Planners see the future in Columbia proposal

Counties trying to turn malls into the new urban neighborhoods

May 09, 2010|By Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun

Having grown up in Baltimore and lived most of his adult life in Washington, Michael Oberman always considered himself a city guy. The former rock critic-turned-music industry pro has found Columbia, where he moved 10 years ago, a bit, well … slow.

Which is why he's looking forward to a proposal to redevelop the planned community with thousands of new homes, hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail space and millions of square feet of office space — all of it around the Mall at Columbia.

"Bring on the development," said Oberman, 63 and now a nature photographer. "Absolutely bring on the development."

The plan by General Growth Properties to revitalize Columbia mirrors efforts in similar communities across the country, where builders are working to attract residents, retailers and other businesses with urban-style development focused not around city centers but suburban shopping malls.

What was once a novelty has become the future. In Maryland, Towson Town Center, Arundel Mills in Hanover, The Avenue at White Marsh and the Mall at Columbia have all used shopping, dining and entertainment to lure condominiums and other development.

"People want the mixed-use urban lifestyle, but they don't necessarily want to be in downtown Baltimore or Washington," said John McIlwain, a fellow of the Urban Land Institute.

"I think it's a very positive move because it provides for a much more compact development, much less car usage," said McIlwain, author of a recent paper on the future of housing in America. "[But] whether it's positive or negative is not the point. The point is: That's where the market is going."

So Gregory F. Hamm hopes. Hamm, a vice president of Chicago-based General Growth Properties Inc., says the firm's redevelopment plan is philosophically in tune with the vision of Columbia creator James Rouse.

"Downtown Columbia has the opportunity, because of its regional mall, plus its strong job-growth drivers, that we believe can get all the elements working well," Hamm said. "When they do work well, from a business perspective, it's very beneficial. From a community perspective, it's extremely beneficial."

General Growth Properties, which became Columbia's master developer when it purchased the Rouse Co. in 2004, has proposed building up to 5,500 residential units, 1.25 million square feet of retail space and 4.3 million square feet of office space, plus a couple of hotels, other cultural centers and transportation upgrades around the mall. Saddled with $27 billion in debt, the company filed for bankruptcy in April 2009, but is close to a reorganization plan, and officials say the Columbia plans are on track.

Marsha McLaughlin, Howard County's director of planning, sees General Growth Properties seizing an opportunity in Maryland.

"Part of it is trying to create a different type of opportunity downtown [in Columbia] for people who want to live in that environment," she said. "There are also empty-nesters that don't want to keep up the big house and want to be someplace where they can go out and do stuff. If you live in your single-family home, you still might want to come out for dinner or a show or whatever."

McLaughlin, who has worked in Howard County for 22 years, said the fact that most malls are shutting their doors by 10 p.m. means additional development is necessary to attract new visitors and residents.

"From a young person's standpoint, it's not a particularly happening place," McLaughlin said. "I think [the Mall at Columbia] represents a very successful suburban mall, but it has its limitations. It doesn't do everything.

"You look at the success Baltimore's had in terms of attracting younger people back to many neighborhoods, particularly the waterfront areas, it's because there are things that are going on that are exciting. We don't do a great job of attracting young people back into Howard County and Columbia."

Not everyone in Columbia wants more to do. When Andrew Ohu moved from Bethesda into a brand-new condominium across from the mall three years ago, he liked the idea of a quieter, less crowded environment with easy access to shopping and other amenities.

With redevelopment, Ohu says, Columbia will begin to resemble the busier community he left. He now walks to work, but he's concerned about the increased traffic. His fiancee, who grew up in the Kings Contrivance village of Columbia, doesn't want to see green space disappear. "I don't think Columbia needs a skyline," Jaime Kemper said.

Oberman, who has attended many of the zoning meetings involving the redevelopment plan, is well-versed in both sides of the debate.

"The main schools are [saying]: 'We don't want development, bring back our village centers, put a Giant in the Wilde Lake Village Center,' … and people like me who say, 'So we've got a mall. You can't find a parking space there on a Saturday.' "

Like it or not, Oberman says, development has come to Columbia.

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