Gregory F. Hamm, 45, an executive with nearly 20 years of experience in planning and development, recently took over as regional vice president and general manager of Columbia for General Growth Properties Inc. He replaced Douglas M. Godine,who had worked as first vice president, development, with responsibility for Columbia, since March 2006.
Hamm,who has been a consultant for General Growth and has maintained an office in Columbia for more than a year, has held leadership roles in Reston Town Center in Reston, Va., Dulles Station in Herndon, Va., and other large, mixed-use projects in the region. In his new position, Hamm will oversee planning for redevelopment of downtown and also assumes chief responsibility for the redevelopment of Landmark Mall in Alexandria, Va.
Sun reporter June Arney interviewed Hamm about his new responsibilities, his understanding of Columbia founder James W. Rouse's vision and his dreams for Columbia's future.
You showed some independence in challenging The Mall in Columbia policy about the poinsettia tree that led to its reversal. Does that decision indicate anything about your style?
The decision to restore the poinsettia tree was a good decision. The management team continually evaluates its customers' likes and dislikes, and we were able to discuss it in the context of the broader community, as well. We know that we are more than the owners of The Mall in Columbia. Management agreed that it made a lot of sense to move it back. I don't think that anyone anticipated that there was that much sentiment about the poinsettia tree. It shows that people really care about their community in a way that makes it different from a subdivision.
I like to work collaboratively, and within our organization that means collaborating with our very good asset management team. When I am involved in a development, I try to put myself in the place of the people who live there. I try to hold myself to that standard. ... It's obvious when it's an important issue, and this was. General Growth takes those things very seriously.
The redevelopment of Town Center in Columbia seems to some as though it will never occur. It has been discussed for more than two years, and still there is no concrete plan. What do you think about the length of time involved here? What is the timetable?
To do these projects well takes a long time. This may seem longer because it was made public sooner. This went public very early. General Growth has hired some of the best design talent in the world to work on this project. [This month], we are going to announce the date of a community meeting, and we will also announce the steps of a process by which we will engage the community in multiple discussions about those aspects of the plan that are important to various groups.
What's really important in this is that the process be genuine and comprehensive. We're trying to think of the best way to do that. It may very well involve meetings at the village level, as well as meetings by topic, such as transportation. Some people are more comfortable in a small group asking a question than they are in a big forum. Our piece of this would hopefully take place over a 45- to 60-day period after which we would submit something to the county, and there would be additional community participation opportunities in the county process.
The opportunity for Columbia involvement will be thorough. There's been a lot of listening that's already taken place. Based on all that listening, we'll present our current thinking on how things could come together. In all likelihood, our additional process will be completed by the end of the second quarter. Soon after the end of the second quarter it will go to the county. Our thinking will change and be influenced by the community process.
A major issue in Howard County is affordable housing. Advocates want 20 percent of new units in Town Center to be offered at lower prices. What is your position on that issue?
I think that mixed-income housing is an important element of creating a rich fabric of a community. We will include a well-thought-out and meaningful component of mixed-use housing. It's important that people focus on achieving a sustainable contribution to affordability. Just framing the issue in terms of a percentage I don't think helps necessarily get to a solution. There needs to be a financial viability to it or nothing happens.
Although GGP does not own the village centers anymore, are you concerned that with the closure of the Giant supermarket in Wilde Lake, there is no convenient place for Town Center residents to buy groceries? Does that play any role in the redevelopment plans?
I don't have an answer for the village-center question right now, but it's something that's ... important.
Where do you live? Why?
Loudoun County, Va. I moved into a master-planned community that was planned and organized by Tom D'Alesandro. At the time, I worked for him. [Thomas J. D'Alesandro IV is senior vice president of General Growth.] I got no discount. I liked the care and planning that went into that community. It's a good place to raise my children. There are very few people in the country who do this well. When General Growth bought Rouse, plenty of people thought [the company] should dispose of its planned-community business. Instead, [the company] embraced it and brought Tom on board and has been working with the purpose and diligence of a longtime owner in developing these communities. It's an hour commute. I guess it should bug me, but I like it. It gives me time to think.
