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Crystal Ball: Reimagining the Future Site of the Mall in Columbia

Please note: This is just a silly fun thought-exercise - not news - just a blog article speculating on what one blogger would like to see replace the Mall in Columbia if it ever were to be redeveloped. I'm sure that land use experts, commercial real-estate professionals, or engineers could point out flaws with aspects of this plan, but that's not the point. The point is to let my (and yours!) imagination run wild. So, please comment on what you like and what you don't, and what ideas you would have if the Mall site were ever to be repurposed.

I have previously written about the decline of The Mall in Columbia and speculated on it's fate. And I anticipate writing much more on the mall in the years to follow. While some predict a post-COVID renaissance for enclosed malls, I envision over the coming years, there will be a continued decline of our long-time civic anchor that is perpetuated by both the growth of e-commerce, the death and closing of Department stores, changing consumer preferences, and increased competition from all the new retail opportunities set to be built in Merriweather and the Lakefront. Ultimately, I think it's a question of when - not if - the site of the Mall in Columbia is redeveloped. If the Downtown Columbia redevelopment of the areas surrounding the Mall is as successful as predicted, then the enormously expensive undertaking of tearing down and repurposing our Mall into something new may just become economically viable given the increased value of the land.

I recognize that many in our community would be upset to lose a treasured part of our Columbia history . After all, Columbia was started by the man often credited for inventing the shopping mall. And even as our anchor stores close, the mall itself offers value as a place to walk on cold or rainy days or a safe place to give youth a first taste of independence. I recognize that if this prediction comes to pass, many would lament losing a place that has provided so many memories.

Personally, I like to think about possibilities and opportunities of what could replace ~90 acres of prime Downtown land, as has been already been done to many other enclosed malls across the country. So, here's The Merriweather Post plan for the site of The Mall in Columbia. Reminder: This is not news - this is just one silly blogger on the Internet having some fun thinking about what I'd like to see if the Mall site ever was to be redeveloped. And while there is no basis to any of the following ideas, the thought of our Mall being redeveloped is not totally pie in the sky - The Downtown Columbia Plan does make passing reference to the potential Mall redevelopment and the Howard Hughes Corporation holds a development covenant that provides them a right of first offer for new development densities within the Columbia Mall Ring Road through 2030.

So, here we go:

Keep "As-in" (Unshaded, ~15 acres): First, under my plan, not everything should go. In my vision, I would keep the newish outdoor "Restaurant Row" and Pedestrian promenade that is flanked by stores leading to the current mall entrance should stay. The Mall has done a great job adding these over the past several years. So, under my plan, the building/buildings that houses Walrus, Shake Shack, Urban Plates, Uncle Julio's, Seasons 52, PF Changs, Cheesesteak Factory, Maggiano's, the AMC theatre, Main Event, Barnes & Noble, the future home of Lidl, and all the stores (Arhaus, Anthropology, Athletica, Talbots, Lou Lou, etc.) flanking the Pedestrian entrance to the mail where the stick-figure sculptures are located - all that should stay. I also left the existing parking garage just behind these restaurants in the plan. And this idea only focuses on replacing the existing mall structure and surrounding parking areas - all the large buildings surrounding the periphery of the Mall remain.

Street-Grid Mixed-Used Development (Pink, ~18 acres): Create a street-grid with several new midrise mixed-use developments in the existing surface parking lot on the west side of the Mall between the new Warfield developments (The Metropolitan, Ten.m, and m.flats) and the Mall itself. Seems like at least 6 similar buildings could fit in this area - thus creating a 3x3 block street grid with the three aforementioned newly-built developments. Buildings could be a mix of residential (with both market-rate and affordable units) or commercial, but all with ground floor retail and interior parking for residents, tenants, and patrons. All with wide sidewalks, bike lanes, bus stops, streetscape improvements etc.

