Tag Archives: crescent

The Crescent development by the numbers

Rendering of proposed Crescent development

Rendering of proposed Crescent development in downtown Columbia. Click for high resolution version. Image © 2014 Howard Hughes Corporation; used with permission.

tl;dr: The Crescent development in downtown Columbia is going to be a (very) big deal.

As reported by Amanda Yeager in the Baltimore Sun, the Howard County Planning Board recently approved FDP-DC-Crescent-1, the final development plan for phase 1 of the Crescent neighborhood of downtown Columbia, a development of the Howard Hughes Corporation. Unfortunately due to family issues I was not able to attend the Planning Board meeting and see for myself the presentations of the plan. However I did find and review copies of the Department of Planning and Zoning staff report [PDF], the final development plan itself [PDF], and the accompanying neighborhood concept plan [PDF]. For anyone interested I here briefly review what’s going on with the development. (For additional background see my post from a year ago, “The Crescent development in downtown Columbia: Areas and phases”, although a lot of the information in that post is now out of date.)

In Howard County planning terminology a “final development plan” is not really the final plan; that role is filled by the “site development plan”. The final development plan contains proposed boundaries for phase 1 of the Crescent development, intended uses for the various parcels and associated square footages and building heights, and other information relevant to the plan. It does not contain detailed plans of the actual buildings to be built. However just the raw numbers themselves are interesting and informative. To quote the Baltimore Sun,

The approved outline proposes 2,300 residences; a 250-room hotel; 1.475 million square feet of office space; 313,000 square feet of retail and 225,000 square feet of civic and cultural uses spread throughout four development areas on the property.

Crescent neighborhood site composite lot and parcel map

A map of the parcels and lots comprising the parts of the Crescent neighborhood covered by FDP-DC-Crescent-1. Click for high-resolution version. Image taken from page 3 of FDP-DC-Crescent-1, “Final Development Plan, Downtown Columbia, Crescent Neighborhood Phase 1”.

The four development areas are known (rather unimaginatively) as Areas 1, 2, 3, and 4, with locations and proposed uses as follows:

  • Area 1 includes Parcels A and B on the map shown, in the northwest corner of the Crescent development near the intersection of Broken Land Parkway and Little Patuxent Parkway. It is intended for office use along with a hotel, with some retail and restaurant space.
  • Area 2 includes Parcel C on the map, south of Area 1 on the east side of Broken Land Parkway. It is intended for mixed office and residential uses, with some retail and restaurant space.
  • Area 3 includes Parcel D on the map, south of Merriweather Post Pavilion and north of Broken Land Parkway. It is intended as the main “downtown” of the Crescent development, with office and residential uses, a much larger allotment of retail and restaurant space, and cultural and community facilities.
  • Area 4 includes Parcel E on the map, east of Area 1 just south of Little Patuxent Parkway. It is intended primarily for office use, with a small amount of retail and restaurant space.

There is also a significant amount of space that will be left undeveloped , including Lots 1, 2, and 3 on the map shown. These will serve as natural open space for the project, and can be considered extensions of the western and southern portions of Symphony Woods.

The table below summarizes all of the uses proposed for Areas 1 through 4, including the associated square footage and related details (from page 1 of FDP-DC-Crescent-1).

Area Use Planned
Area 1 (Parcels A and B) Office 600,000 SF
  Retail/Restaurant 25,000 SF
  Hotel 250 rooms
Area 2 (Parcel C) Office 300,000 SF
  Retail/Restaurant 30,000 SF
  Residential 500 units
Area 3 (Parcel D) Office 400,000 SF
  Retail/Restaurant 252,000 SF
  Residential 1800 units
  Cultural/Community 225,000 SF
Area 4 (Parcel E) Office 175,000 SF
  Retail/Restaurant 6,500 SF
All areas    
  Office 1,475,000 SF
  Retail/Restaurant 313,500 SF
  Residential 2,714,000 SF
  Hotel 150,000 SF
  Cultural/Community 225,000 SF
  All uses 4,877,500 SF

The final development plan does not describe the exact nature of the 225,000 SF of “Cultural/Community” space in Area 3. However in the pre-submission meeting Howard Hughes representatives discussed building in Area 3 a new Central Branch library (100,000 SF), a conference center (50,000 SF), an aquatic center (50,000 SF), and an indoor concert hall (25,000 SF).

