A large undeveloped Elkridge parcel, on the tip of Columbia, is being transformed into a sprawling retail and commercial center.
The 123-acre project, Gateway Overlook, will include 66 residential units and at least two so-called big-box stores that will anchor the commercial component and serve as magnets, or customer draws, for the remaining retailers.
Howard County government sources said they believe the two anchors will be Costco Wholesale Corp. and Lowe's Cos. Inc. There also is speculation that Trader Joe's, a specialty grocery chain, will locate at the site. Gateway Overlook is being developed by Chicago-based General Growth Properties Inc., which acquired the property as part of its $12.6 billion acquisition of the Rouse Co. 15 months ago.
Dennis W. Miller, vice president and general manager of Columbia for the developer, declined to say if Costco and Lowe's have committed to the project.
"We're still negotiating with several tenants," he said. But Miller acknowledged that the giant retailers are "two users we are talking with."
The property is elevated and bounded by Route 175, Route 108, Lark Brown Road and Old Waterloo Road. On the opposite side of Route 175 is Columbia Gateway, the largest business park in the county - thus the development's name: Gateway Overlook.
The commercial and residential components will encompass a half-million square feet, Miller said.
The Ryland Group Inc., which had its corporate headquarters in Columbia before relocating to California in 2000 and has built hundreds of houses in the planned community, will develop the residential component of the project, Miller said.
Those units, he said, will be attached units, not freestanding single-family homes.
Ryland is one of the nation's largest homebuilders, and last year it constructed 16,773 units.
The clearing and grading of the land began several months ago and is almost complete.
Nearby residents have speculated for months that Costco, a national membership warehouse retailer, planned a unit at Gateway Overlook.
"It's my understanding that both Costco and Lowe's are coming," said a top county official who asked to remain anonymous because of continuing negotiations. "I heard there are three contracts, and those are two of the three."
Costco operates about 470 warehouses, almost 350 of which are in the United States. One of its chief competitors, BJ's Wholesale Club, has a unit off Snowden River Parkway, about a mile away.
Lowe's is a home improvement retailer with more than 1,200 stores nationally.
Trader Joe's - or TJ's as it commonly referred to - also is the subject of speculation. One county official declared the chain would open at Gateway Overlook, but then hedged.
"I was told by someone in the commercial-retail industry that Trader Joe's has a deal to go into the new center," said County Councilman Ken Ulman.
Ulman said he asked whether the agreement is firm. "And I was told, 'Yes, it's a done deal.'"
BusinessWeek reported that TJ's strategy of offering "eclectic and upscale foodstuffs for the wine and cheese set at down to earth prices" has proved "phenomenally lucrative."
The company has about 200 locations, seven of which are in Maryland.
Miller said the timing of construction is uncertain because he expects "a couple of tenants will buy land and build their buildings."
The stretch from U.S. 1 in Jessup to Snowden River Parkway is undergoing significant change.
In addition to General Growth's development, Atlantic Realty Cos. spent $9 million last year to convert 14 acres off U.S. 1 that once housed a Burlington Coat Factory into 60 commercial condominiums. And Ryan Homes and Patriot Homes are building several hundred housing units off Route 175 near Snowden River Parkway.
Gateway Overlook's 123 acres and the 51 acres near Merriweather Post Pavilion are the final substantive parcels of undeveloped land abutting or in Columbia.
Miller said, though, that one should not conclude that development would cease when those parcels are built out.
"There are many opportunities for redevelopment," he said. "... When citizens and business leaders are willing to reinvest in their community, that's a healthy sign."
Richard W. Story, chief executive officer of the county Economic Development Authority, has said that there will be two kinds of development when the large parcels are gone: in-fill and redevelopment.
As the Columbia Gateway business park builds out, for example, Story said he believes that some of the initial single-story office complexes will be razed to make room for multistory office buildings.
"In development," Miller said, "there is not a time when you are done."