Industrial park gains new identity

July 16, 1995|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Sun Staff Writer

Just a decade ago, the General Electric Co. produced microwaves and ranges at what was hailed as the county's premier manufacturing park.

The appliance manufacturer closed its east Columbia operation by the mid-1980s. And now the only microwaves and ranges that can be found on that land are at Best Buy, one of nine warehouse-style retail stores that since have opened on the 1,100-acre property.

This transition -- from manufacturing to retail pursuits -- symbolizes the transformation of this huge abandoned industrial park, bounded by Interstate 95 and Route 175, into a bustling area with some of the same variety found in the rest of Columbia.

The latest major change to be injected in the former GE area's new mix is housing: 650 townhouses, condominiums and apartments -- planned homes that would be just a short walk from a proposed 10-screen cinema also on the site.

So many shoppers have been flocking to the 2-year-old Snowden Square "big box" retail center -- one of the first major steps in redeveloping the former GE site -- that the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer, is planning to build a similar center a short distance away, off Route 175.

But many nearby residents also have been concerned by the increasing traffic drawn by the burgeoning development, and now they worry that the addition of a high-density residential complex could clog roads more.

Nevertheless, Howard County and Rouse officials say the redevelopment of the former GE parcel is a key element in the county's economic development. And they're more than pleased that it lately has shown signs of turning into something more than an industrial wasteland.

"It sure is nice to see something active there again," said Alton J. Scavo, a vice president with Rouse, which recruited GE as the employment-base cornerstone of its fledgling Columbia project in 1970 and then reacquired the abandoned land between 1985 and 1990.

"In so many [industrial] areas in the Washington-Baltimore region, you can see the hulks of what once was," Mr. Scavo said, noting that many major manufacturers have shifted operations to other regions. "We're very pleased something positive is coming out of this."

GE never fulfilled its original expectations during its 15 years at the park, constructing only four buildings of an anticipated seven- to nine-building complex and employing less than a third of its projected 10,000-member work force.

Since reacquiring the site, Rouse has developed the Gateway office and research and development complex, brokered the Snowden Square retail center, lined up the planned cinema and housing ventures and leased or sold three of General Electric's four huge buildings, including nearly 1 million square feet to Sears, Roebuck & Co. for a warehouse and distribution facility. However, hundreds of acres designated for warehouse and office use remain on the market.

Bargaining chip

The developer even has used the GE land as a bargaining chip with the nonprofit Columbia Association, the agency that runs Columbia's amenities. Earlier this year, Rouse agreed to sell the association 5 acres on the former GE site for $1 million for a recreational vehicle storage facility in exchange for placing the Snowden Square retail center and the planned 650-home development under the association's annual property charge.

County officials, who worked with Rouse in rezoning the land from manufacturing to allow a mix of uses, are pleased to see progress.

"It's certainly increased tax revenues for the county and provided an opportunity for housing and employment," said Marsha McLaughlin, assistant planning director.

Richard Story, executive director of the county's Economic Development Authority, said the redevelopment effort gives the county prime property to market.

"From a salesman's perspective, it's really good to have an inventory on the shelf to offer to clients," he said. "This has served that purpose well. The mix of tenants is very good."

Mr. Story said the authority is working with an investment firm that has a purchase option on the last vacant General Electric building, a 550,000-square-foot structure. The authority is attempting to find prospective users, he said.

Because the former industrial parcel is largely separated from residential communities by major roads, railroad tracks and other business centers, Rouse has encountered little opposition in carrying out its redevelopment plans. That pattern likely will continue with the proposal to develop up to 650 housing units on a 54-acre corner of the site between Oakland Mills Road and Robert Fulton Drive, just south of Snowden River Parkway.

The county is reviewing an Owings Mills developer's preliminary plans for the first phase -- 112 townhouses on 10 acres. Mr. Scavo of Rouse, which equips residential sites with roads and other infrastructure before selling lots to homebuilders, said construction likely will begin next year.

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