In the pre-submission meeting Howard Hughes representatives also discussed locating all 2,300 residential units in Area 3 along with the 250-room hotel; no office space was planned for Area 3. The final development plan moves the hotel from Area 3 into Area 1, moves 500 residential units from Area 3 to Area 2, and puts 400,000 SF of office space into Area 3.

One major omission in the final development plan (really, the major omission) is a detailed discussion of parking. The slides presented in the pre-submission meeting contained detailed information on the number of parking spaces to be provided in each area through either surface parking lots or parking garages (which would eventually replace all the surface lots). None of that is in the final development plan. Apparently the exact parking arrangements will be covered in the site development plans to be submitted for each area, including proposals for how to compensate for the loss of the current gravel lots used for events at Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Overall the Crescent development will make a major impact on downtown Columbia and Howard County overall. One good comparison is to look at Reston, Virginia, the other major planned community in the Washington/Baltimore area, and Reston Town Center, which is currently undergoing its final commercial buildout within its 84-acre core. Based on the figures in the Reston Town Center marketing brochure [PDF] published by its developer, here’s how Reston Town Center compares to the planned Crescent neighborhood:

  Reston Town Center (Present and Planned) Crescent (Planned)
Total acreage 84 acres 68 acres
Office 2.017 million SF 1.475 million SF
Retail/Restaurant 424,077 SF 313,500 SF
Residential 1,998 units 2,300 units
Hotel 518 rooms 250 rooms
Cultural/Community Unknown 225,000 SF
Parking Spaces 9,073 spaces TBD

When you factor in the office space just north of Little Patuxent Parkway (including 700,000 SF purchased by Howard Hughes Corporation from GGP) the downtown Columbia area will have roughly equivalent office space to Reston Town Center. When you add in the 1.438 million SF of leasable space at the Mall in Columbia the retail space will be significantly larger than in Reston Town Center. Finally, Reston Town Center has no equivalent to Merriweather Post Pavilion (or, for that matter, to the planned Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods). (However Reston Town Center does now have access to mass transit via the Metro Silver Line, as well as a much more vibrant office market in the surrounding area.)

As I noted in discussing the history of Howard County Council redistricting, on the tenth anniversary of Columbia former county commissioner and council member Charles Miller expressed regret that Columbia had ever been created. Now as Columbia approaches its 50th anniversary, current County Executive Allan Kittleman has promised that he will work to “[attract] large businesses to downtown Columbia so it may truly become the economic engine for our County”. The Crescent development will be the key to making that happen.

Five thoughts on Symphony Woods

When I was writing my post on Symphony Woods and sacred lands I had a number of thoughts that were too long to put in that post and too short to each deserve a post of their own. So here they are, all collected together:

15 reality checks on the Inner Arbor plan

“15 Reality Checks on the Plan” from the Inner Arbor Trust. Click for high-resolution version. Adapted from “Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods: By the Numbers”, © 2014 Inner Arbor Trust; used with permission.

Sacred lands and the facts don’t always get along. Recently the Inner Arbor Trust released a document (“Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods: By the Numbers” [PDF]) that attempts to correct misconceptions about the Inner Arbor plan. It’s a good document (though at almost 180MB it takes a while to download), and if and when I have time I’ll blog more about it in detail. However I suspect it’s also probably a wasted effort as far as many people are concerned: When people come to think of land as sacred they often stop thinking about the reality of the land as opposed to its sanctity, and the facts are then often ignored, overlooked, or distorted.

For example, in my last post I wrote about a controversy in New York City relating to 9/11; you have probably heard it referred to as “the mosque at Ground Zero”, but in fact it was neither: not an actual mosque but an Islamic community center with a prayer space (albeit a fairly large one), and not at Ground Zero but rather two blocks away. But the emotion around the 9/11 attacks was (and is) so intense that the juxtaposition of “mosque” and “Ground Zero” was much more memorable than the actual reality, and once that juxtaposition lodged in people’s minds it was difficult to impossible to get it out.1

Those who preach a land’s sanctity aren’t always saints. Going back to the example above, did people just happen to innocently get the facts wrong and decide a mosque was going to be built right where the twin towers stood? Well, no, not exactly. There were plenty of people who worked to actively spread this idea because they themselves stood to benefit if others believed it were true: news channels trying to increase their ratings, politicians trying to attract votes, advocacy groups trying to raise money, and so on.

