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County approves 9-story building in downtown Columbia

Plans to build a nine-story building in downtown Columbia's lakefront neighborhood were approved last week, allowing construction on the long-awaited project to begin in the spring.

The building, known as Little Patuxent Square, will be a mix of office, residential and retail space. Construction is slated to begin in mid-March, and is expected to be completed in January 2016, according to developer Costello Construction.

"It's a huge step for downtown Columbia," said David Costello, owner of Costello Construction.

Costello's revisions to the original plans for the site were unanimously approved by the Howard County Planning Board at a Jan. 2 meeting, a blessing that he said "is a big deal" for the controversial development, which has evolved from a polarizing 22-story condominium development into the current project.

The board's approval is a bit of a formality for Costello, which has been sitting on an active building permit for excavation and groundwork for the $65 million project. The permit came with Costello's purchase of the parcel from former owner WCI Communities for $3.5 million in 2012.

Costello said the group wanted to wait on construction until receiving approval from the board and presenting the plans to other stakeholders, like the Town Center Village Board.

"We have a degree of confidence that it has already been well received by the public," he said.

Costello said the approval allows the group to ramp up marketing for the project and start on a construction schedule, which is a long time coming for the once-stagnant development.

Plans for Little Patuxent Square include 160 rental units, a small portion of which will be affordable units; 10,145 square feet of retail space; 126,181 square feet of office space; and a 534-space underground parking garage.

WCI's original proposal, presented in 2005, was to build a 22-story tower on the site. The proposal drew the ire of residents who opposed the size of the development, saying it was a departure from the character of Columbia.

The proposal raised such hoopla that Town Center Village Board member and nearby resident Joel Broida filed a lawsuit against the original developer, which has still not been resolved.

Broida, who attended last week's meeting, would not comment on the development or the suit.

'Redline revision'

At the Jan. 2 meeting, three residents spoke out against the project, largely questioning why the development was not subject to the rigorous 16-step process outlined in the Downtown Columbia Master Plan.

According to Marsha McLaughlin, the county's director of Planning and Zoning, the development is not subject to the process because it was submitted prior to the approval of the process, which was passed in 2010.

Instead of going through the 16-steps, the property was processed as a "redline revision," customarily used for minor changes.

"This property was singled out because it is the only property in all of downtown that was kind of in limbo," McLaughlin said. "We've chosen to process this as a redline because it is the best way to accommodate [it]."

Russ Swatek, a Columbia resident and member of the Columbia Association's board of directors, requested the Planning Board deny the redline and make the developer go back through the process.

Board member Bill Santos said the property "is a peculiar case," and echoed his fellow Board members in supporting the redline revision.

Maria Miller of the Downtown Housing Corp., a nonprofit formed by the master plan to oversee housing in downtown, spoke in favor of the plan and applauded the developer's willingness to add affordable housing to the development even though they were not required to.

Costello said affordable housing is "good for the community and good for compliance with the overall intent of downtown Columbia."

Costello estimated between five and 15 units would be designated as affordable housing.

The opening of the building could be delayed by road construction as the county stipulated occupancy permits be withheld until a third traffic lane is constructed at the intersection of Little Patuxent Parkway and Governor Warfield Parkway.

Costello built the nearby Columbia Lakefront building on Wincopin Circle and has been based there since 2001.

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