Are you planning to move?
One step at a time. One issue at a time.
What is your understanding of Rouse's vision, and how do you see that being incorporated into the redevelopment in Town Center?
I think in some ways the Town Center has an opportunity to really complete the vision. In the earlier renderings and conceptual diagrams, you'd have the villages drawn together by the Town Center. For many years, Town Center has really just been the mall. I suspect Rouse's vision of a unifying place and space was something more than a mall.
Many people are skeptical and some cynical, but I believe we can make a good thing much better. One of the ways I see is sidewalks, making this a walkable community. What a difference it would be if, instead of one place to get coffee, we had eight. The reliance on the automobile would decline; people's habits would change.
What lessons learned from your work with planned communities may be useful here?
The most important is listening to the community. It may be counterintuitive to some in the development industry, but to others it's Business 101. What do our customers want? You get the economic success by managing the conflicts in a way that all parties win. I have worked in communities where citizens care passionately about their community, and it's natural that they will identify and value customs and traditions and places differently from how an outsider would.
What is the hardest part of stepping into this role?
Trying to identify what's out there that I need to know about that I don't know. If you know what you don't know, it's always good. You've got to know the history, and you've got to understand the community.
What do you plan to do to help win over public trust? Do you feel it's been broken?
I really am more interested in looking forward and truly seeing a great opportunity. Notwithstanding my respect for history, I don't want to dwell on what I see as not important. I think it will be very clear, very soon that this will be an open process. It has been an open process. It will continue to be an open process.
What will it take to keep Columbia on the cutting edge?
It has the ingredients most communities don't. The ingredients are a rich tradition, involved, informed and capable citizenry and political leadership. You have a major landowner/master developer who still has significant interest in Columbia. It's in our shareholders' best interest to make Columbia a thriving, cutting-edge place that people want to be. It's Jim Rouse's objective of trying to maximize and optimize social interactions. When that happens, people are happier and want to be here.
Is the Rouse building safe from redevelopment?
I'm still learning on this. I don't know. It's something I need to understand. It's something I know some people care a lot about. I'll be very respectful of the opinions and thoughts about it. I can't promise we'll agree, but I'm certainly going to listen.
What do you think about making Merriweather Post a year-round facility?
One of the things I'm going to make an immediate priority is doing a cultural master plan. I was less surprised by the poinsettia tree than to find out that Columbia has its own symphony orchestra. It just tells you volumes about the place. The cultural life of Columbia is probably where the Town Center discussion needs to begin.
Merriweather is separated from the community now. It's an auto-accessed property. If we can enhance and strengthen those elements that contribute to the culture of Columbia, it will be a better place, and Columbia will keep its identity. We're bringing one of the best groups to help us understand what is here and what isn't here but should be. With that, you can put Merriweather Post in its proper context.
WCI says it still plans to build the condominium tower in Town Center. Is that good for Columbia? Would you rather see something else go there? Would the tower be better placed elsewhere?
That's an issue over which we don't have any control, and we've had no involvement. We're a bystander in that, but I do think that that working with the community and forging a strong vision for downtown, isolated questions become less significant. I think the bigger issue is assuring the community that we will lead the development and redevelopment in the right way.
What do you like about Columbia?
It's the history. It's the pioneering community in post-World War II America. I love having the opportunity to play a role in helping it to the second generation.
What don't you like about Columbia?
I wish it were more walkable. I think that's something we can begin to fix.
Is the Columbia Association an ally in this?
My hope is that this process will unfold in a way that everyone who cares about Columbia will be a part of the solution. I think we can create a process that keeps all people of good will who care about Columbia to try to face some of its challenges, to face some of its problems. I am an absolute optimist. I think a lot of these issues that seem so intractable are not as ominous as they may appear once we've engaged in a discussion based on mutual trust and respect. Then great things can happen.