School District (yellow, ~30 acres): Integrating schools into neighborhoods helps promote community interaction and enhances health by encouraging walking and biking to school. And if we are truly committed to a full buildout of of Downtown Columbia in a walkable neighborhood with all amenities close at hand, then ensuring that there are schools within walking distance is equally as important as ensuring we have jobs, restaurants, culture, and shopping within walking distance. The U.S. Green Building Council sets maximum school campus sizes of 15 acres for a High School, 10 acres for a middle school, and 5 acres for an elementary school for L.E.E.D. for Neighborhood qualification, meaning that this site highlighted in yellow could fit all three public school types with urban-style school buildings that still provide outdoor space for sports fields, playgrounds and some parking.

Residential (blue, ~18 acres): One thing that is missing from the Downtown Columbia Plan is residential housing outside of housing apartments in large buildings. I imagine a mix of densely packed housing types (townhouses, duplexes, multiplexes, live/work units etc.) that provides missing-middle housing and workforce housing options with shared outdoor spaces to ensure that a full-spectrum of housing options exist in Downtown Columbia. Some units should have income-restrictions to ensure that units are affordable to young families, seniors, teachers, artists, firefighters, police, etc. while others at market-rate to allow for those who do not meet income restrictions to live here too. What a fabulous location right in the center of everything and anything anybody could possible need right at your doorstep.

Pedestrian Promenades (green): As I mentioned, the existing outdoor pedestrian east/west promenade (that starts Maggiano's & Seasons 52 and currently ends at the Mall entrance) would stay, but it should be extended to go all the way to the Lakefront, lined - the entire way - with trees, public art, shops and cafes, to provide a continuous outdoor pedestrian connection between the "Mall" and the Lakefront - a connection that is not currently possible with the Mall standing in the way. Include a wide ADA-compliant pedestrian bridge over Little Patuxent Parkway into the Lakefront area. Create a separate north/side pedestrian promenade from the Mall to Symphony Woods (also, with a bridge over Little Patuxent) to provide direct access into the Park, Merriweather Post Pavilion, and onwards to The Merriweather District. Some of these promenades are envisioned in the Downtown Columbia plan. Note that I am not suggesting the Merrill Lynch office building at 10320 Little Patuxent be taken down, I just failed to properly exclude it from my green shading. My suggested pedestrian promenade could easily wrap around this building.

Museum (orange): Here's my favorite idea! Fitting in with the theme of transforming Downtown Columbia into a regional arts & culture destination, I'd like to see a proper museum! And what would the theme of this museum be? Don't worry, I've thought of that too! For one, it would have to include the unique history of Columbia with all the great materials that are already part of the Columbia Archives. But playing off our local history, you can have permanent and temporary exhibits on such subjects like the past, present, and future of urban/suburban design in America, the rise (and fall) of the American shopping mall, and a history of racial segregation and housing policy in the US (essentially, a museum version of Richard Rothstein's book The Color of Law). The Museum lobby can even become a new home for a Poinsettia tree during the Christmas season to ensure the Columbia Mall's wintertime tradition remains part of our community long into the future and an indoor children's play area themed after a tot lot! How fitting of a museum theme would this be for Columbia, and I love the irony of knocking down a shopping mall only to build in it's a place - a museum, in part, about shopping malls (though, I suppose the idea works just as well, if not better, by using part of the existing mall building for the museum!) I admit that this idea is probably the least realistic of any in this vision though it certainly can become a larger project with the museum occupying part of the building and housing in the other, similar to the NCC structure.

Transit: Finally, all this would come with wide sidewalks, dedicated bike lanes, and parking garages kept at the periphery. New transit option, like a circulator bus route providing continuous looping service to all the key Downtown destinations at the Lakefront, Merriweather, and The "Mall" should be added to encourage the use of alternative modes of transit.


1 Comment

I have to admit that I've gone through this exercise myself from time to time and think that your shot at it is certainly thought-provoking.

My idea is to turn the Mall itself into a civic center with County offices, CA HQ, a post office and congressional and state representative constituent offices all within one space. Maybe even add in Federal consumer-facing offices such as Social Security as well.

I'd like to get rid of the vast sea of parking lots surrounding the Mall and replace them with an urban style street grid similar to the landmark Country Club Plaza in Kansas City (Google it -- it was completed nearly 100 years ago at the beginning of the auto age…

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