New development proposed at Columbia mall

A large-scale development project at the Mall in Columbia that would remove 30,000 square feet of existing retail space and add a 75,000-square-feet "lifestyle center" will be shared with the public at a community meeting Jan. 17 at Howard Community College.

Katie Essing, the mall's senior general manager, declined to comment on the specifics of the proposed project, but in a statement said the mall "is excited to begin the planning and design process of the center's future expansion." She said the community meeting would be "the first of many steps needed to gain the support and approval of Howard County and the surrounding communities."

At the meeting, residents will have a chance to view the general plans for the project, as well as the layout of the additional square footage, Essing said in the statement.

Marsha McLaughlin, the county's director of planning and zoning, said the "pre-submission" community meeting is a mandatory step developers must take before bringing their plans to her department.

"We don't have any plans in, so I can't tell you any specifics," she said.

But McLaughlin said a lifestyle center, in general, is a specific type of mall development that features an outdoor, open design, as opposed to the contained, indoor retail design that dominated the Mall in Columbia until the L.L. Bean Store, AMC Columbia movie theater and various restaurants were built at the rear of the mall about a decade ago, opening it up to the outdoors.

"A lifestyle center is a more recent but increasingly popular strategy that probably is a little bit like an old-fashioned Main Street," McLaughlin said, noting such centers usually have shops that open directly into outdoor walking areas.

It is not clear where the new development would be, or what part of the mall's existing retail space would be lost to the new center.

But the overall concept, McLaughlin said, is "quite appropriate" for the area as it begins to reinvent itself through the downtown Columbia master plan.

"I think one of the things that people are hoping will come out of the plan is that we will have more of a connected streetscape, where you have opportunities for people to walk along sidewalks," she said. "I think the idea of having some of the mall spilling out to more sidewalk-oriented shops is in line with the idea of connecting the mall to downtown."

Not everyone is so enthusiastic, however, especially considering the uncertainties surrounding the mall's plans.

"People do have concerns, especially about parking," said Barbara Russell, a member of the Howard County Citizens Association board and a former chairwoman of the Columbia Association.

Russell noted that on the Friday before Christmas, she spent 45 minutes looking for a parking spot at the mall before deciding to leave, never having shopped. It then took her 30 more minutes just to get out of the parking lot, she said.

"I know that that's a heavy shopping time, but plans are calling for bringing all kinds of development, both commercial and residential and office and everything, into the area, and people are very concerned about the already existing problems at peak times with parking access, traffic, all that," Russell said.

Michael Pieranunzi, of Century Engineering, who is listed on the county's website as the contact for the project, did not return requests for comment.

A spokeswoman for General Growth Properties, which owns the mall, also could not be reached for comment.

The community meeting will be held at Howard Community College, Room 400, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia, at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 17.

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