Vacancies trouble village center

Oakland Mills panel hopes to draw stores, supermarket to area

`We need more attractions'

October 31, 2002|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Four sites - each with a different owner - sit vacant in the Oakland Mills Village Center, symbols of the challenge of re-energizing the struggling center.

The Oakland Mills Village Center Revitalization Committee is focusing on those sites, brainstorming possible uses, as it attempts to develop a strategy to make the village center - the only one in Columbia without a grocery store - more economically competitive.

"There has been kind of a lack of unified planning because each entity is responsible for their own space," said Barbara Russell, a Columbia councilwoman who represents Oakland Mills and is a member of the committee.

The revitalization group was organized in December by community leaders and county officials looking for answers to Oakland Mills' problems.

The center, Columbia's smallest, is beleaguered, troubled by retail vacancies and fear of crime, despite a $4 million renovation in 1998 by the Rouse Co.

The most recent vacancy came in August when the Allfirst Bank branch closed. Metro Food Market left in April 2001, and, earlier, the center lost an Exxon gas station. A prominent corner lot at the center, land owned by the Columbia Association and Shadow Oak Condominium, remains undeveloped.

"As far as vacant buildings go, things are getting worse," said committee member Bill McCormack, adding that the formation of the panel was a "major plus" in efforts to focus on the center's needs.

The group is in the beginning stages of forming a strategy for the center, and McCormack said it could take months or years until all the needed components are put into place.

But one thing is clear - the center needs to draw more consumers, members say.

"There's a lack of critical mass," said Marsha S. McLaughlin, Howard County's deputy director of planning. "We need more attractions."

The largest void is the vacant Metro building, which Kimco Realty Corp. of New Hyde Park, N.Y., bought - along with the majority of the village center - from the Rouse Co. earlier this year.

Committee members have drafted a list of possibilities to fill the 43,000-square-foot space, such as a medical clinic or specialty food market. But they're counting on Kimco to replace the grocery store there and are hoping the company will make a decision by the end of the year.

Kimco property manager Kevin Allen has said Metro and his company are talking with supermarkets to broker a long-term lease or to sell the property.

"We hope there won't be a need for alternatives [for the Metro site] because we'll already have good news by the end of the year," McLaughlin said.

The committee is excited about a proposal to build a senior apartment complex at the entrance of the center on the former 1.7-acre Exxon Mobil Corp. site. Jeffrey C. Kirby, founder of J. Kirby Development LLC, has plans to build a four-story, 96-unit apartment building.

"The senior housing fits into the whole concept of looking at the village center as a whole," Russell said.

The committee members have also started brainstorming what they'd like to see in the remaining vacant sites. Ideas include a Starbucks, Blockbuster Video or Krispy Kreme Doughnuts at the vacant Allfirst Bank building.

If the senior center isn't built at the Exxon site, the committee has discussed its possible use for an indoor soccer or lacrosse facility.

McCormack says the committee should attempt to encourage consolidation of ownership at the center, which now has 10 different property owners.

"A major problem is too many owners going in too many directions. Competing uses within the property doesn't help," McCormack said, noting that the center used to have two Chinese restaurants.

Kimco is the most obvious candidate to buy out the others. It already owns eight buildings at the center.

But just filling the vacant buildings won't solve all of the center's problems, McCormack said. A reputation for crime has also deterred customers.

A string of robberies and low sales prompted Royal Farms to close its outlet in the center in 1999. (Sam's Mart, a convenience store, replaced the Royal Farms last year).

Over the past three years, four homicides have occurred within the village. Most recently, a man was fatally shot at the Shadow Oaks Condominium complex on Sept. 27. Police have made no arrests in the case.

"A lot of people feel uncomfortable, unsafe at the village center," McCormack said, adding many others "feel perfectly safe and comfortable" there.

People loitering around the center, blocking the sidewalk or using foul language, contributed to the unsafe feeling, McCormack said. Additional police presence and security guards hired by Kimco have generally cleared up the problem, he said.

Russell said the committee has worked with the Columbia Association to curb loitering at the teen center in the village center. Now teens have to register with the center, instead of just hanging around and dropping in, Russell said.

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