In Oakland Mills Village Center sits a vacant 1.7-acre lot that has become one of the village's primary hopes to revitalize the struggling shopping center.
Once home to an Exxon service station, the site has remained empty since 2001, when the station - which closed in 1999 - was demolished. However, the site could become the location of a 96-unit apartment building for senior citizens.
Developer Jeffrey C. Kirby, founder of J. Kirby Development LLC, plans to build the complex. But the project cannot go forward unless the village receives approval for additional residential units, and Columbia has none to offer now.
The Rouse Co. is trying to get more residential units throughout Columbia by petitioning the county to increase the town's density. In its plan, Oakland Mills would receive 150 units.
Complying with a unanimous request by the Zoning Board - which is considering Rouse's petition - the company this month separated the Oakland Mills project from the plan. It is unclear whether that move will allow the project to move ahead faster, but it does send the message that the board supports it.
"Mr. Kirby has a good plan, and it's good for him as well as us," said David A. Hatch, chairman of the Oakland Mills Village Board. "I'm still optimistic that now ... it will become a reality in a reasonable period of time."
Testimony on the case ended Nov. 4 before the Zoning Board, which has not ruled.
Kirby's building would offer moderate-income housing through one- and two-bedroom apartments for people ages 62 and older. The developer, who sat in the audience during each of the eight hearings, said he is anxiously waiting to start the project as soon as the board approves the needed density.
"We have a team of people that have been holding off that will jump on this process," Kirby said. "We could attack the process very vigorously and [could] be under construction by the end of spring."
Village leaders are hoping the additional residents would bring new energy to the area. A Food Lion grocery store is to open in the village center next year, replacing the Metro Food Market that closed in 2001. Village leaders are also counting on the new store to contribute to the center's success.
"I think it's just kind of a sign that Oakland Mills is back, and we're actually progressing," Hatch said.
Gaining local trust
Barbara Russell, who represents Oakland Mills on the Columbia Council, said the village is committed to supporting Kirby's project. She said the developer met with residents during numerous meetings, providing them with details and responding to concerns.
"We did not just vote to support a facility there, we voted to support Kirby's facility," Russell said. "He has presented us with a very desirable type of building, and we found that in dealing with him, he was very open, honest and forthright."
Kirby began planning his project before Rouse petitioned to increase Columbia's residential density to 2.5 residential units an acre, allowing an additional 2,141 units.
Throughout the Zoning Board hearings, which began in July, many residents testified against Rouse's plan, but none said they did not support the apartment project in Oakland Mills. Many told the board that it should find a way to allow that construction to move forward.
Hatch said he is grateful for the support.
"I'm glad everyone perceives the importance of the issue to us," he said.
Some residents who testified before the board were also concerned that Rouse plans on selling the right to build the units to developers.
In an interview, Kirby said that because the project is moderate-income housing, the rents - which would be financed in part with federal housing tax credits - cannot be raised to accommodate extra costs and said "it could be detrimental if there was a large charge to us."
Stake in success
Dennis Miller, Rouse vice president and general manager of Columbia, told the board at the Nov. 4 hearing that he wants the Oakland Mills project to happen.
Miller has pointed to the possible development as an example of how villages can use the extra residential units for future revitalization and pledged that charging for the units "will not be an obstacle to that project."
Zoning Board member David A. Rakes, an east Columbia Democrat, made it clear at that hearing showed how important the apartment development is to the village.
"I personally feel the commercial area of Oakland Mills is going to be very dependent on the success of this project," Rakes told Miller.