What Howard Hughes Corp. Senior Vice President John DeWolf called "the worst-kept secret in Howard County" was confirmed Thursday as he and other county leaders welcomed Whole Foods Market to Columbia.
On Wednesday evening, the Hughes Corp. had announced that the Austin-based grocer had signed a lease to open a 45,000-square-foot store inside the former Rouse Company Building, now owned by Hughes, in downtown Columbia. Renovations of the building could begin as early as December of this year, with the store scheduled to open in late summer or early fall of 2014.
On Thursday, the company welcomed the Austin-based grocer with a ceremony inside the building's conference room overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi.
"Every tour we had with Whole Foods we ended up in this room, we ended up with this view. It sells itself," DeWolf said.
In order to make room for Whole Foods, Howard Hughes plans to rebuild the base of the building and eliminate the third floor, a process DeWolf estimates will take a year. It will take Whole Foods an additional six to seven months to build the market.
DeWolf said Howard Hughes would like to involve the building's original architect, Frank Gehry, in the renovation project. He said Gehry has expressed interest in returning to Columbia to work on the renovation of Merriweather Post Pavilion, which Gehry also designed.
Hughes officials met with Gehry six months ago, DeWolf said. "We've got to make this happen," he said.
DeWolf said the building's original stucco exterior will be replaced with new, white stucco, and early design plans call for a cafe overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi in the conference room space, originally the office of Columbia founder Jim Rouse.
The first floor space will be leased separately, and ideally would house a fitness center, DeWolf said. DeWolf said the fourth-floor Spear center will continue to be rented out for private events.
The 250-space parking lot in front of the building will be dedicated entirely to Whole Foods, and an additional parking garage will be built by the side entrance for the building's other tenants.
DeWolf said, in the end, it was Whole Foods who pushed hardest to get the deal done, and Whole Foods officials didn't disagree.
"We are really delighted to be here," Whole Foods coordinator of mission and purpose Jill McCarthy said. "One of the reasons we came into Howard County, and specifically Columbia, was the community feel that already exists. This will be your store in Columbia."
She said the Whole Foods will add about 150 jobs to the area.
The prospect of Whole Foods coming to the lakefront building has been hinted at and debated for months.
County Executive Ken Ulman said he was thrilled about bringing Whole Foods to the Rouse building.
"It's one thing to save something, it's another thing to save it and see that it's used in a vibrant, innovative, exciting way," Ulman said.
But not everyone was as enthusiastic.
Greg Resch, general manager of David's Natural Market, an organic grocer in nearby Wilde Lake, said that while he doesn't think a Whole Foods will affect his business, Columbia was not designed to accommodate such "big-box stores."
He said his store, which has become something of an anchor for the Wilde Lake Village Center, a center that has been without a supermarket for years, sells a higher proportion of organic foods than Whole Foods. "They come across like a larger version of me, but in reality they're not," he said of Whole Foods.
Resch added: "There is room for coexistence."
Resch said Whole Foods is just the latest in a parade of national retailers coming to Columbia, a trend he decried.
"It seems like more than we need in this area," he said. "It's getting saturated with all these big-box stores coming and pushing out the smaller home-grown companies that Columbia was built on.
"It's like throwing the idea behind Columbia out the window."
Thursday's announcement about Whole Foods comes roughly six weeks after Wegmans opened a store off Snowden River Parkway in Columbia.
A Wegmans spokesperson said the company does not comment on competitors, and would not comment on Whole Foods Market coming to Columbia.