Rouse Co. may consider options for vacant space

May 27, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

The Rouse Co. seems resigned to a revolution when it comes to at least one of its aging Columbia village shopping centers.

As Oakland Mills officials form committees and work the phones to find a supermarket to replace the one that left their village center last month, senior Rouse officials say the time may have come to find a new use for the 43,000-square-foot space.

Company officials say they haven't given up hope of landing another supermarket at the 32-year-old village center. But they are largely leaving the search to village leaders and Metro Food Market, which still has a 20-year lease on the property.

And they say no one should be surprised if the building winds up as office space, an indoor soccer center or some other use.

Rouse officials acknowledge that Columbia was probably built with too many village shopping centers. While the Oakland Mills center is in the most dire straits, they say all nine face a basic supply-and-demand dilemma: In the 34 years since Columbia was founded, supermarkets have grown larger than anyone ever imagined; Columbia's population has not.

Developer James W. Rouse envisioned Columbia as a town of 100,000 residents and nine village centers at a time when the average grocery store was 20,000 to 25,000 square feet. Today, Columbia has about 87,000 residents, and most of its markets are more than double or triple the size of its original 20,000-square-foot Giant.

The villages are not large enough to support the expanded stores on their own, and it is hard for the centers to draw shoppers from elsewhere because the stores tend to be tucked away in the middle of the villages, off main thoroughfares and camouflaged behind grassy berms to eliminate "visual clutter."

"Had we known 35 years ago where the grocery industry was going, we probably would not have designed Columbia the way we did," said Wayne Christmann, vice president and general manager of Columbia Management Inc., an affiliate of the Rouse Co. The company owns eight of the centers. Giant owns the one in Owen Brown.

Six or seven village shopping centers probably would be about right today, Christmann said. But the company isn't about to shutter the extra two or three, he added. "I think what we'll see over the longer period of time, perhaps one or two evolving into something different than it is," Christmann said.

The evolution may come sooner rather than later in Oakland Mills, which may have trouble attracting another supermarket.

"We've been very candid with the community that it's not going to be an easy sell," Christmann said. "If Metro cannot attract [another grocery store], we may have to consider alternative uses."

That stance has startled some longtime Columbians, who remain committed to the community's original design concept: a town organized around nine village centers, which include athletic facilities, interfaith worship space and schools in addition to a shopping center anchored by a supermarket.

The centers were intended to serve residents' basic shopping needs and provide a place where neighbors would bump into each other on a regular basis, thereby building a sense of community.

The village centers can still achieve those social goals without supermarkets, said Alton J. Scavo, senior vice president of Rouse.

"As long as it is a focal point for the community and it represents a gathering place, it's still a village center," Scavo said. " ... I don't think we should lose sight of the fact that the village center is more than the retail."

But village officials say having a supermarket as an anchor is important because few other uses would attract the steady, high-volume customer traffic that helps support other shops and leads to lots of meeting and greeting. "The concept of the village center very much encompasses having a supermarket there," said Columbia Councilwoman Barbara Russell of Oakland Mills. "It's a very basic kind of need."

Metro closed three years after moving into the center. Rouse had just expanded the grocery space from 24,000 square feet as part of a $3.5 million face lift, which transformed the center from an enclosed mall into a strip center.

Scavo said the center's off-the-beaten-path location has worked against success. The company chose the spot so that two 1940s-era barns could be preserved and incorporated into the center as community buildings, Scavo said.

Village officials say Metro's failure may have had more to do with the store's poor management and shaky corporate situation than with any problems with village centers in general or the Oakland Mills site in particular.

"But Rouse officials say they've already put more into that site than might make sense in hard-nosed business terms. Now they sound ready to move on. We put our money where our interests were, and we gave it a shot," Scavo said, referring to the 1998 renovation. "We were very candid that this was a challenge. We would not have done that had it not been Columbia."

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