Columbia refocuses on retail growth Some see expansion as a violation of James Rouse's vision

November 08, 1998|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

It's a matter of debate whether the late James W. Rouse, Columbia's idealistic developer, envisioned his planned community as a place where he could buy a hammer at a Hechinger or a big-screen TV at a Best Buy.

But suburban experiments -- and Rouse's blessing -- aside, there's a simple rule when it comes to retail: Where there are people, stores are not far behind.

The long-awaited opening last week of the Lord & Taylor department store at The Mall in Columbia -- marking the end of the first phase of the Rouse Co.'s $150 million expansion and renovation of that 27-year-old complex -- is only the latest validation of that rule.

Next fall, at the end of phase two, Lord & Taylor will be joined by a second upscale department store, Nordstrom, and a new wing of more than 20 small shops -- yet another step, Rouse officials hope, toward securing Columbia's place as a giant in the region's retail sector.

With the 10-village, 87,000-resident suburban city almost completely built on the residential front -- only about 2,500 units are left to develop -- Rouse has turned its attention to the retail and commercial side.

Potential profits, jobs

For developers, builders and store owners, as well as Howard County itself, this means potential profit. For those seeking work, it almost certainly means more jobs: The county's job growth last year was 7.2 percent, more than three times that of the state.

For some Columbia purists, though, the growth symbolizes a degradation of the very vision James Rouse had for a diverse community built around a "central place" -- the Town Center.

Nicholas Mangraviti, chairman of the Town Center Village Board and a 28-year resident of Columbia, thinks Rouse's idea for a central meeting place has been abandoned by the late developer's company -- despite the opening of a sushi place by the lakefront and plans for a sit-down restaurant on top of new parking decks nearby.

To make his point, Mangraviti refers to Columbia as having a "Town Center West," which includes the mall and Columbia Association headquarters overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi, and a "Town Center East," which is anchored by the large stand-alone stores such as Borders Books & Music and Staples near Interstate 95.

'Suburban sprawl'

"We are in essence operating much like suburban sprawl," he said. "We are, in fact, suburban sprawl.

"What we've produced is 'asphalt America,' and we're not rejecting it," he added. "We the people are driving to it."

We are indeed. Despite some complaints about unchecked, out-of-control growth, consumers seem to have embraced the recent proliferation of "power centers" -- the 1990s version of the strip mall -- which feature clusters of well-known "big-box," or large stand-alone, stores.

At Columbia Crossing on Route 175, for instance, several new businesses, including CompUSA, Dick's Clothing and Sporting Goods and Jo-Ann Fabrics, opened this year. That complex, developed by the Rouse Co., has more than 300,000 square feet of retail space and a row of popular restaurants where the wait for a table can easily be an hour. Nevertheless, there are plans to develop at least 100,000 more square feet.

Three leases signed

Alton J. Scavo, a senior vice president at Rouse, said three stores -- Fitness Warehouse, Rowe Furniture and Barbeques Galore -- have signed leases at Columbia Crossing and might open as early as spring. Final negotiations are under way to bring to the center three additional stores, including two big-box outlets, which Scavo declined to name.

Also under way is a $170 million series of construction projects at the Gateway Commerce Center, a huge corporate park in Owen Brown village that is expected to bring more than 7,000 permanent jobs to Columbia.

"Obviously, Columbia is not exclusive, but it signifies a large portion of the growth that we have seen in all sectors in Howard County," said Richard W. Story, executive director of the county Economic Development Authority. "Where there is population growth, retail will follow it."

In addition to adding the two department store anchors at the Columbia mall, Rouse also hopes to launch a third development project there. If approved, Scavo said, that project would likely enhance the food court area and could bring a cinema.

One final department store "pad" at the mall is available for development.

'Fills a huge void'

In the meantime, Howard County residents -- who last year had a median household income of $66,300 -- no longer will have to trek to Owings Mills or Annapolis for power suits and perfumes from Lord & Taylor.

"The opening of Lord & Taylor and Nordstrom fills a huge void in the marketplace" for upper-end apparel and merchandise in Howard County, said Scavo.

Tuesday, Lord & Taylor's first morning of business, shoppers circled the new parking decks for prime spaces. Inside, many carried a single long-stemmed rose and a small black tote bag, evidence that they had signed up for a "Red Rose" Lord & Taylor charge card, which comes with a 10 percent "first-charge" discount.

Pearl Seidman, 45, of Kings Contrivance village and her mother, Sara Geister, 65, of Hickory Ridge village, were among the store's inaugural shoppers.

After the Washington-based Woodward & Lothrop chain closed its store at the mall a few years ago, Seidman said, "we've been rather disappointed, because there's not that much left."

Unfortunately, Seidman and Geister were disappointed again in their search for a handbag and clothes.

"We sort of hoped for a better offering than this," said Seidman, who spent $70 on shoes her mother didn't like.

They thought the merchandise looked too similar to what Hecht's offers. Of course, there's always Nordstrom.

Pub Date: 11/08/98

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