GGP reveals downtown Columbia plan

The Baltimore Sun

General Growth Properties Inc. unveiled its plan for downtown Columbia last night, with redevelopment ideas that include a skating rink, new office, retail and hotel space and walking routes from The Mall in Columbia to the lakefront and Merriweather Post Pavilion.

"What we're trying to do here is lay out what we think is a 30-year plan," said Gregory F. Hamm, GGP's regional vice president and Columbia general manager. "During all this time, we hope we've listened. We hope we've learned, but we're not done."

About 500 people attended the meeting at General Growth headquarters to hear the plans.

After the presentation, residents sought details about the housing component of the project and questioned whether they would be asked to approve new housing without knowing details.

"We don't yet have something to present to you tonight," Hamm said. But he said a discussion with the community and the county would occur about when and where the growth would go.

When GGP submits its plan to the county this summer, it would be accompanied by a request for zoning changes to allow new residential development.

The $350 million first phase is part of a larger makeover of downtown expected to span three decades - the first major renovation of the Howard County planned community since it was built 40 years ago.

Centered in the commercial core around The Mall in Columbia, the first part of the project would be construction of 300,000 square feet of retail space that could start in 2010. By about 2011, construction could start on office space totaling 200,000 square feet, which would replace two buildings of 250,000 square feet. The hotel could break ground about the same time.

A key feature of the project would be an upgrade of Merriweather Post Pavilion, including more covered seating, a raised roof, a new stage and back-of-house facilities and upgraded restrooms and concessions.

There also would be improvements to nearby land to create a cultural center, including a specialized library and perhaps a children's theater.

Capitalizing on the legacy of Columbia founder James W. Rouse as an innovator of planning and building communities, the transformation of downtown would include an international center for the study of small cities.

A pedestrian walkway starting at the mall would borrow elements from such lively retail and restaurant districts as Bethesda Row and Pentagon Row and end in a landscaped, terraced walkway that would zigzag its way to the edge of Lake Kittamaqundi.

Residential development would come later, breaking ground about 2011 or 2012.

GGP has offered few details on how the project would be financed, other than saying that it would likely be through a special taxing district.

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