Columbia mall development plans revealed

New development plans for the Mall in Columbia call for a large amount of retail space to be constructed at the heart of the mall's existing physical footprint in downtown Columbia, according to plans revealed at a community meeting Tuesday, Jan. 17.

The proposed 75,000-square-feet "lifestyle center" would replace the mall's L.L. Bean store and either replace or make changes to a parking garage and surface parking lots between the AMC Columbia movie theater and Nordstrom.

Tuesday's meeting attracted more than 50 residents, who were provided a presentation on the plans by consultants to the mall's owner, General Growth Properties, Inc., and shown initial renderings of where the development would be built.

In total, the project will remove 30,000 square feet of existing retail space and add one or two two-story buildings that connect to the outdoors through outward-facing storefronts. It will be the first phase of broader changes at the mall that will come with the planned redevelopment of the downtown area in years to come, planners said.

Many details about the project, including what retailers may fill the new retail space, what will happen with the L.L. Bean store and whether the project will include a parking garage of its own, have not been determined, according to Katie Essing, the mall's senior general manager.

"All of those details will follow as the process moves forward," Essing said. "It's really a first step, and it's really important to hear the feedback from the community."

Cy Paumier, an urban design consultant who used to work for the Rouse Company, said he was underwhelmed.

"It's boring," he said. "It's very repetitive. We've heard most of this before."

Architect Bob Tennenbaum, who welcomed Paumier at Rouse in the late 1960s, agreed, questioning why the planners wouldn't provide more details.

"When people walk out, everyone's going to say, 'What is it?'" Tennenbaum said. "When Jim Rouse did it, there was a goal."

'Shut up and listen'

The meeting became contentious during a question-and-answer session, with residents accusing the planners of withholding key details.

Planners noted that the mall and its partners in the project are subject to a new, 16-step land development review process for Columbia and its downtown neighborhoods. That process requires a phased approach to development and community dialogue before plans can be set in stone.

Jim Whitcome, senior development director for GGP, showed his frustration with the limitations that process placed on him and his fellow developers, bristling when residents asked for more information and at one point asking a colleague, "Can I tell them that?"

Residents at first seemed unconvinced that his hands were tied.

"You're hiding a concept that we all know you have," Tennenbaum said during the session. "Don't imagine that we're going to walk out of here and say, 'Wow, this is terrific!'"

Whitcome responded, "I don't like being accused of holding things from people," before adding he is anxious to move through the process and get to the point where he can show more detailed plans.

Cynthia Coyle, of Harper's Choice and a member of the Columbia Association's board of directors, said she came to the meeting "with the greatest hopes" for the mall, but felt the planners' presentation was weak.

"Don't take away that we mistrust you," she said to the planners. "Take away that it's a bad presentation.

The mood only calmed after a few residents stood up in support of the planners.

Joan Lancos, of the Hickory Ridge Community Association, said those complaining lacked the proper understanding of the county's process for land development.

Darrell Nevin, a former Rouse employee who managed the company's office buildings around the mall for years, said he "loved the presentation" and was embarrassed by the "disrespectful" tone taken by Coyle and others.

Coyle later apologized for her "uncivil" tone, but added that Nevin's advice for her to "shut up and listen" wasn't civil either.

Kerry Martin, a 44-year resident of Columbia, said Paumier and Tennenbaum were the ones who really know what they are talking about.

"This place would not be here without those two men," he said, in a nod to their role in drafting early Rouse plans for the area. "Now there's too many chiefs and not enough Indians."

With GGP and the Howard Hughes Corporation taking on different responsibilities in downtown, Martin said he's worried the central vision for the area will be lost.

"Are they all on the same program? Do they all have the same vision?" he asked.

Space for new tenants

Regardless of the disagreements, many at the meeting expressed a hope that a plan would be created that they can support.

Essing echoed that hope. She said the impetus behind the project was the interest customers had expressed in adding stores that the successful mall doesn't now have space for, and community input will be important moving forward.

"It's natural to have tenants that our customers are asking for, and that we think would do well here," she said. "And whenever you see surface parking that's not being utilized, it presents an opportunity."

The plans represent the first large-scale development project at the mall since the construction of the AMC Columbia movie theater and the adjacent Cheesecake Factory, completed in 2004, and the construction of the L.L. Bean store and the outdoor plaza it opens to, completed in 2002.

Both projects helped turn the shopping complex — the county's only enclosed mall — outward for the first time, moving it more in line with newer projects like Arundel Mills Mall in Anne Arundel County.

Michael Pieranunzi, of Century Engineering, which has been involved in developing the plans, said the mall is dedicated to "honoring" the Warfield, Symphony Woods Overlook and Lakefront neighborhoods around the mall and the "amenity areas" scattered between the mall and those neighborhoods.

The mall is also subject to the Downtown Columbia Plan of 2009 and specific downtown design guidelines for the area established in 2010, which planners spent much of the presentation explaining.

The next step in the land development review process, a design advisory panel meeting, is currently scheduled for Feb. 8. The plan must be reviewed and approved by several county agencies.

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