Citizens cool to plan for village center Harper's Choice residents want courtyard overhaul

New Safeway due in 1997

Some fear proposals by Rouse will leave square secluded, dark

June 06, 1996|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

Longtime residents of Columbia's Harper's Choice village are not ready to buy the Rouse Co.'s plan for a large new grocery store intended to revitalize their aging village center.

Though excited about the Safeway scheduled to open in late 1997, residents want improvements to the village center's courtyard, which was designed more than 20 years ago as the heart of the community but now is seen as a dark, gloomy place with high crime and low commercial appeal.

Dax Norman, echoing other residents at a community meeting Tuesday night when Rouse revealed details of the plan, said, "The square is going to be set aside. Nothing has been improved in the square."

The challenge Rouse faces in Harper's Choice also applies to three of Columbia's other aging villages: using large grocery stores to revitalize village centers that essentially serve as the downtowns of Columbia's village neighborhood concept.

In the Long Reach village center, also more than 20 years old, Safeway is expanding to 50,000 square feet from 27,000. But in the Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake village centers, there appears to be little room for such expansion.

"It's no easy task," said Al Scavo, who manages Rouse's property in Columbia, a planned community of about 85,000.

Scavo said the large grocery stores such as the planned 55,000-square-foot Safeway in Harper's Choice are the answer where there is room to build them. More shoppers will spawn smaller retail stores and a greater sense of safety, and "with more people, there is more comfort," he said yesterday.

In Columbia's newer villages such as Dorsey's Search and Hickory Ridge, for example, large grocery stores are serving as anchors of more vibrant village centers.

But in Harper's Choice, residents are concerned that the Safeway will simply attract shoppers to that store, while the courtyard remains relatively secluded.

"The [courtyard] square is going to become a back-of-the-house kind of function," said John Hogan, a member of the Harper's Choice Village Board.

Jackie Green, a 27-year Harper's Choice resident who for three years has worked at the village center, is worried about the long, vacant walkways leading to the courtyard.

"I don't want to walk through those dark areas at night," she said.

"That's the whole problem."

Many residents, however, said that with minor adjustments to Rouse's plans, they would be content.

Some residents have been walking to the nearest grocery store -- in Wilde Lake village -- since the Harper's Choice Valu Food closed more than a year ago. And Tuesday night, nearly 30 residents listened while Safeway executive Jim Brooks presented a slide show with such details as where the yogurt would be.

"They are enthused" about the plan, said Tom Forno, chairman of the village board.

To make room for parking for the new store, Rouse would tear down the vacant Valu Food store -- which was about half the size of the proposed Safeway -- and replace it with more parking. The company also would move an existing McDonald's closer to the courtyard.

Tuesday night, the residents said the new McDonald's location will further close off the courtyard. They also expressed fears that the idling, drive-up customers could harm the quaint image of the courtyard.

Some, however, said the idling cars could relieve the vacant feeling of the courtyard.

Scavo said Dorsey's Search, where shoppers who use the large grocery store also visit other parts of the village center, could serve as a model for Harper's Choice.

But the layout of the Dorsey's Search Village Center, designed several years ago, features a courtyard that essentially opens onto a parking lot. The Dorsey's Search layout is not the secluded style of courtyard, bordered by buildings, that worries Harper's Choice residents.

All of those things will be considered as Rouse comes up with final plans, Scavo said. The company's proposal has yet to go through the county's formal approval process.

Wilde Lake and Oakland Mills present greater challenges. The village centers, particularly in Oakland Mills, appear to be too small for a larger grocery store.

"I don't have a solution for Oakland Mills," Scavo said.

And even as Rouse tries to rehabilitate older village centers, at least one merchant believes residents should not fear those areas now.

"That is a wrong perception," said Bill Boarman, owner of Harper's Choice Liquors, as he bagged bottles of beer and wine for his customers Tuesday night.

Boarman said in the 10 years he has worked there he has never been robbed. He said people simply have an overall fear of crime. "I think people are afraid in general," he said.

Pub Date: 6/06/96

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