Howard County Times
Howard County

Whole Foods Market seen as stimulus for more development in Columbia

Developer James W. Rousewas a pioneer at recycling other people's buildings for new uses, including Faneuil Hall in Boston and parts of the South Street Seaport historic district in Manhattan.

Now one of the most prominent buildings he constructed from scratch — the former Rouse Co. headquarters in Columbia — is about to get a similar treatment from a successor to Rouse's firm.


The Howard Hughes Corp. of Dallas, which succeeded Rouse and General Growth Properties as the master developer of Columbia, has a $20 million plan to convert the former Rouse headquarters on Little Patuxent Parkway from a single-occupant office building to a mixed-use, multitenant development with a 41,000 square-foot Whole Foods Market as the anchor.

The project can be seen as a 21st-century version of the "adaptive reuse" projects that Rouse's company launched in the 1970s and 1980s, and it aims to draw people to Columbia's lakefront and trigger a wave of development nearby, in much the same way that Rouse's festival markets helped rejuvenate urban waterfronts decades ago.


Public officials say Whole Foods is the type of retailer that attracts other activity when it opens in an area.

"It's one thing to require that a building be saved. It's another thing to save it and see that it is used in a vibrant, innovative, exciting way that adds to the community," Howard County Executive Ken Ulman said.

Ulman said he hopes Whole Foods will attract residents to downtown Columbia as envisioned in a 2010 master plan, which permits construction of up to 5,500 residences in the town center. The first project, a $100 million, 380-unit housing and retail development called Metropolitan Downtown Columbia, was in the works before the Whole Foods lease was signed, and construction is expected to begin this year.

Ulman noted that other communities have witnessed a "Whole Foods effect," in which businesses and residents move to an area once Whole Foods does.

"Whole Foods is a great fit," he said. "Not only will it help preserve the building, it will energize the lakefront and the entire town center."

Robert Tennenbaum, an architect and longtime Columbia resident, said he questioned the adaptive-reuse approach when he first heard about it but is comfortable now that he has seen a preliminary design showing how Whole Foods can fit inside the building, with a cafe overlooking the lake.

"I feel good about it," he said. "I was pleasantly surprised. ... The issues are graphics, signage, things like that. But these are things that a developer can resolve."

Plans by Cho Benn Holback + Associates of Baltimore call for Whole Foods to be on the building's second level, accessible from the main parking lot. Other proposed uses for the four-level Rouse Building, which opened in 1974, include a fitness center on the lowest level, one or more restaurants, and retention of the top-level conference space known as the Spear Center.


The architects plan to eliminate the entire third level of the Frank Gehry-designed building to create high ceilings for Whole Foods' space, a move that will reduce the amount of space in the building from 160,000 to 120,000 square feet. Construction will begin in early 2013 and will be completed by fall 2014.

Rouse was acquired in 2004 by General Growth Properties, which later filed for bankruptcy protection. When GGP emerged from bankruptcy in 2010, GGP kept the regional shopping centers Rouse built and Howard Hughes assumed control of its planned communities and certain other properties, including the Gehry building. Since late 2010, Howard Hughes has used the building to house its regional offices and has been its sole occupant. About 12 employees work there now, down from a high of 500 to 600 when Rouse was there.

John DeWolf, senior vice president for Howard Hughes, said the mixed-use plan might not have materialized if the company hadn't had difficulty accommodating Whole Foods at another location.

DeWolf explained that Howard Hughes had been negotiating to lease space to Whole Foods on the first level of the Metropolitan but was having difficulty working out the parking arrangements.

DeWolf said Howard Hughes representatives met at their offices in the Gehry building to discuss possible ways to satisfy Whole Foods. One day, they had the idea of moving Whole Foods from the Metropolitan site to the Gehry building, which has more than 200 adjoining parking spaces.

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"It was an epiphany," he said.


With the conversion strategy set for the Rouse building, DeWolf and other Howard Hughes executives are exploring ideas for additional development nearby — and not just for office use.

South of the Gehry building, DeWolf said, Howard Hughes envisions building a parking deck that would be capable of supporting a structure above it in the future. Howard Hughes is looking at renovating the lower levels of the nearby American City Building and the Teachers Building to add more retail space. It's also considering building 250 to 300 residences near the lakefront, either for rent or for sale.

"Now that we have Whole Foods in place," he said, "we think the potential is very strong."

DeWolf acknowledged that another option for Whole Foods would have been to build a market from the ground up on the parking lot next to the Rouse building and keep searching for office tenants for the Gehry structure. But he said the more executives thought about putting Whole Foods in the Gehry building, the more they were intrigued with the idea and the way it could invigorate the lakefront.

"We kind of fell in love with it this idea," he said. "In a lot of ways, this is a game-changer."