Can Oakland Mills be saved? Howard County: Residents, retailers wonder about the future of Columbia's 'inner village.'

March 13, 1997

CAN OAKLAND MILLS be saved? One of Columbia's old-line villages, at a mere 28 years old, struggles with unpleasant perceptions and realities: fears about safety, a declining rate of home ownership and a village center in dire need of revitalization.

A barber who plans to close his shop when his lease expires recently lamented: "This feels like the death of a village center."

Others whisper the derisive new term "inner village," borrowing from the vocabulary of urban blight, when referring to troubled parts of Oakland Mills and its old cousins.

Who would have imagined that this suburban Baltimore paradise of the 1960s and 1970s would have slipped in the public's eye so far so fast?

Oakland Mills was an address of choice when it was one of the first communities in Rouse's planned city in Howard County. Now, McDonald's, whose national goal is to put one of its restaurants within a four-minute walk or ride of every person in America, has opted not to open a building it owns in the village center.

Giant Foods Inc. announced that it will close its tiny store at the center, dealing another blow to the community. Residents considered the grocery a glorified convenience store because of its small size, but it still was their neighborhood market. The Rouse Co., which is dealing with similar concerns at the Harper's Choice and Long Reach village centers, has much to do to keep retail viable in Oakland Mills.

The concern is that attention is shifting from older areas toward newer communities such as River Hill, which is designed to have less socio-economic diversity than old-line villages. But Oakland Mills is far from doomed. Wayne A. Christmann, who manages Columbia villages for Rouse, says the company plans improvements for the Oakland Mills village center.

The developer alone cannot save Oakland Mills, however. Columbia grew out of the notion that people can create for themselves a diverse, new community. It took hard work to build Oakland Mills from scratch; it will take work to maintain it. Issues of schools, crime, recreation, race relations are ongoing. If Oakland Mills is to succeed, it will take the same community spirit that village pioneers showed when they made it a desirable address in the first place.

Pub Date: 3/13/97

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