Building on 2014, Columbia's downtown poised for major growth in New Year

The Metropolitan Downtown Columbia has begun moving in tenants. The project is the first new construction built under a massive revitalization plan for Columbia.

Sitting inside the modern, upscale lobby of the Metropolitan Downtown Columbia on a recent morning, Sharon Redfern runs through a mental list of upcoming and completed development projects in Columbia's downtown.

Whole Foods Market, Haven on the Lake and Symphony Woods Park are ticked off with the rhythm of someone who has been following plans to revitalize Columbia's Town Center for years.


Her familiarity with the projects, however, belies Redfern status as a relative newcomer to Columbia. She was one of the first people to move into the Metropolitan, a 380-unit luxury apartment complex across from The Mall in Columbia, and built at a cost of $100 million.

Redfern moved to Columbia from Silver Spring, drawn by the 2010 Downtown Columbia Plan that promises to create a vibrant urban core in Columbia's Town Center.


"The vision and the plans for the up-and-coming Columbia, that's what drew us," she said. "It's the future."

That future came closer to becoming reality in 2014, when progress was made on a number of key downtown projects.

The high points include:

• the June announcement that $19 million will be used to renovate Merriweather Post Pavilion;


• the July groundbreaking on a nine-story commercial tower called Little Patuxent Square;

• the August opening of the first Howard County Whole Foods;

• the October grand opening of The Mall in Columbia's new expansion wing;

• the November approval by the Planning Board of the Inner Arbor Plan, which will create a $30 million arts park in downtown;

• and the December opening of Haven on the Lake, a downtown wellness retreat and spa.

The year was punctuated by the opening of Redfern's new home: the Metropolitan, the first new construction project to open under the 2010 plan.

As the calendar turned to 2015, community leaders and developers have set their sights on what lies ahead.

"2014 was an exciting year, where we really began building upon that plan and seeing that revitalization," Calvin Ball, a County Council member who represents Columbia, said, adding, "I see 2015 as a year where we will really move forward. ... a year we see continued progress."

County Councilmember Mary Kay Sigaty, who also represents Columbia, said 2014 was a year of renovation, specifically in the commercial sector.

She said she believes the focus in 2015 will be on the arts, specifically the Inner Arbor Plans for Symphony Woods Park.

"Using art to create place was an important part of the plan," Sigaty said, adding, "With the advent of 2015, one of the huge things we will see is the accelerated renovation and enhancement of Symphony Woods Park."

Michael McCall, president of the Inner Arbor, agrees 2015 will be a significant year for the project, which includes building a curated arts park to featuring an outdoor amphitheater, a playground and other attractions on 16 acres of parkland.

"I think it's going to be a big for year for us, and a big year in many regards for the downtown," he said.

McCall said he hopes to begin construction on the first phase of the park — a lightweight, shell-like outdoor amphitheater called the Chrysalis — in the coming summer. He said construction on a boardwalk over a swale, part of the project's pathway system, could also begin this year.

He said it also will be an important year for the project financially, because it is the first year the nonprofit can begin soliciting donations.

"We look forward to raising funds," McCall said.

The Howard Hughes Corp., the principal land owner and developer spearheading the revitalization, also will turn its attention to the Merriweather-Symphony Woods area.

Surrounding the park and concert venue is the crescent, a swath of woodlands owned by Howard Hughes Corp. that is slated for development.

The crescent project calls for about 5 million square feet of total development, including a 250-key hotel, 200,000 square feet of retail space, up to 4,000 parking spaces, 225,000 square feet of civic use area and 1.125 million square feet of general and medical office space.

According to John DeWolf, senior vice president for Howard Hughes Corp., the developer hopes to begin groundwork this year.

"We expect to start building the roads for the crescent this year," DeWolf said.

Preliminary plans for the crescent were submitted to the county's Department of Planning and Zoning in 2014. DeWolf said he expects them to be approved in the spring, and detailed plans for the first project, an office building, could be revealed early in the new year.

"It took us a year or so to get traction, but now we are getting to the point where we can put a pin in the map," he said.

Howard Hughes Corp., which is behind the Metropolitan development along with Kettler, has plans to build two more upscale apartment buildings, totaling 437 apartments, adjacent to the Metropolitan. Construction on those buildings, which also involves Kettler, could start this year, with completion coming as early as late 2015, depending on market factors, DeWolf said.

DeWolf added that Howard Hughes Corp. will also take a look at six downtown office buildings it acquired from mall owner General Growth Properties. The buildings, totaling 700,000 square feet of office space, are between the mall and Symphony Woods.

He said the developer is interested in adding more retail and restaurant spaces on the ground floors of the buildings, which house much of downtown's workforce.

"We want to take a good look at what we bought," he said. "The opportunity there to create gathering places is significant."

Newly-elected County Executive Allan Kittleman said his focus is on that area as well, specifically the Merriweather improvements, which the county government is involved in.

"I think right now the focus is getting the improvement done to Merriweather and hash out some issues on the crescent property," he said. "I think a lot has shifted over that way."

Kittleman said he has met with the stakeholders involved in the downtown development, and he is excited to get involved in the plans.

"I am optimistic about this year, and I really feel like we are going to move forward," he said.