Rouse plans survive sale

County can still acquire Merriweather, official says

`It's definitely business as usual'

Other company projects expected to proceed, too

Columbia

August 24, 2004|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

The Rouse Co. is proceeding with its Columbia development plans and its offer to sell Merriweather Post Pavilion to Howard County, despite agreeing to be sold to a competitor last week, a company spokesman said yesterday.

Bob Rubenkonig said the Rouse Co. is operating with the attitude of "it's definitely business as usual" after consenting to be acquired by Chicago-based General Growth Properties Inc. for $7.2 billion in cash in a deal that was announced Friday and must be approved by Rouse shareholders.

"It's not like all of a sudden the Rouse Co. business comes to a stop," Rubenkonig said. "We continue on and continue with the plans. ... We continue with what we began."

Rouse has offered to sell Merriweather to Howard County and is moving toward commercially developing the 51-acre, crescent-shaped property behind Symphony Woods, which surrounds the 9-acre pavilion site and includes the venue's parking area.

The plans call for 800,000 square feet of office space and 400,000 square feet of retail space that could incorporate big-box stores.

The county is preparing to study the feasibility of buying the amphitheater - which was built in 1967 as one of Columbia's original amenities - and preserving it as a performing arts venue. The study is to be completed by the end of the year.

General Growth President John Bucksbaum said yesterday it is too early to tell what will happen to Rouse's planned communities or to its Lake Kittamaqundi waterfront headquarters, which Rouse bought last year after a debacle in which it failed to renew its lease on the building.

"Time will tell when you get to know everything a bit better," Bucksbaum said.

Rouse also has two significant county projects that are not completed. The 19-year-old Columbia Gateway corporate park includes 130 undeveloped acres. And mixed-use development is being built in the 570-acre Emerson community, which is expected to have more than 1,400 homes and more than 1.3 million square feet of commercial space when completed.

"Yes, there is some undeveloped land, and we will be continuing operations until we merge," Rubenkonig said. "Then the merged company will have the power and advantage of both companies to continue that development."

However, residents and local officials are wary about potential development plans General Growth might have for Columbia, the 37-year-old planned community that is the cornerstone of Rouse's developments.

"In my mind, there should be a new level of scrutiny based on proposed developments from this company," said County Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat. Ulman heads the county Zoning Board, which this year denied Rouse's petition to increase Columbia's density in an effort to urbanize Town Center by building 1,600 residences on the site near Merriweather.

Ulman and other county officials would like to transform Columbia's downtown into a vibrant urban core by giving Little Patuxent Parkway a so-called main-street atmosphere with on-street parking and pedestrian walkways to link commercial and residential areas.

Mary Pivar of Wilde Lake - who protested Rouse's plans to residentially develop the land near Merriweather - wonders whether the new company will respect the values of Columbia, which was built as a town where people of diverse racial and economic backgrounds would live together.

"I'm not cautiously optimistic, I'm not cautiously pessimistic," Pivar said. "I'm curious as to what direction Columbia will go."

Rubenkonig attempted to quell concerns.

"Columbia is a self-governing entity. It's going to do great," he said. "I think that for years and years to come, it will stand the test of time."

Sun staff writer Andrea K. Walker contributed to this article.

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