Downtown Columbia is familiar to many in the region who have been to concerts at Merriweather Post Pavilion. Visitors might’ve noticed the buildings nearby, but wondered what was there.
Now, the Howard Hughes Corporation is building a “live-work-play” development that is designed to create a central landing point between Baltimore and D.C.
When it comes to the work part of the equation, downtown Columbia is increasingly taking a tech and cyber focus. That was evident last week, as the real estate company announced five new tenants for buildings in the area that will move in this quarter. They include:
- Advarra, which has provided consulting services for clinical trials, including COVID-19 research, is taking 27,130 square feet within 6100 Merriweather.
- Ames Watson, a Bethesda-based private equity firm, moved into 3,866 square feet in 6100 Merriweather.
- Insperity, an HR provider for small and medium-sized businesses, will open a 12,540 square feet in 6100 Merriweather.
- Applied Network Solutions, a company solving problems in network and cyber domains, will occupy about 5,100 square feet of office space in 70 Corporate Center.
- Olive AI, the Columbus, Ohio-based healthcare tech company, began occupying just shy of 3,000 square feet of space in One Merriweather this month.
The moves vary in nature. Applied Network Solutions is relocating from another Columbia office. Olive AI, meanwhile, is opening the latest in a series of remote hubs, building on a model that it launched with a new office in Baltimore city’s Port Covington last year. Advarra and Insperity had brand new spaces built out to their specifications. And the announcement comes as many are still in a period of remote work, leaving build-outs complete but full move-ins coming later.
But Greg Fitchitt, Howard Hughes’ president for Columbia, sees a common thread: “All of these companies are companies that require a very sophisticated and skilled digital workforce,” he said.
Owing to the nation’s cyber HQ at nearby Fort Meade and other government labs, the area between D.C. and Baltimore has lots of talent. So the companies are seeking that out.
“The workforce is here,” he said. “We’ve got an incredibly highly educated, highly skilled software development and cybersecurity workforce that’s all around us.”
These aren’t the first tech tenants, either. Publicly traded cybersecurity Tenable committed to moving its headquarters to a new office space in the Merriweather District, which is part of downtown Columbia, and the space is now ready for move-in when the company starts getting back to the office. Another pair of tech companies signed on in 2019.
To be sure, the Columbia area as a whole has long been a home to many tech and cyber companies, owing to that workforce. But these moves further signal that talent is part of plans for Howard Hughes, which is 10 years into an ambitious effort to create a 390-acre “third city” in an area of the region that is typically considered suburban.
When it comes to new construction, downtown Columbia now has four residential and three office-centered buildings complete. The district is seeking to provide a walkable area with appealing amenities, as well. In 2020, a residential building called Juniper came online, and another called Marlowe is set to break ground. The District is adding restaurants such as recently opened Clove and Cardamom, as well as soon-to-arrive Baltimore ice cream destination The Charmery, and D.C.-founded bookstore-slash-cafe Busboys and Poets. And the development is set to include natural forest and restored wetlands. Fitchitt pointed out that things like parking are easier than they might be in a city, as well.
“It’s great for attracting employees because we offer all of these amenities, and also the fact that it offers all of the good things about urban living without some of the hassles of urban living,” he said.
The pandemic has led to lots of questions about the future of commercial real estate. But Fitchitt said this development has been “full speed ahead.” The recent signings for a combined 50,000 square feet indicate continued interest among digitally focused companies for physical office space, even as many companies are still working on plans to return from remote work.
“We can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Fitchitt. “We still have a ways to go but we think as people start to emerge and move into the next normal that Maryland — and downtown Columbia — is very well positioned for a lot of reasons.”