The on-again, off-again prospect of a Whole Foods Market opening in the Howard Hughes Corp. building in downtown Columbia is on again, Howard Hughes senior vice president John DeWolf said last week.
In an update on downtown development delivered to the Columbia Association Thursday, July 12, DeWolf said Howard Hughes is currently in "significant" negotiations with a number of potential tenants, and specifically mentioned Whole Foods.
The prospect of a Whole Foods opening in Columbia was first reported in November in the Tales of Two Cities blog. In early February, banners hanging briefly in front of the building, with words such as "Fresh" and "Organic and Local," seemed to tease that possibility.
But in late March, an anonymous Howard Hughes official told the Howard County Times that the negotiations with Whole Foods had stalled.
In an interview last week, DeWolf would not comment further on the negotiations, citing the importance of keeping them private.
He did say, however, that the company is considering other grocers as potential tenants as well.
DeWolf also said the renovation and redevelopment of the building is one of Howard Hughes' top priorities.
"We see the building as a great piece of architecture, if we don't find a use for it then it will fall apart," DeWolf said. "We see it as a centerpiece of downtown."
CA President Phil Nelson said a new supermarket in the building would give people another choice for grocery shopping, one that is part of the potential redevelopment in Columbia's downtown. The Howard Hughes headquarters, he said, is a notable building to Columbia residents.
"The Howard Hughes building is a symbol of Columbia and how James Rouse viewed Columbia as a modern community," Nelson said.
County Council member Mary Kay Sigaty, a Democrat whose district includes downtown, said her constituents have expressed to her the importance of preserving the building.
"We heard form many folks that wanted to make sure that one of the more important architectural buildings in Columbia was saved and didn't go under the wrecking ball," Sigaty said.
County Executive Ken Ulman said adding a tenant like Whole Foods to the lakefront would be a "home run" for the residents of the county.
"It's one thing to save a building, it's another to see it thrive," Ulman said. "I'm very pleased Howard Hughes is engaged with potential users including Whole Foods. It would mean a shot in the arm for downtown and the lakefront, which is so important to town center."
Ulman said he has had many conversations with representatives from Whole Foods and other potential tenants, and is optimistic Howard Hughes will find a great use for the building.
The building will need $25 million in renovations, which might include eliminating the third floor to increase the ceiling height for a retail tenant, DeWolf said.
"If we can get Whole Foods, it would be a Whole Foods unlike any other," DeWolf said.
In his presentation, DeWolf stressed the importance of parking to a potential retail tenant or grocer and spoke about the challenge of increasing parking on the lakefront, which he conceded was "tight."
DeWolf said the larger downtown development plan would help solve the parking issue, as it includes the potential for a circulator bus, a larger parking garage, and a downtown transit center.
"There is a lot that is going to happen, and what will happen with the Rouse building is just the start," DeWolf said.