Senior housing faces key hurdles

Apartments would involve change in allowed density

Oakland Mills site at issue

Columbia

January 30, 2003|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

The Oakland Mills Village Center's prospects brightened Tuesday night when Mark E. Mueller, an associate with KLNB Retail, announced that a Food Lion grocery store could be opening in the center within nine months.

But while Oakland Mills leaders were encouraged by the possibility of a new grocery store, they were told that another key element in a plan to revitalize the village center still faces significant hurdles.

A proposed 96-unit apartment building for seniors at the center cannot be built under Columbia's current development rules.

For the building to go up, the Rouse Co. would have to petition Howard County to increase the permitted density for residential units throughout Columbia, changing the development plan for the entire suburb.

Developer Jeffrey C. Kirby, founder of J. Kirby Development LLC, is aware of the significance of that change and is lobbying for support from Columbia's villages, beginning with Oakland Mills.

On Tuesday night, the Oakland Mills Village Board unanimously voted to support the project, and Kirby said he is poised to talk to other village boards and gather as much support as possible.

"You really need Oakland Mills behind you," he said. "Without them you really shouldn't be going forward."

Mueller, whose firm is the tenant representative for Food Lion, said the grocer had signed a 45-day feasibility contract with Kimco Realty Corp., which bought the store and most of the village center from Rouse last year.

Barbara Russell, a Columbia councilwoman who represents Oakland Mills, said the village board wants to talk with Food Lion representatives and offer suggestions about what they believe caused the Metro Food supermarket to close in the village center in 2001 so the same mistakes are not repeated.

"We want to do everything we can as a community to make them successful," she said.

Russell said she thinks that Food Lion's moving to the village center would make the shopping area more competitive, as none of Columbia's other villages have a Food Lion.

"Just another Giant or Safeway wasn't going to work," she said.

Mueller said Food Lion was surprised that the Oakland Mills site was still vacant and "shocked" that Metro closed.

"They're very excited about being here," he said. "They're amazed that a community such as Oakland Mills does not have a grocery store to serve them."

A lot will have to happen for the senior housing to be built on the 1.7-acre lot that Exxon Mobil Corp. used to occupy in the Oakland Mills Village Center. The county Zoning Board would have to approve increasing the allowed density of residential units across Columbia. Rouse would then have to assign the additional units to the Oakland Mills development.

"It's a fairly major effort," said Marsha S. McLaughlin, the county's interim planning director.

The Rouse Co. is authorized to develop Columbia with a density of 2.35 residential units per acre, McLaughlin said.

By that standard, some 33,539 residential units could be built on Columbia's 14,272 acres. Only about 900 allowed units remain, and the Rouse Co. intends to use those elsewhere in Columbia, McLaughlin said.

Alton J. Scavo, Rouse's executive vice president of development, indicated that under Howard's new town ordinance more residential units could be built with permission from the county. That law limits residential density to 2.5 residential units per acre.

He said the future of the proposed apartments depends on the community's response.

"I think [senior housing] is a use that is probably compatible with the surrounding area, but it still needs to go through the test of the community," he said.

While the change in residential density would be significant, Scavo noted, it would not mean that homes would suddenly be erected on Columbia's open space.

Scavo said obtaining more residential units would be a time-consuming, tedious process that could take up to a year.

"I think we would only go forward if we were prepared to see that [apartment] project through," Scavo said. "It's not an insignificant process. ... It would be something we really have to think long and hard about."

Some village officials and many residents hope the proposed four-story apartment building for people ages 62 and older would bring a new energy to the shopping area. The center has three other vacant sites -- each with a different owner -- including the grocery store that Food Lion will be looking at.

"So far, [the senior housing] is looking like it would make a real positive addition to the health of the village center," said Russell. "It would bring people to the village center."

The apartments would be financed in part with federal housing tax credits. Income limits for tenants would be $27,900 for one person and $31,860 for two people. Rents would range from $553 for a one-bedroom, one-bath apartment to $807 for a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment.

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