Exhibit Center conversion planned

March 16, 1994|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Sun Staff Writer

The Rouse Co. plans to convert the Exhibit Center Building that served as a clearinghouse of information about Columbia for the planned community's first 20 years into a restaurant with other food and entertainment outlets.

The center, in downtown Columbia by Lake Kittamaqundi, has been closed since December 1989, when the Rouse Co. determined Columbia had developed to the point where the sales and educational exhibit was no longer needed, said Alton J. Scavo, Rouse Co. senior vice president and general manager of Columbia.

For years, the lower level of the 20,000-square-foot building has been leased as office space, but the last tenant, O'Conor Piper & Flynn Realtors, moved out in December. Now the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer, wants to fill the vacant building with businesses that will draw more people downtown.

"The lakefront area always has been identified as an area for clustering nighttime activities and entertainment," Mr. Scavo said. "We may have an opportunity, assuming the county agrees, for fitting in another piece of the puzzle with uses that are more active and people-oriented."

The Rouse Co.'s development subsidiary, Howard Research and Development Corp., has applied to the Howard County Planning Board to reclassify the building on the 1.5-acre site from "office" to "restaurant" use and to gain permission for construction work.

Mr. Scavo said the Rouse Co. tentatively plans to lease one level of the building to a restaurant and the other to businesses such as a coffeehouse, dessert shop or pub with live entertainment. Mr. Scavo said the Rouse Co. has been negotiating with several restaurateurs, but he declined to name them.

He said that the Rouse Co. has been seeking commercial enterprises for the exhibit center "for some time" and that market conditions now may be favorable.

The lakefront features Clyde's restaurant; The Tomato Palace, a Clyde's Restaurant Group venture that opened a year ago; Bennigan's; the Columbia Inn and its Waterside Restaurant; the Columbia City 3 movie theaters; and summer arts and entertainment programs. But several gaps remain, including the Exhibit Center Building and the closed Rusty Scupper restaurant building, which the Clyde's group purchased more than a year ago.

John Laytham, Clyde's Restaurant Group co-owner, expressed concern that parking will be inadequate at the lakefront if more commercial establishments are added, and suggested that businesses could help finance an additional parking deck. Mr. Scavo said he believes the area has sufficient parking.

James E. Loesch, chairman of the Columbia Forum's Downtown Work Group, which evaluates plans to enhance downtown, said any project that helps make downtown a "centerpiece for the community" and increases foot traffic is desirable.

"If we approach a critical mass, there's a good chance it will take off on its own," he said. "I don't think we're there yet."

The Rouse Co.'s long-range plans call for building a high-rise on the site of the Exhibit Center Building, built in 1967 as one of the first structures in Columbia. That office project -- which could include ground-level shops -- could be a decade or more in the future, Mr. Scavo said.

The Exhibit Center served as a way for the Rouse Co. to present its concepts for a new town featuring distinct neighborhoods with amenities, open spaces, and convenient schools and services to Columbia's pioneer residents and others who followed. The exhibit also displayed the work of Columbia's builders.

"The combination convinced people that this is a place to make an investment. It served us very well," Mr. Scavo said.

The center, an ivory structure with the word "COLUMBIA" attached vertically to a pillar and handcrafted signs in front denoting Columbia neighborhoods, has become "kind of a landmark," even though it was intended as a temporary building in the "grand scheme," Mr. Loesch said.

"Some things have finite life spans. They serve a purpose, then pass away," he said. "You can look back on it fondly and say, ' I remember when that was.' "

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