Plan eyes urban center

Apartments, shops would be built on former theater site

Livelier locale

Building could hold 100 units, parking, Rouse official says


January 28, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

The Rouse Co. is planning to transform the failure of downtown Columbia's only movie theater into an opportunity for a livelier, more urban and more profitable center.

In a spot traditionally reserved for businesses, officials are envisioning a high-rise with a mix of shops and apartments.

Town Center boosters - who repeatedly have asked for more company in Columbia's least populated village - are thrilled.

"It's been a long time coming, but boy, do I welcome this," said Donna Rice, who represents Town Center's 4,200 residents on the Columbia Council. "I think it's wonderful we have the possibility of filling up some of these places with people - and that's what's going to make this turn into a real downtown area that feels more like downtown."

A Rouse subsidiary, Howard Research and Development Corp., won permission from the county Planning Board last week to place apartments on a 4-acre parcel at Wincopin Circle that includes the former General Cinema site.

Columbia's original movie theater operated there until 2000. The three-screen building was torn down last fall.

Rouse officials do not have specific plans and will need approval for those later. But they're thinking about working with a builder to construct a "mixed use" building on the former theater site - such as retail shops and restaurants on the first few floors with luxury condos up top.

Alton J. Scavo, a Rouse senior vice president, said the building might hold about 100 apartments, possibly three-bedroom units. Parking likely would be incorporated in the structure, in the lower floors or underground.

"We have obviously tested these waters, and there are not only people who say they're interested in that type of unit, but there are also builders who find Columbia attractive," Scavo said.

Dennis Miller, development director for Howard Research and Development, said a longer-term option is to construct retail and residential buildings throughout the 4-acre site. That would mean the end of the Sterrett and Ridgely buildings - which contain offices and a restaurant - but Miller said they're in no danger of demolition soon.

"They're fully occupied," he said, "and we love that."

Scavo said the company always expected the pair of 1970s buildings eventually would make way for more "intense" replacements.

"That redevelopment, that maturing, that reinvestment ... all speaks to the health of the community," he said. "People do not reinvest in something they don't believe in."

County Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a Democrat whose district includes Town Center, said she had hoped to see similar mixed-use development replace the old Rusty Scupper restaurant on the edge of Lake Kittamaqundi. But she learned of its demolition too late. Offices were already planned.

When all signs pointed toward General Cinema's demise, Lorsung called Rouse and county planners to try again. She can think of one other site in Columbia - the Harper's Choice village center - that has businesses and apartments in the same building.

Lorsung thinks a building in Town Center's commercial district with residences and shops is long overdue.

"This has the added advantage of being able to have this more urban face on the first floor as well, instead of just a doorway into a lobby and some office windows that have the vertical blinds pulled all the time," she said.

Howard County Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. thinks this mix would work well elsewhere in Town Center, helping dispel its image as a pseudo-downtown.

He also thinks it's a better sort of downtown.

"The difference is, we're doing it with extremely low crime," he said.

Rice, the Columbia Council representative, thinks positive elements of a traditional downtown are lacking. She hopes the impending influx of residents would be the impetus for a project she's championed for years: a large cultural arts and conference center.

"As far as I'm concerned, we're culturally deprived out here," she said. "We don't have large enough venues. ... We can't bring a Broadway play here."

For Lorsung, work on the former General Cinema site is a timely reminder that Town Center needs redevelopment, even though land has yet to be developed.

"Things change, buildings get old like folks get old, and communities age - and you need to pay attention to that," she said. "The more you can anticipate, the better spent your resources are than having to do crisis-management."

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