The first new building in what will become a significant investment in downtown Columbia is itself a sizable investment — an estimated $100 million project that will bring 380 apartments and about 14,000 square feet of retail and a public promenade to land near the Columbia mall.
"A lot of people have been waiting a long time to see Columbia become what's envisioned for downtown," said L. Earl Armiger, president of Orchard Development, one of three developers behind the project. "This is going to get the ball rolling. It's going to be a 'wow' project, more upscale than anything Howard County has seen ever."
Officials with Orchard, Kettler and Howard Hughes Corp. will hold a pre-submission community meeting on Tuesday, May 22 at 6:30 p.m. in Room 400 of The Rouse Company Foundation Student Services Hall at Howard Community College. The developers spoke with the Howard County Times in advance of the meeting.
The meeting will kick off the site development plan process for the project. Developers are looking to move quickly, hoping to begin site preparation work before the end of this year, start construction early next year, and move in the building's first residents by the second quarter of 2014.
More projects on other downtown land would soon follow, on property near the mall, near Lake Kittamaqundi, and around Merriweather Post Pavilion and Symphony Woods, according to John DeWolf, senior vice president for Howard Hughes.
But the first is a building, named The Metropolitan Downtown Columbia, that would include luxury apartments, including loft, one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments, ranging in size from about 600 square feet to about 1,400 square feet, and ranging in monthly rents from about $1,500 all the way up to $2,800.
The demand is there for these kind of high-end urban residences, said Asheel Shah, Kettler's senior vice president of real estate investments.
"We feel this area is not underserved — it's just not served [at all] for high-end multi-family residences," Shah said. "Overall Columbia and Howard County is incredibly attractive. The demographics in this area are fantastic. The school system is outstanding. And the wave of homeownership is changing. More and more people are looking to rent their home.
"We really embrace the urban model. It will represent some change for what's historically been here in Columbia, but we think that it will catch on, and catch on fast," he said.
Creating an 'urban space'
The building itself will be five or six stories, with "more luxurious finishes" throughout and with numerous amenities both inside and outside, Shah said, including a large promenade to the east of the building that will be open to the public, and that eventually will run in a line with other green spaces by other proposed buildings.
"This is one of the only places in downtown Columbia where kids can run around outside while people shop or have a cup of coffee," he said. "We are absolutely trying to create an urban space that is vibrant. Ultimately those types of things attract more people, and continue to attract more people to want to be at your project."
There will also be multiple courtyards, a swimming pool, a fire pit, a fitness center, and a space outside for projecting movies, he said.
A portion of the first floor will be dedicated to three or four retail establishments, which could include businesses such as a coffee shop, convenience store, dry cleaner or restaurant.
"It's pedestrian-friendly, within walking distance to amenities," Shah said. "I don't know how much better you can get here than walking to the shopping and dining."
Parking for the building would be fully contained within the southern side of the building.
"We don't want to be dependent on any adjacent owner for any of our parking needs," Shah said.
More on tap
Meanwhile, more projects are in the works nearby.
Howard Hughes is planning to put two mixed-use buildings on land just to the north of this project. Those buildings could be open as soon as 2015, DeWolf said, though the company is first seeking to set up a partnership with other developers, possibly the same companies working on the first project.
Bob Jenkins, vice president of engineering for Howard Hughes, accentuated that the company will remain involved in the development of downtown Columbia, and will not merely build projects and then seek to sell them to others.
"We're long-term holders of the property," he said. "We have a vested interest in making sure the whole thing happens."
Projects near Lake Kittamaqundi and the "Crescent" land near Merriweather Post Pavilion and Symphony Woods could soon follow.
All the while, more development could be going on in downtown Columbia, including the Columbia Association's plans to turn Symphony Woods into a more vibrant park, and General Growth Properties' desire to open up part of the Columbia mall and make it more pedestrian-friendly and better integrated with the surrounding redevelopment.
"We want people to live in these apartments. We want them to park in the parking deck, walk to the mall, to the waterfront, to the amphitheater, and then when they need to leave Columbia they go back to their car," DeWolf said.
This is the first new building, but this is just the beginning, he said, of a place where people live, eat, shop and work downtown, and possibly go to college classes or medical facilities.
"This will be a bit of a snowball going down a hill," he said. "This is the start, but there will be some critical mass that happens, too.
"It won't just be the residential. I'll be a re-envisioning of Merriweather. It'll be the adding of things, like a great grocery store, some more great restaurants, redoing the restaurants here.
"What I'd like to see is us well under way to a lot of this," DeWolf said, "that we're building inside of the 'Crescent' inside of five years."