Ground broken as massive project to 'transform' Columbia's downtown begins

Kate Magill
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

Standing on a construction site in the heart of Columbia, Gov. Larry Hogan and Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman this morning led a ceremonial groundbreaking of the Merriweather District, slated to be the core of a revitalized downtown.

The groundbreaking marked the next step in the development of a 391-acre area over the next 20 years, spearheaded by Columbia’s master developer the Howard Hughes Corp. and approved by the county after months of debate.

Downtown Columbia’s plan has been one of the biggest priorities of Kittleman’s administration and received a $90 million public financing deal in 2016 to support development.

The Merriweather District project, to be built in two phases with the first phase scheduled to open in late 2019 and the second phase planned for shortly after, is a high density, mixed-use development with 1.5 million square feet of office space and more than 2,000 residences, anchored by a 12-story, 350,000-square-foot office building that will house the headquarters for cybersecurity firm Tenable.

Howard Hughes declined to provide a cost estimate of the Merriweather District or a specific timetable for the development of phase two of the project. The downtown redevelopment in its entirety is expected to be a multi-billion dollar project, according to Howard Hughes Senior Vice President of Development Greg Fitchitt.

The company is scheduled to move into the building in late 2019, with plans to add hundreds of employees over the next few years to the state’s estimated 42,000-plus workers in the field of computer and internet security systems.

The district’s groundbreaking signified the latest step to create Columbia founder Jim Rouse’s vision for an integrated, innovative community, boasting a work, play, live mentality where residents can walk and bike throughout the neighborhood. Rouse envisioned the buildout of downtown Columbia in the 1980s.

“The Merriweather District represents the future of Maryland’s tech evolution,” Hogan said. “And as a future home of Tenable’s new headquarters, it also means hundreds of new jobs right here in Columbia. Maryland truly is open for business.”

Kittleman noted the new downtown’s future ability to attract young people.

“[The redevelopment of downtown Columbia is] about putting people to work,” Kittleman said. “It’s about creating tax revenues. It’s about helping us to be able to build infrastructure like new schools, which this is going to help us to be able to do, civic institutions, bring more arts and entertainment in downtown Columbia. We are so excited to be able to make this happen. We’re finally having this downtown, walkable, bikeable, livable community.”

A partnership between Howard Hughes and Columbia-based technology company STEER, which develops automated parking technology, was also announced. The Merriweather District will be the first in the country built for automated self-parking cars, in which drivers summon their car via mobile app, according to company founder and CEO Anuja Sonalker.

Hogan and Kittleman were joined at the ceremony by Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, state delegates Frank Turner, Robert Flanagan, Eric Ebersole, Vanessa Atterbeary and Clarence Lam and a state senator, Guy Guzzone. No Howard County Council members were in attendance. The council, which was invited, was at a previously scheduled budget work session that, according to chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, could not be rescheduled.

Officials lauded the arrival of Tenable to the Merriweather District, meant to set the tone for the growing business hub and creating, as Howard Hughes CEO David Weinreb described it, a “center of gravity in the cyberspace community.”

“We have laid the foundation to transform downtown Columbia into a technology hub and a vibrant destination for millennials to live, work and play,” Weinreb said.

“In order to appreciate the potential for the Merriweather District, you have to have tremendous vision and that’s why we’re especially excited to be partnering with Howard Hughes and the state of Maryland to become the anchor tenant for this district,” said Tenable CEO Amit Yoran. “While many may look to Silicon Valley as the source for innovation and a leader in technology, the mid-Atlantic region leads the way in cybersecurity.”

Economic Development Authority CEO Larry Twele applauded the groundbreaking. Twele, whose organization is the anchor of the nearby Gateway Innovation District in Columbia, said he hopes to see Gateway follow a similar path as the Merriweather District.

“Keeping Tenable in the country is a big win, it shows that we can do it here,” Twele said following the groundbreaking. “Downtown Columbia is highlighting what Howard County can be and Gateway in its time can look the same. This is the first step, Gateway is the next.”

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