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Developer Q&A: Howard Hughes Regional President Greg Fitchitt

Howard Hughes Regional President Greg Fitchitt speaking at a 2018 Bisnow event

The Howard Hughes Corp. is spearheading 14M SF of planned development in Downtown Columbia, an area it expects to become the third-largest urban center in the region after D.C. and Baltimore.

The current development of Downtown Columbia's Merriweather District is centered around the Merriweather Post Pavilion concert venue, and Howard Hughes is actively constructing new office, residential and retail space. Greg Fitchitt has been working on Downtown Columbia for over five years, and he took over as regional president for Howard Hughes in September after the death of John DeWolf.

Fitchitt will be a speaker at Bisnow's Future of Howard County event May 14. We caught up with Fitchitt to get the latest on Downtown Columbia's development.  

Bisnow: How much development has Howard Hughes completed so far in Downtown Columbia?

Greg Fitchitt: The Downtown Columbia plan is a long-term, 30-year plan to transform Downtown Columbia into a mixed-use, walkable, urban environment. We have completed or have under construction just over 15% of the 14M SF. We've completed 1.4M SF that's operational today and have about 800K SF that's under construction right now. We've completed three apartment buildings, The Metropolitan, Ten.M and m.flats, with a total of 817 units and about 45K SF of street retail. We've completed 350K SF of commercial space in two office buildings, One Merriweather and Two Merriweather. One is a new headquarters for MedStar and the other is a regional headquarters for Pearson. There are other tenants occupying the buildings as well, but those are the anchors.

Bisnow: You also opened a Whole Foods in Downtown Columbia, right? What impact has that had on the area?

Fitchitt: Yes, Whole Foods opened in 2014. That was the repurposing of an existing office building, which was the original Rouse headquarters building. Frank Gehry designed the building from the 1970s that we redeveloped and brought in Whole Foods for 41K SF along with a spa and an office user.

Having Whole Foods is a real catalyst to the whole development. We are trying to create a mixed-use, walkable urban downtown, and to do that, having a grocery store is a critical component. Whole Foods is best-in-class, and to have their belief in the market and the plan validated the whole concept and has been a tremendous help in our continued success. It's a great selling point for the residents, saying, 'Hey I can walk over to Whole Foods to get all my grocery shopping done or to go for breakfast or lunch,' and it's the same thing for office users.

Bisnow: You broke ground last year on a new office building anchored by Tenable. How critical was it to land a major anchor tenant like that to help move the project forward?

Fitchitt: It was really essential to our vision for the future of Downtown Columbia. With MedStar and Pearson, we have great anchors in place in the healthcare and education sectors, and bringing Tenable as our third major employment anchor is great because they are a leader in the cybersecurity industry. And with our proximity to Fort Meade 10 miles away, we have a huge cybersecurity workforce. For those companies it is really all about attracting their workforce. Everybody wants those engineers, the people with the skills to build protection systems for online existence. We have that workforce with the NSA at Fort Meade. With Tenable we believe that's an opportunity to build a tech-focused employment center in Downtown Columbia.

An aerial view of the ongoing construction at the Merriweather District in Downtown Columbia

Bisnow: Do you expect other cybersecurity companies will follow in Tenable's footsteps, and do you see any of that demand already?

Fitchitt: We do. There's tremendous interest, particularly with the announcement of Tenable taking such a large presence, we see a large interest from tech-oriented companies, including cybersecurity and other tech businesses as well. With Tenable and Pearson we're creating an ecosystem we think will be a driver of office absorption. One thing that's interesting about this region is it graduates an enormous amount of technology and software development and engineering talent, but many of those people leave because the jobs are on the West Coast. We think we have a real opportunity to build the Silicon Valley of the East Coast here in Downtown Columbia.

Bisnow: I know Tenable pre-leased 150K SF of the 350K SF in that office building, have you signed leases with any other tenants since breaking ground?

Fitchitt: We're in discussions with a number of tenants. There's a lot of interest but nothing we're prepared to announce.

Bisnow: In addition to the office building, do you have any other development currently under construction in the Merriweather District of Downtown Columbia?

Fitchitt: Yes. While the focus has been more on the office component that's under construction right now, we actually have our next mixed-use apartment building under construction now as well. It will have 382 units with 57K SF of retail and restaurant space on the street level.

