Hard hit by Safeway’s closing last month and several high-profile crime events nearby, Long Reach Village Center unveils a makeover in the next few weeks that includes:
- An international market to replace Safeway
- New restaurants from Subway to exotic Caribbean
- New offices for dental work and after-school programs
A new eatery called Pizza, Indian and More is already open, and no later than Dec. 23, the international Family Market, owned by E. Paul Choe, will cater to Columbia’s Hispanic and Asian population and other shoppers interested in exotic produce and plenty of fresh fish.
Choe, who worked alongside his father in a Baltimore grocery store and also has experience managing large markets like the 54,000-square foot new Family Market, said he’s filling the store with a food court, Korean and Spanish bakery and lounge area, complete with sofas and Wi-Fi connection. “So people can sit and relax,” he said.
Alex Jeon, with 25 years’ experience, will manage the new supermarket, said Choe, who himself intends to keep a watchful eye over his new business from his home in Silver Spring. He is leasing space from America’s Realty and called owners Carl and Steven Verstandig “fantastic owners of the center, who are doing everything to keep it vital.”
New grocery planned from start
Before the Pikesville-based America’s Realty acquired the ailing shopping center last year for $5.4 million, father and son owners Carl and Steven Verstandig envisioned how they would redevelop the place. “We had a grocery store in mind before we bought the center,” said company vice president Steven Verstandig.
The company, which owns some 164 commercial properties in 13 states, specializes in “distressed” properties and realized Safeway’s days were numbered, according to Verstandig.
“It’ll look like a new center when everything is fully opened within 60 days,” he said this month. “When we came in, there were 14 vacant offices and stores and it’s all leased now.”
In the wake of a fatal teenager-on-teenager stabbing in July, a bail bondswoman’s shooting death in September (and a man’s life sentence last month for murdering his ex-wife, Long Reach Village’s overall reputation – including its shopping scene – has been in dire need of an upgrade, residents and village officials said.
Last summer, residents vented their frustrations with crime and perceived crime in a village-wide forum organized by Howard County Councilman Calvin Ball. Compared to other regions in Maryland, police told residents that the crime rate in Long Reach was actually “very low.”
However, many linked the village’s negative public image to crime. One woman bluntly called it “a thorn in our community.”
Residents welcome turnaround
So the business turnaround and what Verstandig called “a hands-on approach” to working with patrons and tenants of the redeveloped center are welcome steps for the village of 17,000 residents.
Village administrator Sarah Uphouse said the new market could help make Long Reach a retail destination because it will serve Columbia’s growing Hispanic, Asian and overall foreign-born population.
“There won’t be any massive renovations at first,“ she said. “The main thrust is to get open and promote healthy eating and fresh foods.”
Residents are “optimistic” about the center’s future, said village board chairperson Karen Hitcho, a longtime resident of Long Reach. She said an internationally themed market is a “nice alternative” to the mega Wegmans opening in east Columbia next summer and the city’s batch of chain groceries.
Already, Family Market is supporting the Long Reach community, Choe said. “We had heard that three local churches were preparing food baskets for needy residents, so we donated 120 turkeys to the effort,” he said.
He also said the store also plans to work with local schools. “I’m for education,” said the University of Maryland-educated Choe.
Original village center model: passé?
Duane St. Clair is director of Howard County’s Association of Community Services and apart from his job, often blogs about Columbia’s village centers. He wonders what kind of impact Wegmans will have on village centers, all told.
“The model doesn’t work like it used to here with all the big new stores coming in,” he said.
In Columbia’s formative years up until the early 1970s, village centers were patterned after small European towns. They each had a small grocery of about 25,000 square feet, bank, service station, dry cleaner and about a half dozen distinct shops selling products such as cheese, flowers or meat, according to Rouse Company documents.
As new village centers and strip malls opened, the supermarkets grew larger, adding gourmet foods and in-store florists. Village centers such as River Hill and Dorsey Search do better than others because they have prime locations, plenty of retail traffic and a balanced mix of store and services, said Wayne Christmann, the former general manager for Columbia's village centers when he worked for the Rouse Co.
Other centers have struggled.
“Maybe village centers should be theme-centers,” suggested St. Clair, “because the (retail) scene has really changed.”
Village center merchants want whatever spark will ignite business and keep it steady over time.
“Safeway’s closing hurt us,” said manager Ronna Dang of Angel Nails in Long Reach. “Everyone was affected.”
She said the opening of Family Market, especially so quickly after Safeway was shuttered, should be a business lifesaver.
As a Columbia Flier editorial recently touted, “The new tenant looks like a win-win for America’s Realty, the surrounding neighborhood and Columbia.”