Senior housing project hits snag

Exxon Mobil won't sell vacant lot, builder says

`It could be the final blow'


May 27, 2004|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

The revitalization of Oakland Mills Village Center has suffered a significant setback -- Exxon Mobil Corp. won't sell its vacant lot for a senior apartment building, according to a developer who has been planning the highly praised project for more than a year.

Developer Jeffrey C. Kirby said he had a contract with Exxon and was planning to buy the 1.7-acre lot before beginning construction, which was scheduled to begin this summer or fall and be completed within a year. But the company backed out of the deal.

Patty Delaney, an Exxon spokeswoman, said yesterday that she had not tracked down the details of the site and "can't confirm or deny anything at this point."

The lot has been vacant since 2001, representing one of the struggles of the village center, and residents were hoping that the proposed 96-unit apartment building -- which spurred the Rouse Co. to seek greater housing density for Columbia -- would help breathe new life into the center.

"This is a major, major setback," said Kirby, founder of J. Kirby Development LLC. "It could be the final blow. I'm sad to say that."

But residents still have something to look forward to -- construction at the long-vacant grocery store site has begun, and a Food Lion is scheduled to open by early next year.

Still hopeful

Howard County Councilman David A. Rakes, an east Columbia Democrat, said he has not abandoned hope that Kirby's project could still be built in the village and wants to look at alternate sites.

"We have the housing allowances, and those are golden. We have developers who want to develop," he said. "I think there should be somewhere we can work this out in Oakland Mills."

Kirby said that although he is hoping to find another site in the village center or nearby, "that site is not jumping out at me right now."

In fall 2002, Kirby presented plans to the Oakland Mills community and earned support for the project as he met with residents on numerous occasions to offer details and respond to concerns. The building would have offered moderate-income housing through one- and two-bedroom apartments for people ages 62 and older.

`Major hurdles'

In the beginning, the project faced a significant hurdle -- no additional housing was allowed under the zoning for Columbia. After Kirby presented his proposal, the Rouse Co. petitioned the county to increase Columbia's residential density with most of the units planned for Town Center to try to create a more vibrant atmosphere.

Although many people protested Rouse's plans, support for Kirby's project was consistent. In January, the Howard County Zoning Board approved density for the project but denied the rest of Rouse's petition.

Kirby, who attended all eight Zoning Board hearings, had lenders ready and the project design completed.

"We've come an extremely long way in the last year and a half, overcame some major hurdles," Kirby said. "And then to have it stop because the seller doesn't want to move forward is disappointing."

`Other opportunities'

Dennis W. Miller, a Rouse vice president and general manager of Columbia, had held up Kirby's project as an example of what villages could do with additional residential density.

"That's unfortunate," Miller said of the project's failure. "But I'm sure there could be other opportunities in that village."

Barbara Russell, who represents Oakland Mills on the Columbia Council, said the village has not given up on Kirby's project. "It's not a blow to the center in the sense that something that was there is now missing," she said.

"It is a blow to the center in that something that we viewed as very positive was going to come in, and because of reasons beyond our control, may not be coming in now."

Market work begins

But there is a sign of progress in the village center -- an orange construction net surrounds the former Metro Food Market, which closed in 2001, as workers are demolishing the inside of the store to prepare for the Food Lion home.

The store is scheduled to open by early next year or possibly this year if there are no delays, said Jeff Lowrance, a Food Lion spokesman.

David A. Hatch, the chairman of the Oakland Mills Village Board, said residents are eager to shop for groceries in their village.

"We're looking forward to a village center that will do what the centers do in other villages -- provide needed services and a gathering spot where people are happy to go," Hatch said.

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