Office park's growth spurt

Over the past 15 years, Columbia Gateway has gone from a space full of vacant lots to an area that is nearly built to capacity. Its success has many sources.

July 10, 2005|BY A SUN STAFF WRITER

Linda Wilson gazed with horror at the vultures nesting on the balcony just off her fifth-floor office and waiting to ensnare field mice below.

Thus was her baptism to Columbia Gateway.

It might be more accurate to say it was Wilson's introduction to the idea of Columbia Gateway because other than the swooping predators and a scattering of single-story offices in the distance, there was little else but vacant land.

No more.

Today, the office park, which is flanked by Interstate 95, Route 175 and Snowden River Parkway, boasts almost 70 office complexes, housing some of the region's biggest companies and employing 11,000 people.

"Wow!" is Wilson's first response when reflecting upon the changes she has witnessed in the past 15 years.

Then the executive vice president of the Economic Development Authority adds: "I've watched it grow and develop. It's very satisfying."

Eleven more office buildings are under construction or planned for the near future as Columbia Gateway enjoys one of its most profound building spurts in its history.

While General Growth Properties Inc., the Chicago-based real estate company that inherited Columbia Gateway last year with its acquisition of the Rouse Co., will still own three parcels, this wave of construction will all but complete the 600-acre business park.

"I would be surprised if in five years there are any significant parcels left in Gateway," says Richard W. Story, chief executive officer of the Economic Development Authority, which is charged with business retention and recruitment for the county, including filling the sprawling office park.

It is a remarkable achievement, considering Columbia Gateway rose from the ashes of failure.

Amid great fanfare in 1969, the General Electric Co. announced it had acquired more than 1,000 acres adjoining Columbia from Rouse and planned to invest $250 million to build a 1 million-square-foot warehouse and two large manufacturing plants, in which it would produce ranges, refrigerators and air conditioners. Six years later, in 1975, the company built a third plant, this one for washers and dryers.

"When GE came along, the fledging community of Columbia declared victory," Story recalls. "It said: `We've got a major employer and all these jobs; the plan is working.' "

The euphoria did not last long. GE closed its air-conditioning plant in 1975, laying off 550 workers. In 1984, it sold almost 600 acres back to Rouse and its dryer plant to the now-defunct Luskins, a distant competitor to retailer Circuit City in the appliance and electronics markets.

The following year, GE ceased production of microwave ovens and eliminated another 900 jobs. Then, in 1989, the company closed its electric-range manufacturing plant and axed the last of its 900 workers.

The great experiment with GE had ended badly, and cavernous facilities sat empty.

However, when Rouse acquired the 600 acres, it announced plans to convert the land into Columbia Gateway, a large business park.

Given its proportions, the project began modestly. But it slowly took hold and became perhaps the county's premier site for businesses relocating or expanding.

That growth was helped by two factors: Columbia Gateway is close to both the Washington and Baltimore markets, and it is served by major roads, including Interstate 95.

Today, Columbia Gateway is home to some of the region's biggest companies: Verizon Wireless, Ford Motor Credit, Sun Microsystems, Magellan Health Services and Honeywell.

And the space vacated years ago by GE has been absorbed by companies such as Sears, AT&T, Cigna Health Care, Equivest Finance and Nationwide Insurance.

The resilience of the park has been tested several times, most recently with the collapse in the technology sector early in this decade.

Trellis Photonics Ltd., for instance, announced in 2001 that it would locate its U.S. fiber-optics manufacturing plant in Columbia Gateway and employ 350 people. Less than four months later, it scrapped its plans.

And Corvis Corp. took 11 buildings in the park and hired more than 1,600 people -- so many that shuttle bus service was necessary to get them from one point to another. Today, Corvis has one building and a relative handful of workers.

But Columbia Gateway signed new tenants to fill the spaces left empty by Trellis and Corvis. There is also a flurry of construction in the park, much of it for Class A, or premium, multistory office buildings.

The developers include some of the region's biggest and best: Corporate Office Properties Trust, Abrams Development Group and Manekin LLC.

"It is absolutely robust what is happening in Gateway," says Story.

This growth is being driven by Homeland Security and the Department of Defense, he says.

Story acknowledges that when this wave of construction is completed, Columbia Gateway will have been built nearly to capacity.

The remaining parcels would total about 100 acres, but General Growth Properties has tentative plans for the property, which include about 820,000 square feet for offices and a hotel.

"That will be Gateway," Story says. "The question is where do we grow from here?"

The answer is filling in in Town Center and Ellicott City, and at the planned communities of Maple Lawn and Emerson, he says.

But Story sees changes in Columbia Gateway, as well. Some of the initial single-story office complexes likely will be razed to make room for multistory office buildings.

"Other things will happen around the county before that happens," he says. "Then it will fill up and percolate and create economies, up to a point where we have exhausted all development sites."

But Story says the ultimate success of Columbia Gateway has not been the amount of brick and mortar and square footage.

"It's a place where productivity happens," he says. "Where people earn money to support their families and their lifestyle. ... People are doing productive things for society, including themselves, in these spaces."

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