Columbia's redevelopment boss Hamm fired by builder

Dallas executives make sudden move

December 10, 2010|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

Gregory F. Hamm, for three years the public face of Columbia's hotly contested downtown redevelopment plan, was fired Thursday by his new Dallas-based bosses, who were apparently unhappy with the slow pace of the project, still more than a year from groundbreaking.

The abrupt manner in which the move was made has raised doubts among some about where the project is headed, though Howard Hughes Corp. executives went to great pains to reassure local officials during a series of meetings Thursday, the officials said.

According to Howard County Executive Ken Ulman and several County Council members who met with them, executives of the new firm flew into Maryland on Wednesday, fired Hamm and then met individually Thursday with elected officials in an attempt to reassure them that nothing of substance will change. A replacement for Hamm is not likely for another month or two. Hamm had no public comment Friday.

The news was first reported in a local blog after company officials told local business-oriented supporters about the move.

David R. Weinreb, the new firm's CEO, and President Grant Herlitz came along with Los Angeles-based development chief Christopher Curry. They became permanent officials of the new firm, created as a spin-off from General Growth Properties after it emerged from bankruptcy on Nov. 23. The company officials told Ulman and County Council members that they want the downtown project to move forward more quickly.

"This isn't as much about Greg as is about the future," Weinreb said Friday from Dallas. "We're shifting into high gear now. This is the time to be making bold moves."

Ulman said the scope of the downtown project will be determined by tight county controls, not by who is running the company. The County Council is considering design guidelines and sign rules for the entire town center project this month.

"This points out exactly what we've been saying for the last three years," Ulman said. "The plan is the plan. It does not depend on ownership. They can embrace the plan and build the downtown … or not. On the one hand, it feels like we're starting over with new people, but we've got a plan" to protect the interests of Columbia and county residents."

"They're trying to move things forward in a successful and effective way," Council Chairman Calvin Ball said, describing the message Weinreb and Curry wanted to deliver.

County Councilwoman Courtney Watson was more blunt. "We don't have to approve the rest of the process unless the company performs. I think we're in the catbird's seat," she said.

Others were not so sure.

"I wish I were as confident that they passed a plan that will pass legal muster," said Alan Klein, who as leader of the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown criticized the county's 30-year rezoning as too weak to prevent developer abuses. The zoning would allow up to 5,500 new residences and around 6 million square feet of added commercial office and retail space along with a host of cultural enhancements, including the renovation of Merriweather Post Pavilion. The idea is to transform a suburban mall and scattered buildings around it into a true downtown.

"I don't see how they're going to be able to hold Howard Hughes' feet to the fire. It's just further evidence that trusting to General Growth was short-sighted," Klein said.

Ulman and the council members dispute that view.

"To me, that doesn't hold any water," Ulman said about Klein's comment. "It's exactly why we needed a plan."

The zoning approved by the County Council in February requires certain portions of the project to be finished before others may start, and also requires each of the six proposed new "neighborhoods" to be considered and approved as one unit, not in separate pieces.

Ulman said the land involved can't be broken up in pieces without losing the major value of the whole project. "It would be "developer malpractice" to try that, he said. "The master developer has to do Merriweather before you get to another phase," Ulman said.

Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a Democrat who represents town center, said she wasn't sure that company officials understand how deliberate and community-oriented Columbia is. "They said they understood, and I just smiled," she said.

Revamping Columbia's central core has been discussed for more than six years, and a proposal by another developer to remake the half-empty Wilde Lake Village Center sparked a two-year community battle. That project is still years from a groundbreaking.

Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a Democrat who represents part of Columbia, also said the plan should protect the town's interests.

"They came here to assure us that they are committed," she said, adding that the firm is keeping the team that worked under Hamm. "The timing [of the firing] is interesting," she said. "It raises questions. I think it was odd timing, but it's a 30-year plan. We were never dependent on an individual company."

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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