Just a decade ago, the General Electric Co. produced microwaves and ranges at what was hailed as the county's premier manufacturing park.
The appliance manufacturer closed its east Columbia operation by the mid-1980s. And now the only microwaves and ranges that can be found on that land are at Best Buy, one of nine warehouse-style retail stores that since have opened on the 1,100-acre property.
This transition -- from manufacturing to retail pursuits -- symbolizes the transformation of this huge abandoned industrial park, bounded by Interstate 95 and Route 175, into a bustling area with some of the same variety found in the rest of Columbia.
The latest major change to be injected in the former GE area's new mix is housing: 650 townhouses, condominiums and apartments -- planned homes that would be just a short walk from a proposed 10-screen cinema also on the site.
So many shoppers have been flocking to the 2-year-old Snowden Square "big box" retail center -- one of the first major steps in redeveloping the former GE site -- that the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer, is planning to build a similar center a short distance away, off Route 175.
But many nearby residents also have been concerned by the increasing traffic drawn by the burgeoning development, and now they worry that the addition of a high-density residential complex could clog roads more.
Nevertheless, Howard County and Rouse officials say the redevelopment of the former GE parcel is a key element in the county's economic development. And they're more than pleased that it lately has shown signs of turning into something more than an industrial wasteland.
"It sure is nice to see something active there again," said Alton J. Scavo, a vice president with Rouse, which recruited GE as the employment-base cornerstone of its fledgling Columbia project in 1970 and then reacquired the abandoned land between 1985 and 1990.
"In so many [industrial] areas in the Washington-Baltimore region, you can see the hulks of what once was," Mr. Scavo said, noting that many major manufacturers have shifted operations to other regions. "We're very pleased something positive is coming out of this."
GE never fulfilled its original expectations during its 15 years at the park, constructing only four buildings of an anticipated seven- to nine-building complex and employing less than a third of its projected 10,000-member work force.
Since reacquiring the site, Rouse has developed the Gateway office and research and development complex, brokered the Snowden Square retail center, lined up the planned cinema and housing ventures and leased or sold three of General Electric's four huge buildings, including nearly 1 million square feet to Sears, Roebuck & Co. for a warehouse and distribution facility. However, hundreds of acres designated for warehouse and office use remain on the market.
The developer even has used the GE land as a bargaining chip with the nonprofit Columbia Association, the agency that runs Columbia's amenities. Earlier this year, Rouse agreed to sell the association 5 acres on the former GE site for $1 million for a recreational vehicle storage facility in exchange for placing the Snowden Square retail center and the planned 650-home development under the association's annual property charge.
County officials, who worked with Rouse in rezoning the land from manufacturing to allow a mix of uses, are pleased to see progress.
"It's certainly increased tax revenues for the county and provided an opportunity for housing and employment," said Marsha McLaughlin, assistant planning director.
Richard Story, executive director of the county's Economic Development Authority, said the redevelopment effort gives the county prime property to market.
"From a salesman's perspective, it's really good to have an inventory on the shelf to offer to clients," he said. "This has served that purpose well. The mix of tenants is very good."
Mr. Story said the authority is working with an investment firm that has a purchase option on the last vacant General Electric building, a 550,000-square-foot structure. The authority is attempting to find prospective users, he said.
Because the former industrial parcel is largely separated from residential communities by major roads, railroad tracks and other business centers, Rouse has encountered little opposition in carrying out its redevelopment plans. That pattern likely will continue with the proposal to develop up to 650 housing units on a 54-acre corner of the site between Oakland Mills Road and Robert Fulton Drive, just south of Snowden River Parkway.
The county is reviewing an Owings Mills developer's preliminary plans for the first phase -- 112 townhouses on 10 acres. Mr. Scavo of Rouse, which equips residential sites with roads and other infrastructure before selling lots to homebuilders, said construction likely will begin next year.
The board representing Owen Brown village -- a community whose population would increase by nearly 20 percent to about 11,500 with the addition of 650 homes -- supports the proposal. But village board Chairwoman Wanda Hurt expressed concern that traffic on already congested roads will worsen and crowded schools will be overburdened.
Rush hour worries
"If you fit in that many townhouses, you're going to have a failing road system at rush hour," she said.
A consultant's traffic study for the proposed 650-home development says that with improvements to the intersection of Oakland Mills Road and Snowden River Parkway, congestion at peak hours will be similar to conditions now during peak hours.
The traffic study shows that congestion at that intersection already is at a level considered minimally acceptable by the county, under its adequate public facilities ordinance -- a set rules aimed at preventing overcrowded schools, roads and other public facilities.
County planners say the development also is acceptable according to that ordinance's guideline for elementary school capacity. Students living in the new development would attend Jeffers Hill Elementary School.
A possible stumbling block in bringing new uses to the former GE site is that it contains several closed hazardous waste dumps and areas of soil and ground water contamination caused by manufacturing byproducts and underground storage tanks.
A cleanup project there is being monitored by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which says contamination has been contained and poses minimal risks to surrounding areas.
No contamination has been detected on the site proposed for housing, said county planner Michael Antol.
And Mr. Scavo of Rouse says the company has done many environmental studies of the 1,100-acre tract, and is satisfied that GE has been cleaning up contamination pursuant to federal law. Firms buying land from Rouse there also perform their own tests -- typically a requirement to obtain financing.
"This was not a refinery," Mr. Scavo said. "The type of byproducts created were pretty benign. It's no different than buying a piece of farm property with the storage of fertilizer and fuel tanks."
He adds that a slump during the last several years in the industrial park and office building markets -- more than any environmental problems -- has hindered efforts to sell the former GE property.
"We wouldn't have purchased the property if we thought it couldn't be resold," he said.