Map of trees to be removed and planted as part of the Inner Arbor plan

A map of the trees to be removed as part of the Inner Arbor plan. Click for high-resolution version. Adapted from “Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods: By the Numbers”, © 2014 Inner Arbor Trust; used with permission.

There’s no reason why Columbia should be exempt from this phenomenon, and based on reports from others some reasons to think that Columbia and CA have their own versions of it. (For example, consider the case of the elderly CA voter who was convinced Julia McCready was running for the CA board in order to run old people out of Columbia.) I would not be surprised to hear that some Columbians are now firmly of the opinion that the Inner Arbor plan will result in wholesale cutting of trees in Symphony Woods, because someone else saw fit to put that idea in their heads. (In actual fact the Inner Arbor plan as proposed will result in many fewer trees being removed than in the previous Columbia Association plan, also known as the Cy Paumier plan after its lead designer.2)

This is all Jim Rouse’s fault, really. Recently Robert Tennenbaum, the former chief architect and planner for Columbia, quoted Jim Rouse’s words about Symphony Woods from the 1964 presentation “Columbia: A New Town for Howard County”: “Today a magnificent stand of trees, this 40 acre woods will be permanently preserved and cultivated as a quiet, convenient and strikingly beautiful asset of the town.” All well and good; however I think it’s also useful to consider what Jim Rouse did and not just what he said.

First, as I’ve previously mentioned, Jim Rouse saw fit to put a large outdoor amphitheater smack in the middle of the “magnificent stand of trees” in question. Second, Jim Rouse also saw fit for the Rouse Co. to retain ownership of the Crescent property surrounding Symphony Woods, as opposed to deeding it to CA or to the county. Did he do this because he planned for that property to be “permanently preserved and cultivated as a quiet, convenient and strikingly beautiful asset of the town”? Given that Rouse was a canny and successful businessman, I presume instead that he did it because the Crescent was a potentially-valuable piece of centrally-located property that the Rouse Co. or its successors could at some point profitably develop for high-density office, retail, or residential use.

So if you’re concerned that “Symphony Woods” (i.e., including the wooded area next to US 29 and Broken Land Parkway) will soon start looking much smaller, and that Symphony Woods itself (i.e., the CA property) is going to be across the street from 20-story condo towers, be aware that this is not because evil outsiders invaded Columbia and betrayed Jim Rouse’s vision, it’s because Rouse himself took the actions that made these developments possible, and perhaps inevitable. (However, in Rouse’s defense there are in fact areas in the Crescent that will remain undeveloped, for example between Area 1 and Area 2 and between Area 2 and Area 3. So more woods will remain than one might think, and it’s possible that given appropriate easements and paths that they could be used as an extension of Symphony Woods itself.)

Cy Paumier plan for Symphony Woods

Cy Paumier plan for Symphony Woods showing park features proposed to be constructed. Click for high-resolution version. Image adapted from FDP-DC-MSW-1, Downtown Columbia Merriweather-Symphony Woods Neighborhood Final Development Plan.

There is no “let’s not build stuff” plan for Symphony Woods. Many people think of the choice for Symphony Woods as between a new plan involving radical changes and a prior plan preserving Symphony Woods pretty much as is. This is in fact not the case: The previous CA plan by Cy Paumier envisioned as many new park features in Symphony Woods as the Inner Arbor plan, just in different places. To be specific, as presented to the Howard County Planning Board [PDF] the plan “proposed future parkland improvements, including a network of pathways, a fountain, a shared use pavilion, a shared use amphitheater, a shared use cafe, play activity area, woodland garden area, [and] parking within a 16.1 acre project area ….”

Almost all of these features have direct counterparts in the Inner Arbor plan: The shared use amphitheater became the Chrysalis, the shared use café and pavilion were combined to become the Butterfly, and the play activity area became the Merriground. The Inner Arbor plan has no fountain in Symphony Woods proper, but the Inner Arbor Trust has proposed locating one in a plaza next to Merriweather Post Pavilion. The Paumier plan had no equivalent to the Caterpillar, presumably because unlike the Inner Arbor plan the Paumier plan assumed that Symphony Woods would be closed to the general public during most Merriweather events. (A primary purpose of the Caterpillar is to control Merriweather access closer to the pavilion itself, rather than at the park boundaries.) There also was no direct equivalent to the Merriweather Horns in the Paumier plan, although the plan did state that “[The] entire park is a potential site for future public art.”

