New retail hub in Jessup is moving on a fast track toward completion

November 20, 2005|BY A SUN REPORTER

It is understandable why executives of Atlantic Realty Cos. chose to have a wall bashing in lieu of the traditional ribbon-cutting when they inaugurated construction of the multimillion-dollar Columbia East Marketplace.

The property was in such disrepair that the project needed demolition as much as renovation, which explains why they literally put sledgehammers to bricks.

But six months later, there is no resemblance to the worn and neglected structures that stood largely vacant for years at U.S. 1 and Route 175 in Jessup

In their place is emerging a retail hub that county officials hope will be an economic transfusion for the area, as well as a key component to revitalizing the U.S. 1 corridor.

"It is of great importance on a long-vacant, troubled piece of property," said Richard W. Story, chief executive officer of the Howard County Economic Development Authority. "Symbolically, it's imperative for this property to be vibrant because it's the midpoint of U.S. 1 in the county."

The 14-acre center will offer 60 condominium units in two structures totaling 175,000 square feet. The first and largest of the buildings is nearly completed. Tenants are expected to begin moving in around Christmas or early next year, said Christopher M. Fencel, vice president of development for Vienna, Va.-based Atlantic Realty.

In most cases, tenants will purchase the units, which range in size from 1,000 square feet to 60,000 square feet. Most of the stores will be about 3,000 square feet.

The marketplace, on a site that once housed a Burlington Coat Factory, will offer a broad mix of retailers, said Carl B. Taylor, senior leasing director for Atlantic Realty.

Although the lineup is not complete, he said, there will be an international restaurant row (featuring Japanese, Chinese and Mexican cuisine, among others), a gymnasium, a day care center, a store featuring wireless products, a dry cleaner, a doughnut and bagel shop, a toy store and an international grocer. The names of the companies are not being released until contracts are final.

The mix is being controlled to prevent one retailer from cannibalizing sales from another.

"It's to help them and to help the center," Taylor said.

"We're still figuring out who's the best fit, and where we want them," he said. "It's a jigsaw puzzle."

Binding contracts are expected to be signed for a majority of the space within the next week or two.

"We've had significant interest" in the development, Taylor said. "In fact, we have a waiting list of retailers. The next big phase is getting all the buyers in."

Interest by retailers in the marketplace has been strong from almost the time Atlantic Realty acquired the property in February.

Before construction began, retailers had tentatively reserved about 45 units.

"We were very surprised at the early commitment," Taylor said. "... That was the level of interest. We were surprised it was that high."

The property has been problematic for the county. The buildings were largely vacant for years, fell increasingly into disrepair and were often used for drug dealing and prostitution.

Five years ago, a Philadelphia-based firm announced that it would acquire the property and convert it into office space, but the plan never materialized.

Atlantic Realty is so optimistic that a retail hub can succeed at the site that it poured $9 million into the renovation project.

Renovation seems a misnomer. The marketplace is essentially new.

"We kept what was good about the building -- which was the steel and the skylights -- and we gutted everything else out," Fencel said. "We're happy with where it is; happy with the results of our construction. Just to see the before-and-after pictures -- it's really incredible."

Chamberlain Construction Inc. of Ellicott City is the contractor.

Atlantic Realty is installing landscaping in the front, sidewalks and street trees.

The project has progressed quickly.

"From a new-development standpoint, these projects can take up to two years," Taylor said. "We're looking at under nine months."

Fencel said the process has been assisted greatly by the cooperation of state and county departments.

The Maryland Food Center Authority controls covenants on the property, but agreed to eliminate some of the most restrictive uses and add others to enable the retail center to be built, Fencel said.

"This thing has been sitting here for 20 years, and people are very excited to see something happen with it," he said. "If the process dragged on in the way a typical new development would take, I think you would see that interest wane."

Story, of the economic development authority, described the progress of the project as "impressive." But, he said, a lot more than speed is riding on the center.

"Both symbolically and actually, this is important to the Route 1 corridor," he said.

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