New zoning to allow construction of 96 apartments for seniors at the beleaguered Oakland Mills Village Center was approved last night by the Howard County Zoning Board.
The 5-0 vote represented an attempt to rejuvenate the east Columbia village and is preliminary to another vote scheduled for this month on zoning changes to allow 1,991 more new housing units to be built in the planned town - mostly in Town Center.
The Oakland Mills zoning change considered last night, which would allow a total of 150 more units, was separated from the rest of the contested Rouse Co. proposal "because that [senior housing] project has strong support from the Oakland Mills Village Board, had a developer and was ready to move forward," said Ken Ulman, chairman of the Zoning Board.
"I don't think I have to say how important this project is to the vitality of the village. Every day this doesn't go forward adds to the potential for more damage to be done," said board member David A. Rakes, an east Columbia Democrat who as a county councilman represents Oakland Mills.
In Howard County, the five County Council members also serve as the Zoning Board.
Despite a multimillion-dollar reconstruction in 1997, Oakland Mills Village Center lost its only gas station, its supermarket and several other stores and restaurants over the past few years. In addition, a persistent crime problem has contributed to a perception of it as Columbia's most troubled shopping area.
But developer Jeffrey C. Kirby, founder of J. Kirby Development LLC, said he is ready and eager to go forward with the moderate-income apartment building he has planned for the vacant 1.7-acre lot where a former Exxon gas station building was demolished in 2001. The apartments would house people ages 62 or older.
"We're hoping to be under construction by late spring," Kirby said after witnessing the board's vote. "Now we can move forward."
Marsha McLaughlin, the county planning director, said that processing development plans for the apartment house will be easier since the infrastructure exists for the site.
Bill Woodcock, vice chairman of the Oakland Mills Village Board, called the vote "another positive step toward making the village center what it should be. We're just glad he's [Kirby] been diligent and stuck through it all."
Woodcock said the former Metro Supermarket building is to become a Food Lion store this year, adding that the grocery chain is moving forward and renovation should start by midyear.
"This is one example of redevelopment and revitalization at its finest," Ulman said, noting that a decade ago, no one would have imagined the gas station would close, much less be demolished. "Times change, and we need to be ready to evolve with the times."
That sentiment is also the essence of the Rouse request to add density to the zoning that was created decades ago to guide Columbia's construction. The town's developer wants to increase density from 2.35 to 2.5 homes an acre, which would allow hundreds of new homes and apartments to be built on open land in the center of Columbia, near Merriweather Post Pavilion, as well as the units in Oakland Mills and 100 more dwellings in Kings Contrivance village.
The open-air pavilion would be converted to a smaller, enclosed year-round theater, and the new homes would add more residents to the still-developing Town Center, Rouse officials have said.
Opponents have insisted the change would violate the spirit of the town as envisioned by its creator, the late James W. Rouse, and create congestion.
The Zoning Board is to discuss and likely vote on the bulk of the Rouse rezoning proposal during a meeting scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Jan. 21 in the council chamber of the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.