Being “Disneyesque” is not necessarily a bad thing. One of the persistent charges against the Inner Arbor plan is that it is “Disneyesque” and turns Symphony Woods into an “amusement park” with “attractions” (in scare quotes) unsuitable for the wooded setting. This seems an odd accusation for several reasons. First, as noted above the Paumier plan had pretty much the same set of “attractions” as the Inner Arbor plan. Second, given that Jim Rouse was apparently quite the admirer of Walt Disney—he said in 1963 that “the greatest piece of urban design in the United States today is Disneyland”—I suspect he would have thought the term “Disneyesque” to be more a compliment than an insult.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that preserving Symphony Woods for future generations to enjoy will require more than a bit of the same sort of design thinking that went into Walt Disney’s theme parks. In particular, once the Crescent property is developed the remaining area of Symphony Woods is going to seem relatively small: the Inner Arbor plan preserves almost 80% of Symphony Woods as a natural wooded area, but that’s still only 14 acres or so—about the size of a small subdivision in western Howard County (land of 3-acre lots). A prime task is then to make Symphony Woods seem bigger to visitors than it actually is—the same problem faced by theme parks like Disneyland, and one that their creators did a good job of addressing through artful design.

Two miles of walkable surfaces in the Inner Arbor plan

Walkable paths and roads in the Inner Arbor plan. Adapted from “Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods: By the Numbers”, © 2014 Inner Arbor Trust; used with permission.

The Paumier plan with its straight paths does a poor job of this in my opinion; in particular the main path through the park makes it glaringly obvious how short the distance is from Little Patuxent Parkway to Merriweather Post Pavilion. The Inner Arbor plan instead has lots of “meandering paths” (as called for by the Howard County Planning Board after the Design Advisory Panel found fault with the Paumier plan), together with access roadways forming about two miles of walking surfaces within the confines of the park, and featuring over two thousand places to sit along the way. But I suspect people will probably prefer to walk than to sit, since as with the best theme parks walking will continually bring new sights to visitors’ attentions, between the natural beauty of the woods and the various attractive park features.

That concludes my thoughts on Symphony Woods, at least for now. I hope to come back later with more thoughts on the Crescent development.

1. I’m as culpable as anyone else when it comes to not letting facts get in the way of my emotions and convictions. A few blog posts back I wrote that some people seemed to oppose the Inner Arbor plan because “Jim Rouse (or one of his disciples) didn’t propose [it]”. Soon afterward Michael McCall wrote me and politely pointed out that he had worked for Jim Rouse for many years; in other words, one of Jim Rouse’s disciples was in fact behind the Inner Arbor plan. I actually knew McCall had worked for Rouse, but I was so invested in the narrative of forward thinking vs. “What would Jim Rouse do?” nostalgia that my mind conveniently forgot this particular fact.

2. The Inner Arbor “by the numbers” document lists the total number of trees to be cut as 31, at least half of which are not considered to be in good condition; see the full document for a complete list of exactly which trees are proposed to be removed, their species, and conditions. Contrasting this to the original plan, Cy Paumier wrote in July 2012, “Between 50 and 60 trees will need to be removed to construct the Symphony Woods Park walkways.” According to testimony at the Howard County Planning Board hearing on the plan, also in July 2012, up to 64 trees could be removed, or a bit more than twice the number proposed to be removed for the Inner Arbor plan. Note that unlike the Inner Arbor plan these figures do not appear to account for any trees to be removed for the shared-use pavilion, shared-use amphitheater, play area, and other park elements proposed in the CA documents submitted to Howard County.

Symphony Woods and sacred lands

“Symphony Woods” is at risk of disappearing. Not the literal Symphony Woods, the trees on the Columbia Association property surrounding Merriweather Post Pavilion—as I’ve written before, the Inner Arbor plan proposed for that property would result in the removal of very few trees, fewer even than the previous Cy Paumier plan that’s been touted by some as more true to Jim Rouse’s vision. Rather what’s at risk of disappearing is a certain idea about what “Symphony Woods” actually is, and I think understanding better what that means is key to understanding the ongoing resistance to the Inner Arbor plan and related developments concerning CA and downtown Columbia. This post is a first attempt at such an understanding.