In addition there's a retail component to the office building, and we're going to have a couple smaller, free-trustanding retail buildings. We're building close to half a million square feet of residential with 382 units and about 100K SF of retail that's under construction right now. The construction will be largely complete by the end of this year with the first occupancy at the end of this year and the full environment being largely complete by the spring of next year. 

As proud as we are of what we've completed so far, this really is a next step to a new experience with a truly high-density, mixed-use, walkable, active, urban place. The specific site within the Merriweather District is roughly 22 acres, it's our largest greenfield site, and at full build-out that 22 acres will have close to 3M SF of development. It will have three office towers totaling 1.1M SF of new office space, over 1,000 residential units and 200K SF of retail. It will also have the new branch of the Howard County Central Library and engaging park space that will have a farmers market in the summertime and an ice rink December through April. It's going to be a fantastic place for people to come. 

A rendering of the Merriweather District development planned around the Merriweather Post Pavilion

Bisnow: When do you anticipate the development planned for the Merriweather District will reach full build-out?

Fitchitt: It's a large-scale project, and it's complicated. When we talk about the Merriweather District, there are four distinct pockets of development. The one I was just describing that's 22 acres is the largest of the four, and there are three other areas. The full build-out of the 14M SF is envisioned to be a 30-year plan of which we're close to 10 years in. For Merriweather itself, it will be driven by market demand but we think in the 22-acre site where we have the first construction opening the end of this year, we envision that being complete within a five-to-10-year time frame. 

Bisnow: I understand there are two other districts within your Downtown Columbia Plan, the Lakefront District and the Central District. What is the status of those two areas and what is their expected development timeline?

Fitchitt: Our primary focus the last couple of years has been the Merriweather District, which included the passage of tax increment financing that pays for the street system. We have been spending quite a bit of time on Lakefront as well. We received approval last year for an initial phase with 500 residential units, including the first condos in Downtown Columbia, about 240K SF of office space and 70K SF of new street-level retail. We're in the process now of approvals which would be close to 2M SF of development that's really focused on health and wellness. 

While the Merriweather District is defined by the Merriweather Post Pavilion concert venue and focused on music and art, the Lakefront District is where the Whole Foods is, where the lake is — it's a more serene environment. We're trying to look at that and understand what does the future of healthcare look like from a development perspective, and we're looking at medical office, fitness, food and residential, with some age-restricted and market-rate residential. 

Bisnow: You mentioned Merriweather Post Pavilion, how important has that venue been as an anchor of the Merriweather District neighborhood you're building in terms of bringing activity and catalyzing development?

Fitchitt: So much of it goes back to the idea of competition for talent. It's such a competitive work environment and these companies have to have a different offering to attract the best people. The great restaurants and walkable environment we're creating is one thing, but to have Merriweather and to be able to say the office tower we're building at 6100 Merriweather will have a rooftop amenity that overlooks Merriweather Post Pavilion, so you'll be able to go up during a show and have the best seat in the house. 

Bisnow: Looking ahead toward the end of this 30-year development vision, once this is all built out how do you think Downtown Columbia will look and feel? Could it rival some of the other major urban centers in the Baltimore-Washington region?

Fitchitt: Yes, Columbia is already one of the best places in the country to live in. Money Magazine named it the No. 1 small city in the country to live in in 2016. It has a spectacular school system, open space, all of the wonderful things you hope for in a suburban environment. What it has lacked in the past has been a true urban place. But that is what we are building in Downtown Columbia. We really envision in the future it will be the third city. You've got Baltimore, you've got D.C., and this is the third city that will be in between.

Bisnow: On a personal note, you were promoted to the position of regional president last year after the passing of John DeWolf. What does it mean for you to succeed John in this role and try to fill his shoes?

Fitchitt: We all miss John very much. He was a real visionary and had a great combination of vision and the ability to transform that vision into the steps that are needed to bring something to life. It was a great privilege to work with John and he's left us in a great place to deliver that vision. We miss John a lot.

I think we're in a good position to be able to deliver on what he saw for the future of Downtown Columbia. We stand on the shoulders of some of the great minds in real estate, John being one of them, and Jim Rouse being one as well. He was the founder of Columbia, the visionary behind the entire Columbia development. We're able to bring John and Jim Rouse's vision to life in the coming decades. So it's a really exciting opportunity.