The village centers time forgot Columbia's older shopping hubs struggle to compete in the 'mega' '90s.

June 11, 1996

APPARENTLY NOT EVEN the visionary Jim Rouse could forsee the virtual revolution in consumer marketing that elevated use of the prefix "mega" in the American lexicon. When the Rouse Co. designed Columbia's first village centers more than 20 years ago, supermarkets were only a fraction of the size of the behemoths that now anchor many suburban shopping centers.

It was a time before warehouse outlets siphoned customers from local hardware stores, when "best buy" was only a phrase. Now, when it comes to shopping, bigger means better.

This has created problems for three of Columbia's older village centers, which were designed for smaller food stores. They are having trouble accommodating big anchor stores that can compete in the marketplace of the '90s.

At the Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake centers, there appears to be little space to expand the existing grocery stores. Meanwhile, at the Harper's Choice center, the situation is better. A former Valu Food store will be replaced by a 55,000-square-foot Safeway. Residents who have gone without a neighborhood supermarket since December are happy about the prospect of gaining a state-of-the-art grocery. Still, other nearby merchants worry that the proposed layout will isolate them from the new store and spillover traffic.

More modern models for shopping are the recently designed centers in Dorsey's Search and Hickory Ridge. Their supermarkets are twice the size of the obsolete 27,000-square-foot former Valu Food in Harper's Choice. Perhaps the next generation will bring changes to make these layouts out of date, but for now they anchor thriving centers.

Columbia's village centers are as much a part of the 28-year-old planned city as its bike paths and community pools. The late Mr. Rouse felt it was important to put local services close to residential neighborhoods for the sake of convenience and community-building.

To keep its older centers viable, the Rouse Co. must tap the kind of creative energy that once transformed 14,000 acres of farmland into Columbia. The solutions that emerge could be expensive for the developer and may cause temporary discomfort for merchants and shoppers, but it would be worthwhile for a town that prides itself in being on the cutting edge.

Pub Date: 6/11/96

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