Giant hole in Oakland Mills Village center store closing strikes a blow against Columbia concept.

March 05, 1997

DOES THE ROUSE CO. still believe in the idea of Columbia? As Howard County's planned community approaches its 30th birthday, some Oakland Mills residents and merchants may wonder whether their village concept still flickers. The development company has focused on its new power retail outlets in recent years while Columbia's village centers struggle for dear life.

The latest blow came last month when Giant Food Inc. announced that it will close its store at the Oakland Mills village center. The announcement should not have come as a surprise. The store is woefully inept by today's standards -- at 15,000 square feet, not much more than a glorified convenience store to some shoppers.

Still, it anchors the community's retail center. Many Oakland Mills residents can reach the supermarket without a car and find neighbors picking up a loaf of bread, a dozen eggs or doing their weekly shopping. This is one of the central tenets of Columbia, ranking up there with community pools, bike paths and interfaith centers. The closing will bring some of the inconvenience and loss of community that Harper's Choice residents have endured since the Valu Food closed at its village center.

At least people in Harper's Choice can look forward to a bigger Safeway store, planned for that west Columbia neighborhood. But the Rouse Co. boxed itself into a cramped corner of east Columbia when it designed the Oakland Mills center. The company's crystal ball was fuzzy a generation ago when trying to project turn-of-the-century shopping habits; the 50,000-square-foot grocery did not appear. Alton J. Scavo, a Rouse senior vice president, hinted at trouble for Oakland Mills last June, saying, "I don't have a solution."

Is an answer forthcoming? Or is Rouse too busy managing the east Columbia power centers to save Oakland Mills?

Unfortunately, the trouble may not stop there. The Wilde Lake village center also has physical constraints that will make expansion difficult.

Rouse will have to make bold decisions to preserve the planned community's ideals. Otherwise, residents and merchants may have to resign themselves to a sad truth that their villages were merely a retail era, not a revolution.

Pub Date: 3/05/97

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