While development in Downtown Columbia’s Merriweather District is progressing, the county’s general plan update is set to have an impact on redevelopment in Columbia’s “final frontier,” Columbia Gateway Business Park.

The Merriweather District’s most recent addition is The Marlow, a 472-unit residential project on the southwestern side of the District, just across from Color Burst Park and Busboys & Poets. In 2023, a slate of new restaurants will be the next components of the mix to open.

According to the Howard Hughes Corp., the District is about 40% complete. With that first phase of the Downtown development well underway, the spotlight is turning to the Columbia Lakefront with the formal groundbreaking in mid-December of the South Lake Medical Office Building. 

What’s coming

But while Columbia Gateway will receive more attention for redevelopment, there “is still much to do in the Merriweather District,” said Greg Fitchitt, president/Columbia for HHC, who noted that the firm has invested more than $1 billion in just that part of the redevelopment.

The District is approved for 5 million square feet of commercial space “and so far about 1.8 million square feet have been built” including the 1 Merriweather, 2 Merriweather (Pearson) and 6100 Merriweather (Tenable/CareFirst) office buildings; the Juniper and Marlow apartments; Busboys & Poets restaurant and street retail.

Plans that dot today’s agenda call for another office building and a hotel, but the next turns along this long road will concern market conditions. There are six acres on the west side of the property, between Hickory Ridge Road and Merriweather Drive that are targeted for up to 1.5 million square feet of mixed-use.

As for the performance of the existing office space, Fitchett made the point that pre-pandemic, 6100 Merriweather “was 50% leased; today it’s 99% leased.”

That number is at least partially to do with offering accessible space to appease a more demanding workforce. “Some companies might have a major location in Baltimore, but also offer a satellite location in a place like Columbia. For instance, CareFirst leasing 80,000 square feet at 6100 Merriweather was to cater to workers from our area,” he said.

“There’s a flight toward quality in the industry and we take a hub-and-spoke approach,” said Fitchett, “so companies are still moving into great office buildings where they have access to greater amenities.” In the case of 6100 Merriweather, that includes shared penthouse conference space and autonomous garage parking, as well as the neighborhood, which in this case also includes fitness centers and dining options, the Mall in Columbia, Merriweather Post Pavilion and, of course, the Lakefront.

“If you offer a vibrant, interesting place,” he said, “that’s a place that people want to be.”

Water’s edge

The Lakefront is the next phase of the new Columbia, with the new medical office building slated for completion in 2024. HHC is also planning a mid-2023 groundbreaking for two residential buildings (with a third in planning) for the nearly 700-unit Lakefront North.

As for what’s next, the Lakefront plan is in development review; in early 2023, it should be ready for planning board approval.

While it may seem to some observers that the various projects aren’t coming out of the ground fast enough, the simple fact is that massive undertakings take time; sometimes a long time. Larry Twele, CEO of the Howard County Economic Development Authority, pointed out that many concerned parties are “still excited about the general plan” and pointed out that it allows for adjustments to the market.

“It’s obvious that COVID-19 threw a different dynamic into the market, especially for office space, but it was already evolving,” said Twele. For instance, HHC “was already leasing smaller spaces for shorter terms (such as 5,000-7,000 square feet and for less than 10 years) even before the pandemic.”

As for plans for Gateway, today’s approach is about positioning Columbia for the future.

“We’re talking about it now,” he said, “but look at how the Downtown was started with a charrette about 15 years ago with the Merriweather District really just coming to life in recent years. But it’s just as it was envisioned.

“So we’re looking ahead, whether it’s Maple Lawn or Downtown or wherever,” said Twele. “We can’t wait until Downtown is done to start work at Gateway.”

Input wanted

As for Columbia Gateway  or as Howard County Department of Planning & Zoning Director Amy Gowan calls it, “The Final Frontier” little has happened, but many locals have plenty of ideas. They’ll soon be able to express them via HoCo By Design, which is the 2040 general plan update that is available for public review and comment.

The draft of the plan follows a 2.5-year engagement process that garnered 12,000 comments and is slated to be brought to the County Council by spring 2023. “Then come the work sessions, so it could take several months to finalize,” said Gowan.

Then within the following 18-24 months will come the real nitty-gritty on the master plan and the concurrent zoning discussions for Gateway, which will take up to two years.

“So we won’t expect to see any projects moving forward in Gateway,” she said, “for another 2-3 years. During that time, the Merriweather District and the Lakefront will have more time to build out” according to the 2010 Downtown Columbia Plan.

Build to win

Gowan said Howard County envisions Gateway being marketed as a regional activity center, which it defines as a hub for employment with a keener focus on the innovation economy. It will also add what many, many observers have long wanted: residential and entertainment options.

So Columbia’s frontier will be loaded with opportunity. “It’s more than 900 acres that includes more than 40% impervious surfaces, which gives us the chance to improve the environmental footprint,” she said.

And know that the county can hear the choir, which has been loud for a long time.

“We’ve noted the demand for tenant-based, mixed-use projects because users want a walkable area with amenities,” said Gowan. “When we compete to attract larger employers against places like Bethesda, we need to offer amenity-rich options to attract those jobs to the county.”