A Rouse Co. official said Tuesday night that the company would agree to keep big box stores out of its proposed development for the Crescent property in Columbia's Town Center.
"There will be no big box stores on that site. No retail greater than 65,000 square feet on [any] one floor," said Dennis W. Miller, the company's vice president in charge of Rouse's Columbia properties. He said that could mean a large bookstore, such as Barnes & Noble, but not a big box retailer with 100,000 square feet or more, such as Wal-Mart and Target.
Miller also said Rouse would complete a network of paths linking the 63-acre site adjacent to Merriweather Post Pavilion to the surrounding community. He said the new paths would run from Howard Community College to Columbia's lakefront.
Miller's testimony came during the first of three scheduled hearings before the Howard County Planning Board on a Rouse proposal to build 1.2 million square feet of commercial space on the site, which is one of the last large, undeveloped properties in Columbia.
The company's plan for the Crescent site would eliminate parking for Merriweather, which has operated as an outdoor concert venue for more than three decades. Rouse has said it wants to sell Merriweather, but only if the buyer agrees to downsize it to about 2,000 seats and enclose it. Currently, the amphitheater has room for up to 19,000 people.
A panel of county residents is examining a possible purchase of Merriweather by the county.
A Department of Planning and Zoning staff report completed late last week said the commercial development should be allowed to move forward under the terms of New Town zoning, a broad category used for Columbia that has given the Rouse Co. wide latitude since the community's founding in 1967.
It is early enough in the process that Rouse is not yet required to explain its precise plans for the Crescent property. The Planning Board has scheduled another hearing for Nov. 4. Residents are expected to testify on the plan, which included the possibility of big box stores and a gas station when it was initially filed with the county's planning department.
Earlier this year, the Zoning Board rejected a Rouse request to increase the housing density for Columbia, thwarting the company's plans to build 1,600 housing units on and around the Crescent site. Rouse then proposed the plan to develop the area with a combination of commercial, retail and office space.
Miller said earlier this week that he sees no reason why the latest proposal would be turned down because it conforms with the zoning requirements and has been in the county's master plan for years.
The prospect of losing parking at Merriweather and converting it to a smaller facility is an issue for some residents.
Two County Council members, Guy Guzzone (D-Southeast County) and Ken Ulman (D-West Columbia), have proposed building a network of pedestrian bridges and using Merriweather Post as a focal point for a performing arts center and a large green space that could be Columbia's "Central Park." It is a vision they said fits with James Rouse's original ideas for the community.
The Rouse Co. is in the process of being sold to Chicago-based General Growth Properties Inc., a shopping mall developer, but Miller has said pending proposals such as the one for the Crescent property will move ahead. It is not yet clear if Rouse will hold on to or spin off the company's community development division, which oversees Rouse's properties in Columbia, including Merriweather and office buildings.
Some speculate that Rouse, in its plan for the Crescent property, raised the prospect of big box stores to shift the debate back to housing, which could be far more lucrative.
Council member Christopher J. Merdon (R-Northeast County) said this week that he believes Rouse may withdraw its plan for commercial development of the Crescent site, particularly if the County Council decides to tighten up the New Town zoning rules.