Real Estate

Whole Foods to open in Columbia

The longtime headquarters of the Rouse Co. will become home to the first Howard County branch of Whole Foods Market under a $20 million plan to renovate one of the community's most prominent landmarks and draw new residents downtown.

The Howard Hughes Corp., the Dallas-based owner of the former Rouse headquarters, and Whole Foods Market of Austin, Texas, disclosed Wednesday that the upscale grocer has signed a lease for 45,000 square feet and plans to open a market by the fall of 2014 inside the largely vacant office building on Little Patuxent Parkway overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi. County officials say they expect the store to create several hundred jobs.

Also in Columbia, an open-air plaza surrounded by restaurant and retail tenants is planned for the Columbia mall in the space currently occupied by L.L. Bean, mall owner General Growth Properties announced Tuesday.

Other plans at the four-level Rouse building, designed by architect Frank Gehry, include a 30,000-square-foot fitness center with a swimming pool and restaurant as well as offices. The top-level conference space known as the Spear Room is to be retained.

The entire third level of the Gehry building will be eliminated to create high ceilings for the second-level space that Whole Foods plans to occupy. Howard Hughes plans to move its regional offices to another Columbia location so work can begin by early 2013. A formal announcement of the project is scheduled for this morning.

Whole Foods' arrival is expected to help attract new residents to downtown Columbia as envisioned in a 2010 master plan that permits construction of up to 5,500 residences near the lakefront. Construction of the first major project, a $100 million housing development called the Metropolitan Downtown Columbia, is expected to begin later this year.

The latest plan is seen as a way to preserve the stucco-clad Rouse building, which opened in 1974 as the headquarters of the firm that launched the development of Columbia 50 years ago. Rouse was sold in 2004 to General Growth Properties, which later filed for bankruptcy. Howard Hughes Corp. succeeded General Growth, which emerged from bankruptcy protection in 2010, as the master developer of Columbia in 2010.

As part of its effort to revitalize Columbia, Howard Hughes plans to convert the Rouse headquarters from a single-occupant office building to a mixed-use development. The plan, to be designed by Cho Benn Holback + Associates of Baltimore, represents one of the first examples of an adaptive reuse of a building constructed in Columbia after 1967 — and is expected to serve as a precedent for many more.

Whole Foods is the first tenant to sign a lease for the mixed-use development, which will continue to be called The Rouse Company Building.

John DeWolf, senior vice president of Howard Hughes, said the Gehry building needs extensive repairs, from new stucco and wood trellises to the replacement of mechanical systems. He said that his company has been looking for appropriate tenants to occupy the building and that Whole Foods was a good fit for both the building and the surrounding area.

"It anchors what we want to do on the waterfront, which is create a town center," DeWolf said. "Whole Foods isn't just a grocery store, it's a regional happening. … In a lot of ways, this is a game-changer."

The lease announcement comes five weeks after another upscale grocer, Wegmans, opened a 135,000-square-foot store in Columbia.

News of the Whole Foods lease signing and the Rouse Building overhaul were hailed by community leaders as a creative way to revitalize Columbia and draw people to the lakefront.

Ken Ulman, the Howard County executive, praised Howard Hughes for coming up with a plan that would preserve the Gehry building and help fulfill the objectives of the downtown master plan.

"Landing Whole Foods as an anchor is akin to leading off the game with a home run," he said. "It signifies to the broader public that this town center redevelopment that they've been hearing about is happening. When people hear 'Whole Foods,' they know it's for real. It's a great fit."

Combining Whole Foods with other uses will help draw even more people to the lakefront, he added.

"To have a grocery store, a restaurant and a fitness center is about the most active combination of uses there can be," Ulman said.

Whole Foods will be "a magnet for the kind of downtown we're looking for, and if it's in one of the most iconic buildings in the area, so much the better," said Phillips Engelke, a longtime Columbia resident and member of Howard County's Design Advisory Panel.

For the Columbia mall project, General Growth presented its site development plan to Columbia residents at a community meeting Tuesday.

The plan would remove 30,000 square feet of retail space, all of which is currently occupied by L.L. Bean and a surface parking area behind the store.

"When we remove that store, it's going to allow us to expand to about 75,000 square feet of new retail shops and restaurants, and about 25,000 square feet of open-air plaza," said Jim Kreps, senior director of design for General Growth.

Names of potential tenants were not released because negotiations are still under way, said Jim Whitcome, General Growth's senior development director.

"At this point, we have a tremendous amount of [interest from] retailers, many of which are new to the market," he said.

Asked if some of the existing mall tenants could move to the new outdoor space, the mall's senior general manager, Katie Essing, said, "It's a possibility."

The plaza will be located directly behind the ountain in front of the L.L. Bean store. The fountain will remain and will be refurbished, Whitcome said.

Lindsey McPherson of Patuxent Newspapers contributed to this article.