GGP already has more than enough parking spaces to meet the requirements.

In addition to the concerns, the residents also offered some positive feedback on the plan.

"I really like your design," Kondo said. "I'm very pleased to see this, and I hope this will all work out."

GGP is scheduled to present its site development plan to the county's Design Advisory Panel for comments on Aug. 8, at 7:30 p.m., at the George Howard Building, in Ellicott City. The plan will then go to the county Department of Planning and Zoning, and eventually to the Planning Board for final approval, which GGP officials said they are hoping to have by the end of the year.

If that happens, GGP said construction would likely begin in January 2013 with the space available for tenants to start moving in around August 2013.