It has been more than a decade since a new commercial office building was built in downtown Columbia, a drought some say contributed to a vapid atmosphere downtown.
David Costello knows the story, and the environment, all too well because his company, Costello Construction, was the last to build an office structure more than 12 years ago.
"It's starting to become more vibrant, but it was dead. It was dead for 10 years," said Costello, whose offices are located on the downtown lakefront. "I sit at my office and look out and won't see anybody for three or four hours at a time."
On Tuesday, Costello and his business partner, Kingdon Gould Jr., a 90-year-old developer and former U.S. ambassador, took a step toward reviving the area by breaking ground on Little Patuxent Square -- a nine-story, $75 million mixed-use commercial building to be built on a vacant lot between the lakefront and the Columbia Mall.
Costello said the project is a true mixed-use. It will house 160 rental apartment units and 160,000 square feet of office and retail. He said 120,000 square feet of the project has been pre-leased to a Maryland-based technology company, but did not disclose the name.
The project also will house 740 below-ground parking spaces. It is expected to be complete in July 2016.
Development of the site has been a long time coming and has caused anxiety among residents. A former owner proposed building a 22-story building on the site, but eventually abandoned the plan, which was opposed, after encountering financial troubles during the recession.
The property sat idle until Costello bought it in 2012 and began working on the current project. He said the ground-breaking signifies a new beginning for downtown.
"It means more to me, frankly, as a member of the community than it does as a business person. And I mean that sincerely," Costello said. "I love the fact that it means more people. It means we are bringing people, bringing jobs, bringing commerce. As a guy who sits in a desk 100 yards away, I want to see people."
Gould said he like the idea of developing in Columbia and that he thought it was ideal for this kind of project.
"The fact that it's multi-use -- that gives you a balance between residential and commercial space, which is an advantage," he said.
Gould, who moved to Howard County in 1951, also reflected on watching Columbia develop from farmland into a community of 100,000 residents.
"I think this is the best possible way the area could've developed," he said.
The Little Patuxent Square project is one of many under development in downtown Columbia, which is undergoing a massive, planned redevelopment.
Principal downtown Columbia land owner the Howard Hughes Corp. is developing several projects: the Metropolitan Downtown Columbia, a 380-unit apartment complex located on the opposite side of the mall, is set to open in the fall; the Warfield development, a two-structure residential and retail project located adjacent to the Metropolitan, could begin construction next year; and grand plans for the Crescent, a $1 billion multi-phase development with 5 million square feet of retail, office, residential and civic spaces are expected to be presented to the county for approval next year.
There are also several redevelopments taking place: Merriweather Post Pavilion will undergo a $19 million renovation starting this fall, and the former Rouse Co. building is nearing the end of a $25 million renovation. The building will house a Whole Foods Market opening Aug. 20 and a mind-body wellness retreat operated by the Columbia Association, which broke ground on that project last week.
There is also the Inner Arbor Plan, a proposal to build a curated arts park in Symphony Woods, 36 acres of open space north of Merriweather. The first pieces of the park are expected to be built next year.
County Executive Ken Ulman said all the development makes it "an exciting time to live, work and play in downtown Columbia."
Mary Kay Sigaty, county council woman representing downtown, talked about the project's history in her comments to the crowd. She said the final product demonstrates how a community and developer can work together.
"This parcel caused us a great deal of consternation," she said. "I think the collaboration with Mr. Costello. ... working with the [Town Center Village Board] as the voice of the people here in this community. As a a partnership, it's the way we need to do things in town. ... We end up with projects we can be proud of and support."
This story has been updated.