New Life For Old Exhibit Center

January 04, 1995|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Sun Staff Writer

The Columbia lakefront building originally used to showcase the new town's amenities and homebuilders' models is being redeveloped into a restaurant and retail complex.

Rouse Co. officials say they have leased most of the bottom floor of the former Exhibit Center Building to Fresh Choice, a California-based restaurant chain, and are close to reaching agreement with a dessert and coffee shop for an adjacent space on that level.

The conversion of the 20,000-square-foot building, informally known as the Welcome Center during Columbia's first two decades, is part of Rouse's plans to enliven Columbia's downtown area.

"We're pursuing things that give vitality to the lakefront edge year-round," said Alton J. Scavo, Rouse's general manager of Columbia, noting that the area around Lake Kittamaqundi is becoming a "restaurant district."

Fresh Choice, which bills itself as an "upscale, self-service-style restaurant" with soup, salad and pasta bars, is expected to open by May, said Jody Clark, a Rouse vice president. She said Rouse aims to open a dessert shop about the same time.

The Rouse Co., Columbia's developer, also hopes to attract restaurants, retail shops or pubs featuring live entertainment to occupy the second floor of the vacant building, and is negotiating with several prospective tenants. The success of several village center bar-restaurants and the Columbia Restaurant Park at Routes 108 and 175 has sparked interest by national chains, Ms. Clark said.

Richard Lewis, who has studied Columbia's Town Center development as a member of the Columbia Forum think tank, said he's pleased with Rouse's plans for the building.

Fresh Choice, which promotes its nutritional labeling of foods, opened a new restaurant in the Pentagon Center mall in Arlington, Va., in November and plans to open another in Fairfax, Va., this spring. The 8-year-old Santa Clara, Calif.-based chain runs 51 restaurants in California, Texas and Washington state.

The Exhibit Center was opened in 1967 -- the year Columbia's first residents moved in -- to promote James W. Rouse's vision of a vibrant, environmentally conscious new city and to sell homes. It closed in 1989 when the Rouse Co. decided that it was no longer needed to promote Columbia. The facility then was rented for office space, but the last tenant, a real estate business, moved out a year ago.

The building will require modifications to turn it into a restaurant and entertainment center, including a service delivery area in the rear, Ms. Clark said.

Rouse's original long-range redevelopment plans for the site called for replacing the Exhibit Center Building with a high-rise office building. But future market conditions and other factors may determine whether that plan is followed, Ms. Clark said. She said Fresh Choice has signed a long-term lease.

Although customers soon may be attracted to the Exhibit Center Building, a neighboring lakefront building that once housed the Rusty Scupper restaurant remains vacant, with no immediate plans for redevelopment. Clyde's Restaurant Group, which operates a lakefront restaurant and pub, bought the vacant building two years ago.

Tom Meyer, a Clyde's Group vice president, said the small restaurant company is concentrating on two other projects in the Washington area.

"We've had our plate full since we bought it, but we like Columbia. It's been one of the better restaurants in our organization for some time," he said.

The former Rusty Scupper building would have to be torn down and rebuilt to make it accessible to the disabled, Mr. Meyer said.

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