A project that could represent the "tipping point" for downtown Columbia's redevelopment cleared another hurdle Thursday night by gaining the approval of the Howard County Planning Board.
The board voted 4-1 in favor of the the first phase of the Crescent project, which will bring 206,000 square feet of office, 4,000 square feet of retail and 11,000 square feet of restaurant space, as well as a nine-story parking garage, to an undeveloped parcel of land near Merriweather Post Pavilion.
Developer Howard Hughes plans to build a mixed-use neighborhood on the site, with later phases including a hotel, residential and cultural space.
"When we get this done, a whole bunch of things are going to get done right behind it," said John DeWolf, the company's senior vice president.
DeWolf said Howard Hughes has a tenant lined up for its first office building, which will occupy a prominent position on the corner of Little Patuxent Parkway and Broken Land Parkway, at the gateway of downtown Columbia.
"We're moving as fast as we're moving because we have a tenant, and that tenant is on a rigid schedule," he said.
Groundbreaking for the project could start as soon as this fall, with an opening date of late 2016 or early 2017.
Planners described the project as an urban streetscape with natural elements. In a courtyard outside of the eight-story office building, there are plans for a landscaped terrace, with tall shade trees, a pond and plants to bolster stormwater management. A restaurant on the ground floor of the office building will spill out onto the sidewalk when the weather is nice.
On the side of the parking garage, designers plan to commission a large, kinetic work of art, which will change appearance throughout the day.
The Crescent plan approval continues the evolution of Columbia's downtown landscape. In the past two years, a new Whole Foods, health spa and luxury apartment complex have opened, and construction on a second luxury apartment building is underway.
In its spot right next to Merriweather, a busy concert venue, the Crescent development is especially sensitive to parking concerns, which Planning Board members and others raised at the meeting Thursday.
"Right now, a lot of cars can park there so a lot of people can enjoy Merriweather Post Pavilion," said Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a Democrat whose district includes Columbia's town center.
"I think it's going to be important for you, as you work through this, to include as a condition that parking in this particular development is available for Merriweather, and that they will have a guaranteed parking, and it will be enforceable, so that... we will have a healthy commercial development -- as we need -- but also a healthy Merriweather going forward."
"It's really important that we get this parking right," said Joan Lancos, a resident of the nearby Village of Hickory Ridge.
A front lot for the pavilion will lose half of its space, or about 250 parking spots, to the first phase of the new development. Howard Hughes plans to build a temporary lot with 162 spaces nearby to help accommodate concert parking next season. Once the garage is completed, visitors to the pavilion can also park there for free, DeWolf said.
He added the parking garage would likely be the "most significant Merriweather parking," and stressed that it was in the best interest of Howard Hughes, which also owns the pavilion, to ensure there is enough parking for concertgoers.
"We are so incentivized to make it work," DeWolf said.
Planning Board member Bill Santos cast the lone vote against the site plans. He said he felt the location of the nine-story parking garage along Broken Land Parkway did not fit with planning guidelines for downtown Columbia, which call for garages to be concealed from major thoroughfares.
"I just felt the parking garage... was not an ideal arrangement," he said after the meeting.
In their recommendation for approval, the other members voted to eliminate a sign along the side of the parking garage; restate parking requirements for the area; and require large shade trees to be planted on one side of the development.
Howard Hughes representatives have said plans for the next phase of the Crescent, to be developed on the property's largest parcel, could be presented to the community before the end of the year.