Consultant DeWolf picked to lead Columbia redevelopment plan

Howard Hughes Corp.'s choice has a retail development background

May 05, 2011|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

John E. DeWolf III has been the new corporate boss of Columbia for nine days, and he's itching to announce the first redevelopment project in the three-decade-long plan to transform the town's center into a real downtown.

Given the project's six-year history of discussion, contention and legislation, but no construction, that would take the project to a new level.

"We're going to be ready to go forward very soon," the 56-year-old New York lawyer and retail real estate development expert said. "When we get the first [project] started, we want to be right behind it with the next one and the next one," he said. "What we need is to get one solid project going," though he wasn't sure late Thursday which one might be first.

He replaces Gregory F. Hamm, who held the post for three years and shepherded what was then General Growth Properties' ambitious rezoning through a years-long community and government approval process.

The plan could add up to 5,500 housing units and about 6 million square feet of offices, stores and hotels, along with other new cultural and environmental amenities for Columbia's central core. Merriweather Post Pavilion will also be renovated. The plan was unanimously approved by the Howard County Council in February 2010, but no date has been set for the start of construction.

DeWolf, named Thursday morning as senior vice president of Howard Hughes Corp. for the Columbia project and similar proposals in Alexandria, Va., and Princeton, N.J., said he's already talking to builders about creating a custom home for him and his wife, Susan. They have lived in Chappaqua, N.Y., since 1996. Two of their four grown children live in Washington, he said, which might draw the couple to Montgomery County. Despite the other locations he's responsible for, he is focused on getting the Columbia redevelopment going, he said.

"This will be job one. I'd like to announce something very soon."

Before starting his own consulting firm, DeWolf was executive vice president for real estate for New York & Company and previously worked for New England Development, The Limited, Woolworths and the Disney Stores. He also was a senior official in The Limited's development of Easton, a 1,000-acre mixed-use community bordering the company's headquarters in Columbus, Ohio.

Despite his mainly retail background, he said, "retail is mostly about real estate."

"I've always been in real estate," and he clerked for a zoning and land-use firm in law school, the Rochester, N.Y., native said during an interview in the old Rouse Co. boardroom with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Columbia's Lake Kittamaqundi.

"He's a person who has a certain kind of way about him," said David Weinreb, Howard Hughes' CEO. "He's a special professional."

DeWolf will operate from Columbia, he said from the building built and used by James W. Rouse, the town's founder.

"I've been in this building many times," DeWolf said, adding that he met Rouse a number of times over the years. "This is the temple," he said.

Hamm was fired in December by a team headed by Weinreb, just a few weeks after Howard Hughes emerged as a company spun off from Chicago-based General Growth when the shopping mall owner came out of bankruptcy protection. General Growth, which took over the old Rouse Co., Columbia's founding firm, in 2004, remains mainly a shopping mall company while Howard Hughes, based in Dallas, concentrates on developing planned communities such as Columbia.

Weinreb said DeWolf's hiring was the result of "an exhaustive search" involving a dozen candidates. The new firm is "absolutely focused on ownership and development," Weinreb said, and intends to see the Columbia project through.

In Alexandria, Howard Hughes owns the 880,000-square-foot Landmark Mall, which the company plans to redevelop into a mixed-use community. In Princeton, the firm owns West Windsor, a 658-acre property also slated for redevelopment.

Howard County officials had few comments about DeWolf, as he has not been introduced around the county yet, but Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Columbia Democrat, said she got a call from Howard Hughes officials inviting her to meet him.

"I will be optimistic unless I have reason to be otherwise," she said. "I'm looking for positive outcomes."

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