My personal thinking on this topic has evolved. As readers of this blog are well aware, I’ve been a big supporter of the Inner Arbor plan, and I remain a supporter. While I’ve tried not to demonize them, I have not been particularly sympathetic to those who opposed the plan, an opposition that in my opinion was misguided and not in the best interests of Columbia and Howard County. I even felt a touch of schadenfreude when I read that some current CA board members were upset about the Inner Arbor Trust referring to “Merriweather Park” instead of “Symphony Woods”—“reduced to arguing about a name”, I remember thinking.

But, but… as I myself drove by the woods on my way through Columbia and looked more into the Crescent development plan, I came to realize how small Symphony Woods the property was in relation to what I had traditionally thought of as “Symphony Woods”. I had been used to thinking of the entire area bounded by Broken Land Parkway, Little Patuxent Parkway, US 29, and the South Entrance Road as encompassing a relatively unchanging “Symphony Woods”. It certainly looks that way from the road, and also when I ventured into the area for events like Wine in the Woods and Symphony of Lights. So I was surprised and a bit disturbed to find that much I had thought of as “Symphony Woods” wasn’t really Symphony Woods at all, but simply undeveloped commercial property that had been originally acquired by Jim Rouse and passed down by the Rouse Co. to GGP and now to the Howard Hughes Corporation, ultimately to be the site of the intensive development represented by the current Crescent proposal.

My consternation didn’t end there. In reviewing the Crescent plans I compared them to current maps of the area and went looking for Symphony Woods Road, what I thought of as the current and future boundary between the Crescent development and Symphony Woods itself. But there is no Symphony Woods Road in the Crescent plan—or if there is it is reduced to a mere stub of what it once was. In its place is a ring road named “West Crescent” after the development itself. It’s another symbolic encroachment on the idea of “Symphony Woods”, even if it leaves Symphony Woods (the property) itself undisturbed.

At about the same time I read an article by Peter Turchin (whose writings I’ve previously recommended) explaining why (in his opinion) Vladimir Putin and indeed the vast majority of Russians were so intent on wresting control of Crimea from Ukraine. In essence Turchin’s argument is that evolutionary dynamics since the invention of agriculture have favored those who defend their core territories—their “sacred lands”—with an intensity that is impossible to account for as a “rational” weighing of costs and benefits. In Turchin’s view Crimea is such a place for Russians, sanctified by a history that includes the Crimean war and the siege of Sevastopol, the Crimean capital.

The example of Crimea may be off-putting given Putin’s reputation as an authoritarian and corrupt leader. But (as Turchin writes in a follow-up post) almost all countries have their own sacred lands and sacred ground—consider for example the vehement opposition to building an Islamic community center near the site of the destroyed World Trade Center towers.

I believe that Symphony Woods—or, if you will, “Symphony Woods”—is in a strong sense “sacred land” for some Columbians, especially including many Columbia “pioneers”. It is in the heart of Columbia, and because of its location is not seen as being part of any one village (as, for example, Lake Elkhorn is part of Owen Brown) but rather as part of Columbia as a whole. And because of its ownership by CA it both literally and symbolically belongs to all Columbians in a way that a commercial development like the Mall in Columbia (or, for that matter, the Crescent development) never could. Note also that much of the opposition to the Inner Arbor plan is couched in terms of sanctity and disgust, honor, invasion by an alien presence, and so on—“deeply disturb me”, “bizarre sights”, “Disneyesque”, “disrespect”, “betrayal”, “a threatening … insect looming over the pathways”—a clear sign that more is at work here than a measured weighing of pros and cons.

So where do we go from here? My first thought is for myself: Whether I agree with Inner Arbor opponents or not, the distress they express is for the most part sincerely felt and deserving of respect. (I say “for the most part” because in every controversy there are always people on both sides who enjoy controversy for its own sake, or for the opportunities it brings them to advance their own agendas.) It’s also good to remember that my own reasons for supporting the Inner Arbor plan are also in large part emotional and “irrational”. (For example, I’d like to see Columbia and Howard County be a site for good contemporary architecture. I’m sick and tired of the former Rouse building and Merriweather Post Pavilion being the only well-known examples of architectural distinction in the county— that was forty years ago, folks, and there are good architects other than Frank Gehry.)

