For months, motorists traveling near the intersection of Routes 175 and 108 have watched as vast amounts of earth were cleared, graded and moved. But that was just a precursor to the construction of a sprawling upscale residential and retail complex that will be one of the last major developments of Columbia's New Town.
The county Planning Board has approved a site development plan for a one-story, six-unit retail structure at the site, the forerunner of Gateway Overlook, a 123-acre development.
The developer, General Growth Properties Inc., has confirmed obtaining commitments from Costco Wholesale Corp., the world's largest membership retail company, and Lowe's Cos. Inc., the giant home-improvement chain, to anchor the development.
There had been speculation that both companies would open stores in the development, but General Growth executives never confirmed the plans, noting a company policy not to discuss specific tenants until leases are signed.
The development, bounded by Route 175, Route 108, Lark Brown Road and Old Waterloo Road, will be a mixed-use center with a half-million square feet of residential and commercial space.
The five-member board unanimously approved the site development plan Thursday night. Albert Edwards, vice president and director of engineering for General Growth, said that was the first of many plans that will soon be before the board as Gateway Overlook takes shape.
To underscore that point, a staff report by the Department of Planning and Zoning noted that site development plans have been filed for Lowe's, Costco, two banks, three restaurants and a one-story retail building. It is unclear when the board will review those plans.
Although the property is just outside Columbia, it has the same zoning that was enacted four decades ago by the county specifically to facilitate James Rouse's vision for New Town.
General Growth purchased The Rouse Co. and its holdings, including Columbia, in a $12.6 billion acquisition 19 months ago.
The site plan approved by the Planning Board clears the way for one piece of the expansive development. It will be constructed on 11.7 acres and provide 133,600 square feet of retail space. Edwards declined to identify the tenants because "none of these deals are actually signed yet."
He said construction could begin in a month or "as soon as I get the permit."
Gateway Overlook has been delayed "eight to 10 months" Edwards said. After Rouse announced the project, the company was sold, and Chicago-based General Growth has a fundamentally different business model. Unlike Rouse, Edwards said, General Growth prefers not to sell its land for development.
Lowe's and Costco, however, will purchase the land for their units at Gateway Overlook, Edwards said.
Costco has 456 stores worldwide, 335 of which are in the United States. It reported net earnings of $1.09 billion on sales of $54.28 billion in its most recent fiscal year.
Lowe's has more than 1,200 stores nationally. It reported net income of $2.77 billion on sales of $43.24 billion in its most recent fiscal year.
Edwards said General Growth has been working with the Maryland Department of Transportation on plans for improvements to Route 175 and Route 108 to accommodate the traffic that the development will cause.
The project will also include 66 attached homes, constructed by Ryland Group Inc., which was based in Columbia before moving to California six years ago.
Gateway Overlook will be one of the final multiacre developments in New Town. The last large undeveloped area is the 51.7-acre, crescent-shaped area surrounding Merriweather Post Pavilion.
In other actions Thursday, the Planning Board approved:
A site development plan for the construction of a 228-seat restaurant by Ruby Tuesday Inc. on 1.7 acres in River Hill Village shopping center, off Route 108 and near Great Star Drive.
Rezoning 13 acres from rural conservation to business rural, to permit the continued use of a sawmill that has operated on the property since 1957. The site is part of a 141-acre parcel and is a quarter-mile from the nearest home. There was no opposition to the proposal.
The extension of water and sewerage to a business adjoining the Fulton Station Center on Lime Kiln Road for health and safety reasons because of a severe septic problem in the area.