Facing a cash crunch that has it considering selling off properties, developer and multiple-mall owner General Growth Properties is at the same time about to take the next step in what could be a big moneymaker: the makeover of downtown Columbia.
The development company is planning to submit rezoning requests this week for perhaps the biggest project the county has seen since Columbia's birth four decades ago. The fate of those requests could determine how much of a financial transfusion the company can expect.
Howard County Executive Ken Ulman said that General Growth's financial problems are another reason to get a plan governing the redevelopment approved.
"It certainly heightens the urgency to lock in a master plan for town center," Ulman said.
But some in the community have been skeptical of plans, even before the extent of General Growth's financial distress became known.
Lloyd Knowles, a former County Council member who has been sharply critical of General Growth, said people want to see more details of the plan and what exact zoning changes are being requested.
"None of the public has seen these details," Knowles said.
Gregory F. Hamm, regional vice president of GGP and Columbia's general manager, said his firm expects a final plan can be approved by the County Council by the spring. Speaking at a meeting Wednesday organized by the county League of Women Voters, Hamm said the project would generate about $1 billion in net new tax revenues for the county over its 30-year life, as well as significantly boost company earnings.
Yet no sooner did the announcement of GGP's troubles break than locals began to worry whether Columbia would be among the assets that are sold, and the redevelopment scrapped.
"We would not be guaranteed anything you're talking about if you sell off and leave," Barbara Russell, a former Columbia Association board member said at the Wednesday meeting. Russell recalled the Rouse Company departure just four years ago.
Hamm gave no guarantee but sought to reassure the crowd that GGP is not on the way out of town. He added that getting the redevelopment plan rolling in earnest serves as the clearest indicator of that.
"That's why it's so important to get a plan in place," Hamm said.
Understating the importance of the project would be hard to do, said Barbara Schnackenberg, co-president of the league, who added that the redevelopment "affects all of Howard County."
Under the plan General Growth has outlined, the area around The Mall in Columbia and Merriweather Post Pavilion would be transformed from mostly parking lots and little-used open spaces into a more urban, pedestrian-friendly space. The plan calls for 1 million square feet of new retail space, 4.9 million square feet of office space, and 5,500 new townhouses and apartments, as well as more hotel rooms and cultural amenities.
Instead of having a handful of rock concerts each year, Merriweather could become like Wolf Trap, the Northern Virginia venue that books a variety of popular and cultural shows, Hamm said.
The $12.6 billion acquisition of the Rouse Company left General Growth with significant debt, making the Chicago-based company more vulnerable to the national financial squeeze, analysts have said. The firm, which owns White Marsh Mall, Owings Mills Mall, Towson Town Center, the Village of Cross Keys and Mondawmin Mall, announced Monday that it needs to sell assets or find other ways to raise cash.
Hamm pointed out that GGP owns more than 200 properties comprising 200 million square feet of real estate that is 93 percent leased. He noted that when Bun Penny, a popular deli and specialty foods store, closed in The Mall in Columbia, a new business leased the space quickly and is paying higher rent.
"We've got very good assets and lots of locations," he said.
New shopping malls are no longer being built, so firms that own malls - like General Growth - are looking at redevelopment projects as the best way to grow.
"Columbia is a market that should offer great growth potential," he said after the two-hour meeting at the Ellicott City Senior Center.
Hamm pointed out that the plan GGP submits is subject to the county government approval process.
"The cake ain't baked," he said. "We're sticking it in the oven now."