My next thought is for the Inner Arbor Trust and the Howard Hughes Corporation: Don’t be so quick to discard the “Symphony Woods” name in pursuit of your own branding strategies. Names aren’t simply names: The one who names a place exerts (symbolic) ownership over it, and the one who renames a place is symbolically seizing ownership of that place from those who formerly called it their own. Yes, retaining the “Symphony Woods” name may be only a symbolic concession, but this is a situation in which symbolism is, if not everything, at least a great deal.

My final thought is for everyone: To wait and see what happens, especially in the case of the Inner Arbor, for which the need for additional funding means that the plan will be (can only be) realized in many steps over many years. The first phase of the Inner Arbor plan will be the Chrysalis outdoor amphitheater. As it happens, a “shared-use small outdoor amphitheater on CA land” was also proposed as part of the former plan, so in that sense the Chrysalis is in the spirit of an alternate approach touted by Inner Arbor opponents.

And maybe it will turn out that they and others will like it. It’s not uncommon for new works of architecture to be derided before being embraced—consider for example the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall, now almost universally praised but condemned before its construction as a “black gash of shame” and a “nihilistic slab of stone”. I wouldn’t put the Chrysalis and the other Inner Arbor features up there with Maya Lin’s design, but I think they are solid examples of good architecture, respectful of the Symphony Woods setting, and potentially great additions to Columbia and Howard County. They deserve a fair judgment on their merits, and I hope will receive it. In the meantime no more schadenfreude from me.

The Crescent development in downtown Columbia: Areas and phases

UPDATE: The information in this post is now out of date based on the approved final development plan for the Crescent neighborhood phase 1. For more current information please see my post “The Crescent development by the numbers”.

Downtown Columbia neighborhoods

Downtown Columbia including the Crescent and Areas 1 though 4 within it. Click for high-resolution version. Image adapted from Downtown Columbia Plan: A General Plan Amendment (Howard County, Maryland, Adopted February 1, 2010), Exhibit E, “The Neighborhoods”.

Enough random impressions of the proposed Crescent development—what’s actually proposed to be built? In the pre-submission meeting representatives of the Howard Hughes Corporation outlined their proposal to develop in four separate areas of the overall Crescent property, with construction to occur in three separate phases.

The overall Crescent nighborhood surrounds Symphony Woods on the west, south, and east like a giant letter “C” open to the north, hence the “crescent” name. On the west and south the Crescent is bounded by Broken Land Parkway and the exit ramp from US 29, on the east by US 29 itself. Within the Crescent development will be restricted to four areas, designated Area 1 through Area 4. (See the accompanying image; at the pre-submission meeting John DeWolf of Howard Hughes joked about the unimaginative naming.) The remainder of the Crescent will be retained as natural space, with no development planned except for the construction of a few paths through the woods. (Some of this natural space is currently not wooded, but will be replanted with trees as part of the overall development.)

Of the four areas, Area 3 is the most important in terms of defining the new Columbia downtown. As envisioned by the Howard Hughes Corporation it includes six residential buildings, a hotel and convention center, a concert hall (possibly named “Merriweather Hall” or similarly), an aquatic center suitable for competitive swim meets, a new Central Branch of the Howard County Library System, and lots of retail and dining space, for example occupying the first floors of the hotel and residential structures. At least some of the residential structures could be up to 20 stories tall; the remaining structures in Area 3 (including the hotel) could be up to 15 stories tall. Parking in Area 3 would be in the form of parking garages in the residential buildings and a parking garage behind the hotel, conference center, and library.

Rendering of proposed Crescent development

Rendering of proposed Crescent development in downtown Columbia. Click for high resolution version. Image © 2014 The Howard Hughes Corporation; used with permission.

Areas 1, 2, and 4 are more conventional. Area 1 and Area 4 are proposed to contain general office buildings; in the pre-submission meeting DeWolf expressed a desire to have a single major corporate tenant occupy all the space in Area 1 (for example, a company like McCormick & Co. Inc., currently considering relocating its headquarters from northern Baltimore County, or a large Federal contractor). Area 2 is currently proposed for use as medical offices. All three areas are proposed to have small amounts of retail space as well, in total well less than 5% of the space in those areas.

