Worries rising in Oakland Mills McDonald's decision and barbershop's exit are latest setbacks

March 06, 1997|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Columbia's Oakland Mills village is suffering more blows.

McDonald's Corp. will not open a new outlet at the boarded-up site of a former Roy Rogers restaurant it just bought, and the building will be put up for sale, McDonald's officials said yesterday.

Across the parking lot in the village center, the 25-year-old Oakland Mills Village Barber Shop will close its doors when its lease expires because the Rouse Co. plans to raise its rent, owner Fred Leunissen said.

This week, conversations on the streets and in the businesses of Oakland Mills increasingly focus on one point: What has happened to this village?

"All of my customers are talking about this, almost to the point where we're sick of having the same conversation, saying, 'What's going to happen to us?' " Leunissen said. "It's very bad and it's getting worse. This feels like the death of a village center."

But the village got some potentially good news last night when an official of Giant Food Inc. said its small, struggling grocery store may remain open. Late last month, Giant said the store would close in June -- a development that had sent shock waves through the village.

Oakland Mills is Columbia's third-oldest village. It is home to rising numbers of renters, recent immigrants and low-income families. Some residents say they feel their neighborhoods are less stable and cohesive than they once were. Many feel crime is getting worse.

The village's troubles aren't exclusive to its village center. Across Route 175 in the Thunder Hill neighborhood, real estate agents have been unable to sell the site of a former Wawa store off Thunder Hill Road that burned down in April 1995.

On both sides of the highway, 300 acres of undeveloped land that has served as a much-needed buffer for many in the `D Oakland Mills area may be put up for sale soon -- meaning that the area could become much more congested.

In the area around the village center last summer, county police stepped up patrols as part of a Robbery Suppression Program aimed at stemming a sudden increase in street crime.

Near the village center, Talbott Springs Elementary School in recent years has been one of Howard County's lowest performing schools -- inducing, many believe, some middle-class flight.

To be sure, Columbia's other older villages -- particularly Wilde Lake, Long Reach and Harper's Choice -- share some of the same woes. At recent community meetings, the term "inner villages" -- as in "inner city" -- has been used in reference to these villages.

"What's happening in Columbia is not too dissimilar to what happens in other cities," said Dan Singer, who lives in the Stevens Forest neighborhood of the village. "As the older, inner parts of town age, the focus is on the outer edges.

"The difference is that in Columbia this wasn't supposed to happen because this is a planned community," he said.

Given all this, the latest news -- that McDonald's is selling the closed Roy Rogers outlet in Oakland Mills, along with two others in Columbia -- hit hard.

"Jeez," Marcelino Bedolla said with a sigh. "Another one goes."

Added his daughter, Catherine, who grew up in Oakland Mills and is now a college student: "That scares me."

McDonald's acquired five Roy Rogers outlets in Columbia on Feb. 14 as part of a nationwide purchase of 162 restaurant sites from the chain. Aside from the Oakland Mills outlet, McDonald's officials said yesterday, they will sell the Roy's outlets in Owen Brown village and at The Mall in Columbia.

The other two Roy's outlets -- in Dorsey's Search and Wilde Lake villages -- will reopen as McDonald's, they said.

Bedolla, a high school teacher who has lived in the Thunder Hill neighborhood for more than two decades, says the village center is failing largely because of a lack of reinvestment by the Rouse Co.

But Wayne A. Christmann, who manages Columbia's villages for the company, says the firm is committed to its village centers and is planning unspecified improvements at the Oakland Mills center.

At a village board meeting last week, he tried to allay fears expressed by residents about the Giant store.

But Bedolla didn't buy it. "It's the mega-stores on the outskirts that are hurting the village centers," he said, referring to the booming warehouse retailers that Rouse has lured to east Columbia's borders. "Money is going out to the periphery, not to the older villages in the center."

Duke S. Kassolis, a Rouse senior vice president, said the village centers and the warehouse stores work "in synergy." Several huge, new stores opened last year, he said, but village centers as a whole did stronger sales in 1996 than ever. But he said such older villages as Oakland Mills inevitably would go through hard times.

"These things change and they're fluid," Kassolis said. "We at the Rouse Co. did our best job at the time the center opened to present to the community the best type of village center we thought the community wanted.

"Thirty years later, things have changed. Columbia and the demands of consumers -- which drive all this -- have changed. We're just at one of those crossroads."

Some residents say escalating crime is hurting the village center. "The village center is not even safe anymore," said Leunissen. "We have problems on a daily basis."

But recent police data show that serious service calls in the village actually decreased from 1995 to 1996.

Still some residents perceive danger. And such fears do little to allay residents' concerns that the more the village center suffers, the more their property values will shrink -- the tacit bottom line in many discussions in the village these days.

"If the core of the village deteriorates, then people will rethink where they live and what they want from their village," said Alex Hekimian, who represents the village on the Columbia Council.

Pub Date: 3/06/97

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