Columbia tower plan hits a snag

Ongoing legal case threatens height of planned 23-story building

April 06, 2010|By Larry Carson | larry.carson@baltsun.com

What is likely the most expensive acre of land in Columbia is up for sale.

Asking price for the 1.1-acre grassy site near Columbia's Lakefront, the planned location of a controversial 23-story residential condominium tower, is $4,850,000.

The land is listed under a heading of "Columbia Town Center 'WCI tower site'" for sale by brokers Cushman and Wakefield as a prime building site complete with valid building permit good through Dec. 31.

"It's Position A. A beautiful site," said salesman Drew White. "We've had decent interest," but no sale yet, he said.

Complicating the sale is an ongoing legal case that could determine the size of any building on the site.

"It is kind of a moving target," White conceded, since a Maryland Court of Appeals ruling on the disputed lot has been pending for 13 months now.

Connie Boyd, director of customer communications for the Florida-based developer, WCI Communities, confirmed the land is for sale but said "no other information is available at this time."

The recession appears to have blocked the 160-unit Renaissance Plaza tower more effectively than the critics of the huge building, although one of them, Lloyd Knowles, said WCI should thank its opponents.

"We've saved the owners an awful lot of money by contesting this," he said upon hearing about the sale. Without the challenges, "we'd have had 50, 100 feet of rusty I-beams (from an unfinished building). I can't imagine that anyone's going to build a 275-foot condominium there," he said.

The tower was proposed in 2005, and prospective buyers began signing up to move in, while WCI converted the former Columbia Exhibit center a block from the lot into a showroom for potential luxury condo interiors. The large units were to sit over 11,466 square feet of retail stores on the first floor and 344 parking spaces in underground garages. Sources in the development community estimate the firm had up to $16 million invested in the project before the recession hit.

But some residents felt the project was far too tall for Columbia and fought it through various administrative and legal levels. They lost every round on technical grounds that the plaintiffs had no legal standing, until July 2008, when the Court of Special Appeals ruled that one nearby resident, Joel Broida, does have standing. But WCI appealed to Maryland's highest court, which held a hearing on the case in March 2009, and since then has been silent.

At stake is whether the project has a clean legal bill of health or must return to the Howard County Board of Appeals to begin the hearing process all over. If that happens, said County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a West Columbia Democrat, the site would come under new height restrictions adopted by the council in February. Buildings on the site would be limited to nine stories, she said, unless a petition campaign to bring the zoning to referendum overturns the council's unanimous action.

But if WCI wins the appeal, whoever buys the land conceivably could build a 23-story tower on it.

That's what Broida and his allies fear. Broida, who lives a literal stone's throw from the site, said a change of ownership changes nothing, really, as long as the building permit remains valid.

Gregory F. Hamm, Columbia's general manager for General Growth Properties, which is proposing a huge redevelopment of the town center, said it's too bad the court ruling is taking so long.

"It's frightening for people who want to invest and want some predictability to get things done." He said WCI, which emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy late last year, "was a very reputable developer" and he hopes any buyer will be "equally talented."

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