The development of the Crescent is scheduled to occur in three phases. Based on John DeWolf’s comments in the pre-submission meeting, apparently Howard Hughes changed the originally-proposed schedule to front-load more construction in Area 3. If so I think this was a wise move: It more quickly brings the benefits of the various public and civic uses (which are of interest to people throughout Columbia, Howard County, and beyond) as well as bringing some initial residents to downtown Columbia to liven the scene and provide a local customer base for shops and restaurants constructed in phase 1. Without any Area 3 development in phase 1 the Crescent would simply look like another corporate office park.

The overall Crescent schedule then looks as follows:

Phase 1 would see initial office space in Areas 1 and 2, initial residential, retail, and dining space in Area 3, and the hotel, conference center, library, and aquatic center also in Area 3. Parking would be provided primarily by surface lots in Areas 1 and 2, and by parking garages in Area 3.

Phase 2 would add more office space in Areas 1 and 2, along with a small amount of retail, and more residential and retail space in Area 3. The surface lots in Areas 1 and 2 would be cut back in size to make way for office space and parking garages, and more parking garages would be constructed in Area 3 as part of the residential development.

Phase 3 would add yet more office space in Areas 1 and 2, along with a bit more retail, and more residential and retail space in Area 3. The surface lots in Areas 1 and 2 would be completely replaced by office space and parking garages, with more garages being constructed in Area 3 as well, again as part of the residential development.

Overall construction of office space would be spread roughly equally over all three phases, as would construction of residential units in Area 3. Most if not all of the restaurant and dining space would apparently be constructed in phase 1, with more retail space coming along in phase 2 and especially phase 3.

For more on the details of exactly what will be built and when see my next series of posts, beginning with a look at phase 1 development.

No fooling, Columbia’s becoming a city

Rendering of proposed Crescent development in downtown Columbia

Rendering of proposed Crescent development in downtown Columbia. View is of Area 3 looking east, with the proposed swim center to the right. Click for high-resolution version. Image © 2014 Howard Hughes Corporation; used with permission.

Columbia is well on its way to becoming a real city with a real downtown. (This is not an April Fools’ joke.)

Last night I attended the pre-submission meeting at which Howard Hughes Corporation presented its plans for the Crescent area next to Symphony Woods and Merriweather Post Pavilion. (I arrived a few minutes late, missing the introduction of the presenters and the opening remarks.) For now I’ll leave a more complete description of the meeting to the professionals (see Luke Lavoie’s story today in the Baltimore Sun) and will just give some initial somewhat disconnected impressions.

The attendance seemed a bit less than that for the pre-submission meeting for the Inner Arbor plan. (Luke Lavoie concurs, citing 75 people attending the Crescent meeting and about 100 at the Inner Arbor meeting.) I find that a bit strange in at least one sense. In the case of the Inner Arbor plan people got exercised over what I consider relatively minor things, like identifying the exact number of trees to be removed from Symphony Woods, and presumably showed up at the meeting in force to make sure those concerns got on the record. To me this is a case of not seeing the forest for the you-know-whats, given that the Crescent development will change Columbia in ways far more radical than anything that might happen in Symphony Woods. In the immortal words of Vice President Biden, this is a big [expletive] deal.

Without really trying to I ended up sitting next to Jane Dembner of CA; the same thing happened to me at the Design Advisory Panel review of the Inner Arbor plan, and (if I remember right) at the Inner Arbor pre-submission meeting as well. I keep running into the same people at these events; I get the feeling that there’s a core group of perhaps a few hundred people at most who have influence over, strong opinions about, or (in my case) an abiding interest in what happens in Columbia and Howard County—call them the Howard County 0.1%.

The presentation itself was divided into two parts: One section on the site plan, roads and pathways, public amenities, design guidelines, sustainability, and related matters, presented by two Howard Hughes employees whose full names I didn’t catch, and a second section providing more detail on the actual buildings, presented by Howard Hughes SVP John DeWolf. This second part was apparently an adaptation of a pitch DeWolf does for investors and potential tenants, so it included a lot of high-level marketing stuff about the appeal of Columbia and Howard County, the desirability of a vibrant downtown Columbia, and the ability of Howard Hughes to execute on that vision. Due to time constraints DeWolf had to march through this second presentation in about 30 minutes, including interspersed questions and answers; this was unfortunate since this section contained some of the most interesting material from my point of view.

