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ATale of Three Cities

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A dated and dilapidated Parole Plaza, inset, has re-emerged as...
Downtown Columbus, Ohio, has been given new life through an...
The Mosaic District is helping to redefine Merrifield, Va., as...

Maryland, Virginia and Ohio share at least one commonality—each contains a city that once had a shabby or lacking core badly in need of an urban facelift.

Today, Annapolis, Md., Merrifield, Va., and Columbus, Ohio, have either completed, or are in the throes of, urban renewal projects designed to breathe energy and excitement into dying downtown areas.

All three reflect the strategies that city planners and developers employ—and the challenges they face—in redeveloping downtown. “The objective of cities right now is to revitalize their downtowns and to concentrate growth into a city center,” said Robert Gibbs, founder of Gibbs Planning Group in Birmingham, Mich. “Many city and regional policy makers have come to realize that they need to absorb growth in a compact downtown area or, if they already have suburban sprawl from the 1960s or ‘70s, their motive is to redevelop those areas that are underperforming and infill with compact, walkable areas.”

This movement, said Gibbs, is new urbanism, and it calls for “planning techniques that retrofit ‘edge cities’—suburban, low-density bedroom communities on the outskirts of a city—into desirable, walkable, mixed-use communities.”

On Parole: In Annapolis, Md., a walkable, mixed-use community is precisely what the city wanted, and what it got. But the path wasn’t without challenges.

In 1961, the city broke ground on Parole Plaza, an open-air shopping center that was to survive for decades before market changes and nearby competition caused the mall to fall into disrepair and total vacancy.

In 2004, Owings Mills, Md.-based Greenberg Gibbons Commercial purchased the property and, in partnership with Annapolis-based Petrie-Ross Ventures, launched a comprehensive redevelopment that has resulted in Annapolis Towne Centre at Parole, a $500 million mixed-use project that includes anchors Whole Foods Market (its second-largest in the country, at 70,000 sq. ft.) and Target, a lineup of 40 stores, fine and casual dining, and a luxury residential component.

The redevelopment involved a daunting environmental cleanup effort. “When we bought the property, it was entirely vacant and had a significant environmental contamination from the neighboring property’s dry-cleaning leak that leached into the ground water,” said Brian Gibbons, president and CEO of Greenberg Gibbons. “The cleanup cost about $6 million and, of course, was a huge initial concern.” The developers worked with capital partner Prudential Financial, bought an all-in-one insurance policy and cleanup agreement, and encapsulated the liability to ensure “a Cadillac job of cleanup,” said Gibbons.

Annapolis Towne Centre at Parole opened its first phase last month, on Oct. 12. When complete, the development will span 2.3 million sq. ft. of vertically integrated space on 33 acres.

Target is taking a third-floor space, and Bed Bath & Beyond will be housed on a second floor. “The nontraditional locations for Target and Bed Bath & Beyond speak to the power of the location,” said Gibbons. “When Target takes the third level, you know you have a good retail site.”

Crafting Mosaic: The community of Merrifield, Va., is no longer a sleepy suburb of Washington, D.C. As Fairfax County blossomed into the wealthiest county in the United States (Forbes magazine, 2007) with a median household income of $100,318, its bedroom communities launched attempts to keep pace.

In 2002, Columbia, S.C.-based Edens & Avant began negotiating on a town-center revitalization project on a prime, 32-acre spot in Merrifield. The developer, in conjunction with Boston-based National Amusements, Inc., owner of an existing 14-screen movie theater on the property, proposed a 1.9 million-sq.-ft. complex of residences, retail and office space.

It wasn’t until 2005, however, that the project got off the ground. “It was a complex and difficult negotiation,” said Steve Boyle, VP of development for Edens & Avant. “But rezoning was approved in October of last year and construction is slated to begin in early 2009, with a Phase 1 opening of 2010.”

The project, named the Mosaic District, will house 700,000 sq. ft. of retail, a million sq. ft. of residential and about 200,000 sq. ft. of office and hotel. “Merrifield will become one of the defined urban mini-cities that are spilling out into the surrounding suburbs of D.C.,” said Boyle.

The pedestrian-friendly project has been accepted into the LEED-ND (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, Neighborhood Development) program, incorporating examples of sustainability that include a green roof and metro shuttle. Above all, however, the Mosaic District will be a vibrant downtown gathering place.

“To me, places need a soul, something that draws a neighborhood or community together and that creates a sense of identity and pride for the people who live there,” said Boyle. “That’s what Mosaic District should be.”

Broad strokes: Broad and High Streets are downtown Columbus, Ohio’s main drags. And where they cross is downtown ground zero—the quintessential urban core, defined by a skyline of historical buildings abutting modern makeovers.

At the corner of Broad and High is a 20,000-sq.-ft. site that came under locally based Casto’s ownership in 1998 through a portfolio merger. In 2004, the developer started working on a redevelopment of the site, which would ultimately involve decisions about what would stay and what would go.

“On the site was a 100-year-old high-rise building that, at 16 stories, was the tallest building in the state of Ohio when it was built,” said Bill Riat, partner, Casto. “And it was designed by an architect named Frank Packard.” Packard was considered America’s foremost institutional architect, designing some 3,400 buildings, including over 100 business and residential buildings in Columbus, Ohio, alone.

Adjoining the Packard high-rise on the site was a compilation of six smaller buildings, dating from the 1850s to the turn of the century, in differing heights and sizes. After careful examination of the structures, Casto decided to restore the high-rise and rebuild its surroundings to resemble the original streetscape.

With the addition of a west facade and balconies, the 16-story structure became condominiums and the project in total became a six-use development: “Broad and High now has the condos, ground-floor retail, restaurants, office, a parking garage with a German stacking system, and the sixth use is signage.”

Riat lists signage as a use, because of its significance. “This was the one place in Columbus where we could put high-energy digital signage, similar to that of Times Square in New York City.” NBC, whose studio occupies space on the site, and major corporate sponsors AT&T, Huntington Bank, Kroger Co., Nationwide Insurance, Ohio State University Medical Center and Anheuser-Busch, share signage space on the lit-up corner.

“We haven’t overpowered the corner, but have created something that is reflective of what has always been there,” said Riat. “But it’s in a modernized way.”

© 2014