Establishing the Downtown Columbia Master Plan was a long, arduous task. It started more than 10 years ago (remember the charrette?), with the 30-year plan being approved by the Howard County Council in 2010.

Such huge projects take time, but today, the downtown plan has gained considerable traction; some projects have been completed, most recently the 200,000-square-foot One Merriweather office building; Two Merriweather, an additional 135,000 square feet of office space, is slated to come online later this year.

But those plans for downtown are no longer the news, per se. What’s generating today’s buzz lies a few miles east, along Route 175, at Columbia Gateway Business Park.

Early last month, the focus from Columbia’s development community shifted to the other key commercial location in famed developer Jim Rouse’s dream of a city. The plan now is to make Columbia Gateway, home to more than 400 businesses that employ approximately 26,000 people, a thriving local business community to complement its thriving downtown.

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman recently joined Howard County Economic Development Authority (HCEDA) officials, property owners and businesses to announce his vision to turn what the locals simply call Gateway (or “The Peanut,” as Columbia Gateway Drive is often called upon aerial view), the county’s largest business center, into an innovation district — where leading-edge companies work with anchor educational intuitions and startups to collaborate on new technologies and services.

Early Stages

An innovation district is an economic development model that has emerged around the globe. It requires creative connections to be fostered with compact, wired and transit-rich development patterns.

The development of Gateway, which, when combined with neighboring Gateway Commerce Center, spans 920 acres with a total of 8.1 million square feet of commercial space, will be driven by stakeholders and coordinated by the HCEDA. Initially, the plan will include community-based programming, such as food trucks, local produce sales, running and cycling races, happy hours and outdoor events to help create connections between the employees; longer term, new land uses, infrastructure and transportation improvements will be assessed.

“One of the early strategies is to start building the energy in the park,” said Larry Twele, CEO of the HCEDA. “It might [be surprising] to kick off an innovation district with food trucks, but this is about people getting to network, because ‘intellectual collisions’ begin to occur when people share technology and ideas.”

Another piece of this puzzle is the critical war for talent. Today, better amenities mean happier talent that more often will stay in place.

“Cyber and tech workers have plenty of choices concerning where they work,” said Mark Thompson, vice president of business development, also with the HCEDA. “It’s not just the usual characteristics like highway access, etc., but when you come [to Gateway], you have to get in your car [and drive a mile or so to] get a cup of coffee and a sandwich. We need the fundamental amenities, whether they have to do with arts and culture or environmental activities, like recycling. That’s a first step. [Gateway] is screaming for it now, and we can make that happen quickly.”

Then come the stakeholders. There are about two-dozen property owners in Gateway, Thompson said. “They’re all sophisticated real estate investors, and they recognize the tremendous potential for increasing their assets. They’re supportive of this new vision” in the district, which encompasses almost 1,000 acres, with 60% open space and 20% surface parking.

“As built up as it appears, we can still more effectively plan the open space,” Twele said, including enhanced biking and walking options. “There are still about 80 acres that are shovel-ready, but we’re also looking at the long-term, as the county becomes [ripe for] redevelopment opportunities.”

At that point, it will be crucial to boost the presence of academic anchor institutes in the mix, such as Howard Community College (HCC), which already has a presence in the park with the Charles I. Ecker Business Training Center.

“This is just the start of a process that will make Gateway more attractive,” said Twele. “It will take the participation of property owners, with [updated] covenants, and zoning and land use plans. Those are the big steps.”

‘A Sense of Place’

The vision for Gateway is part of the HCEDA’s updated strategic plan, “which will be released this spring,” Twele said. One of the participants in designing the plan was Brad McDearman, principal with McDearman Associates, of Baltimore, and a senior fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C.

He discussed the opportunity that Columbia has before it. “Today, more millennials want to live and work in mixed-use, walkable areas,” McDearman said. “Then you have innovation districts, more like the Cambridge area of Boston, with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard; Atlanta’s Tech Square; the Cortex District in St. Louis; and Philadelphia’s University City District.”

Those locations are all in cities, however. Gateway is in a suburban area, “like the Research Triangle in North Carolina, which is situated between Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Durham,” he said. “The idea is to make it more urbanized.

“We’re starting to see that happen in [suburban] parks that were developed back in the 1980s and 1990s,” McDearman said, “and it’s a good use of available land, due to the more expansive parking areas, etc.”

