Local officials excited, encouraged by first new downtown Columbia building

Local officials — many of whom have waited years as the redevelopment of downtown Columbia has been debated and discussed, and pondered and pitched — say they are excited that construction on the first new building could soon be beginning, and encouraged by what that building could look like.

"They say this is going to set the tone as the first building," said state Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat whose district includes downtown Columbia. "I hope it does."

Bobo called the project "very creative" and "classy."

What is being proposed is an estimated $100 million project that will bring 380 apartments and about 14,000 square feet of retail, as well as a public promenade, to a parcel of land near the Columbia mall. More development is expected to come in several areas around downtown.

Officials with project developers Orchard Development, Kettler and Howard Hughes Corp will hold a pre-submission community hearing on Tuesday, May 22 at 6:30 p.m. in Room 400 of The Rouse Company Foundation Student Services Hall at Howard Community College.

Bobo, speaking shortly after a meeting with the project's developers, said what she saw and heard was a welcome change from what had been discussed before.

"It has been a long haul of well over five years of, in my opinion, looking at plans that were not thought out and did not hang together. There was nothing unique in them, no really classy design," Bobo said.

But this project, she said, "really looks to me like we're going to get some really quality, classy, well thought out development."

This proposed building would be five to six stories, much of it high-end residences, 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, said Asheel Shah, Kettler's senior vice president of real estate investments.

Three or four retail establishments would be on a portion of the first floor. There would be several amenities both inside and outside, including multiple courtyards, a swimming pool, a fire pit, a fitness center and a space outside for projecting movies, Shah said.

The building "has a lot of life to it," said Suzanne Waller, the Columbia Association board member who represents Town Center, which includes downtown Columbia. "It'll add vitality to downtown."

She said the area could eventually have the vibrancy of Bethesda. "That dynamism is what I'm looking for, and a lot of people in Columbia are looking for," she said.

Waller did have some concerns, however, including the flow of traffic in the area once it is built up to a total of 5,500 residences, plus retail. Another concern, she said, is where a required percentage of affordable housing in downtown Columbia will go.

"This doesn't look like it's affordable housing," she said of the proposed building. "But that doesn't mean that [the percentage] can't be achieved in another way. There will be other buildings."

Developers are looking to move quickly on the project, 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.

"We have been planning and working toward action for quite some time. I'm pleased to see that we're moving forward with the redevelopment downtown," said County Council member Calvin Ball, a Columbia Democrat. "And I'm excited about what's on the horizon."

Howard Hughes is planning to put two mixed-use buildings on land just to the north of this project, said John DeWolf, the company's senior vice president. Those buildings could be open as soon as 2015, though DeWolf said the company is first seeking to set up a partnership with other developers, possibly the same companies working on the first project.

Projects near Lake Kittamaqundi and the "Crescent" land near Merriweather Post Pavilion and Symphony Woods could soon follow, he said.

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