DeWolf was clearly enthusiastic about the project (as he himself said, the man likes to build stuff). He went out of his way to emphasize the importance of Merriweather Post Pavilion to the Crescent project, particularly as a way to “make Columbia cool” and attract a younger demographic. Whether the hip twenty-something with a lip ring depicted on one of his slides will actually want to live in Columbia (as opposed to just attending a Merriweather event) is an open question, but full marks to DeWolf for trying. DeWolf didn’t mention anything specific about Merriweather renovation or plans for Merriweather parking, but did make a brief aside about his tiff with Ken Ulman. He didn’t mention anything about the Inner Arbor plan. In general DeWolf is an entertaining presenter, though having done lots of sales presentations myself I think I can tell what’s unforced enthusiasm and what’s a bit feigned for the benefit of prospects. (For example, does DeWolf really think the lengthy multi-step Howard County approval process is a great thing for developers, as he seemed to imply?)

As Luke Lavoie’s story indicates, the possibility of 20-story-high buildings in downtown Columbia was a major theme and concern at the meeting. It reminded me of the controversy several years ago over the proposed 22-story WCI Plaza tower near the Columbia lakefront. For various reasons that plan eventually died an ignominious death, but by all indications thus far the Crescent proposal should escape that fate, 20-story buildings and all. For what it’s worth, I think 20-story buildings in the context of the Crescent development are appropriate to the setting. They don’t stick out as stand-alone structures, but appear to exist in the context of nearby buildings of somewhat smaller size. I don’t mind the contrast with the adjacent Symphony Woods either; it actually reminds me of the buildings next to New York’s Central Park, a juxtaposition I find striking and attractive. There’s an open question as to whether and how much those buildings will shadow Symphony Woods at various times of the day and year; I hope to see something about that in future presentations from Howard Hughes.

Speaking of “massing” (to use the technical term for defining the overall shapes and sizes of buildings), I think the Crescent plan actually works pretty well in relation to its site. One person commenting at the meeting was concerned about the implications of the Crescent area being relatively isolated, in the sense that it was hemmed in by Symphony Woods and Merriweather to the north and by existing roads and development to the east, south, and west—not to mention the areas within the Crescent development itself that are unsuitable for building and will remain in a relatively natural state. Far from being a bad thing, I think this might actually work to the benefit of the development. Among other things, the compact and constrained site forces a higher density of development and helps prevents the sort of “micro-sprawl” I’ve noticed in places like Tysons Corner and Reston Town Center, where large urban-scale buildings and their associated “structured parking” sit next to low-density suburban-style strip shopping centers with large open-air parking lots.

The compact site and relatively high density will of course lead to increased traffic, which was another major concern expressed, along with concerns about the implications of that increased traffic for pedestrian access to and within the Crescent area. I suspect that true mass transit (e.g., heavy or light rail) will be a long time coming to downtown Columbia, if it ever does, so I don’t expect any relief on that front. Nevertheless I’m reasonably optimistic about the traffic situation, based in large part on the advances occurring in automobile automation that will likely be widely adopted within the longer-scale time frame of this development. Even if we never get to fully-autonomous “self-driving” cars, I think increased intelligence in automobiles will go a long way to making cars more safely co-exist with pedestrians, as well as potentially speeding up traffic by allowing cars to intelligently cooperate with each other to improve traffic flow and reduce congestion caused by stops and starts due to humans’ poor reaction times.

Other thoughts: I was surprised by the interest shown in a proposed swim center (or natatorium, if you want to get fancy). I wasn’t paying much attention to the discussions over the future of CA’s swimming pools, so missed the fact that there is a fair size group of people actively lobbying for a high-end professional-quality swim center that could host local and regional swimming competitions—something Howard County currently lacks. It sounds like a worthy facility, and one which could attract lots of visitors to the proposed hotel and restaurants in the downtown area. There was also mention of locating a new library downtown, but not much discussion of that. For the record, I think the Crescent area would be a better location for a new Central Branch than near the location of the present facility. I for one am looking forward to the possibility of a large multi-purpose central library of some architectural distinction.

Finally, as implied above I didn’t really get a good feeling for how parking at Merriweather will be addressed as the various phases of construction proceed. However I did glimpse some slides that may shed some light on that question, and if I can find out more I’ll post again.