Columbia's older villages facing typical urban woes

March 19, 1995|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Sun Staff Writer

This summer, a $1.4 million luxury show house will open as one of 30 planned luxury houses on large lots in the Harper's Choice village of Columbia. The ritzy development reflects the -- increasingly upscale drift of the last areas being built in the 27-year-old new town.

But the pricey houses are only about a mile from a concentration of Columbia's original low-income housing, now badly needing repair, and a struggling village center where in the past six weeks an armed robbery, attempted robbery and vandalism with swastikas have occurred.

The contrast -- between some of the older and newer parts of Harper's Choice, Columbia's second-oldest village -- exemplifies the new town's evolution in recent years.

In the Harper's Choice area alone, three different areas are under development by builders putting up houses with price tags that tend to range from $300,000 to $1 million.

Many of Columbia's newest developments -- including River Hill village and parts of Kendall Ridge in Long Reach village -- are similarly expensive, though more moderately priced townhouses and condominiums are planned in those areas.

Meanwhile, some sections of Columbia's older villages -- where Columbia's developer, the Rouse Co., tried to instill diversity -- are showing marked signs of age and an increase, albeit not a dramatic one, in problems more commonly associated with more urban areas.

In Harper's Choice, residents recently voiced heightened concern over property deterioration, declining property values, fear of crime and the growing unattractiveness of their community shopping center.

Residents say Harper's Choice more and more faces urban problems, large and small: crack-cocaine houses, armed robberies at the village center's automated teller machine and along village pathways, and loitering and drug dealing in its affordable housing developments.

Some Harper's Choice residents say all this is only natural: The new town can't remain young forever.

"Some people want it to look as pristine as when it was built," said Louise Riemer, a 25-year Harper's Choice resident. "There's a charm to maturing. It's not going to be a brand new community anymore. It's growing up. We're going through growing pains."

But many fear that the community's quality of life is threatened.

Crime in Harper's Choice is "more than a fear, it's a reality," said Thomas Forno, who is running for the village board next month to address a variety of concerns.

He notes that a recent pathway robbery at gunpoint took place behind his condominium development, where crime is on the minds of many elderly residents.

The Harper's Choice Village Center -- once a source of pride as the community gathering spot -- now is a "deserted area for large parts of the day and night" and needs revitalization, says Yale Stenzler, a 23-year resident of the village. The Rouse Co. has beefed up security there recently and is working on plans to improve lighting and attract new merchants.

Many residents say property maintenance in the village has become more lax as the structures age and more of them are occupied by renters instead of owners. Street lighting needs to be improved, crumbling sidewalks repaired and dirty streets cleaned, they say, urging stricter enforcement of architectural guidelines.

Those concerns have been echoed in Columbia's other older villages -- Wilde Lake and Oakland Mills -- where village centers and pathways also have been the site of several armed robberies this year and where property maintenance problems are on the rise. But many longtime Harper's Choice residents say their problems are isolated, not pervasive.

It's a wonderful place to live, they say, pointing to its relatively diverse population, established neighborhoods, wooded areas, the Kahler Hall community and teen center, the village's Fourth of July parade and a high level of parent involvement at Longfellow Elementary School.

"I really don't think the quality of life is threatened," said J. Terry Edmonds, a Harper's Choice village board member. "People may gripe and grumble, but I think they still realize this is a good place, better than most places in the Baltimore metropolitan area. They may be a little spoiled. Sometimes you have to pause and count your blessings."

Even Amelia Rogers, 73 -- a 25-year Harper's Choice resident who caused a stir at a January town meeting by saying some areas of the community are "beginning to look like a slum" -- says she wouldn't consider living anywhere else.

"It's definitely not utopia, but it's very pleasant living," she said. "It's added to my longevity."

The west Columbia village has about 9,000 residents, according to a neighborhood breakdown of 1990 census figures.

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