And there are plenty of parking lots in Gateway that are ripe for development. “It’s also interesting in that it’s home to large landowners, like Corporate Office Properties Trust [COPT, which recently debuted CIRQL, its contemporary office space designed for small, growing companies, in the park], The Howard Hughes Corp. and Abrams Development,” he said. “Construction can move forward when there aren’t so many different players.”

To make Gateway a real innovation district, “the county needs an anchor research [facility] like The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory,” McDearman said, or UMBC, which recently expanded its Training Centers in the park. “They need that big anchor so they can reinvent themselves, like Harbor East, Tradepoint Atlantic and Port Covington are doing in Baltimore.”
In the end, he said, look at the Research Triangle for an idea of what may happen in Gateway. “The difference here, as is often the case in Howard County, is its location, along Route 95, and between Baltimore and Washington. That, combined with Fort Meade and the region’s thriving tech community, sets Gateway apart,” he said. “Still, it needs a sense of place.”

Critical Cohesion

During the coming years, establishing that sense of place shouldn’t be difficult, said Mike Binko, founder of Startup Maryland.

“Columbia Gateway is, perhaps, one of the most interesting properties in the mid-Atlantic for several reasons. The One Maryland BroadBand Network is already activated in that area and connected to many of the county’s government offices and data centers,” Binko said. “Leveraging that asset for the needs of emerging high growth tech companies is a compelling prospect.”

Also, the presence of established tech industry leaders, like Tenable, Merkle, Cisco and Oracle, “as well as startup supporters like the Maryland Technology Economic Development Corp., UMBC Training Centers and COPT, affords a solid foundation that few tech hubs around the globe can match,” Binko said. “Adding an engaging community feel is a critical cohesive element that demonstrates how the county, and the HCEDA, are thinking forward and moving progressively.”

But for that to happen, “There has to be some rezoning,” said Owen Rouse, director of Manekin LLC, a long-time presence in Gateway. “You can’t have ‘live-work-play” dynamic with just the work component; you have figure out where can you put the other projects, like restaurants, which may be prohibited under the current zoning.”

Rouse also talked about the importance of access — in an area that was once discussed as a rail site — that’s also infamous for a traffic bottleneck during rush hours.

“One thing I hope they consider, and find a way to pay for, is an entrance at the Route 108/Route 175 intersection. That would be expensive, but it would encourage the connectivity everyone desires,” Rouse said. “If that happens, the jughandle (Gateway’s current main access point, off of Route 175) wouldn’t be needed and could be reclaimed for residential projects.”

Rouse made a similar observation about the potential repurposing of the nearby General Electric building. “There is also an approximately 11-acre site behind BJs Warehouse at Snowden Square,” along Robert Fulton Drive, he said, “that’s nice and quiet, and a short walk to Wegmans.”

As for adding a residential element to Gateway’s rebirth, Twele said, “We’ll see where the plan leads us.”

Hunger for Change

Thompson and Rouse are just two members of the choir when it comes to discussing the dearth of amenities in Gateway, which will start changing when the food trucks start rolling in.

“That’s a great idea,” said Betty Noble, associate dean, business division/director of the entrepreneurship program with HCC. “The only restaurant close to the Ecker Business Training Center is Aida Bistro, a sit down restaurant. That’s nice, but we need places to grab a quick bite.”

Looking ahead, Noble thinks the new approach at Gateway, from the perspective of creating jobs, will make it more popular than ever, “especially with the added element of walkability,” she said. “I also think we need to obtain greater linkage to the Maryland Center of Entrepreneurship,” which is currently a few miles away, on Bendix Road.

“This story is about the need for people to interact for good ideas to arise,” Noble said. “When they eat lunch together, a guy who works for an [information technology] startup might talk to the CEO of a nonprofit who needs a resource for gathering data.”

“My job has taught me that 10 people eating lunch together or having a glass of wine at an informal mixer is more productive than a formal meeting,” she said. “That approach is becoming more prevalent.”

Back at the HCEDA, there’s a new optimism about Gateway as Columbia celebrates its 50th year, but also the understanding that its renaissance will be less a project and more a process.

“To stay competitive, you have to evolve and reinvent, and we’re excited to already to have the support of many of the business and property owners in Gateway,” said Twele. “They see the potential that this community has and have committed to helping create a more connected and vibrant environment, with growing amenities and infrastructure to support it.”