A major overhaul of Wilde Lake Village Center--more than five years in the works since its Giant Food supermarket closed--appears on the horizon, despite differing viewpoints on the future of Columbia’s first retail hub.
Kimco Realty Corporation, which acquired interest in the center from the Rouse Company in 2002, has proposed various plans to redevelop the ailing and oldest shopping center in Columbia in recent years.
But its focus has always been to convert the place into an urban mix of retail and high-density housing.
The Lutherville-based developer, which did not return phone calls about the redevelopment, for a new supermarket in its proposals.
The changes have local business owners and long-time residents disagreeing over the right direction for the center. Some still hold hope for a grocer. And others are divided over whether the new plan destroys parts of Columbia’s history.
Wilde Lake: One of Columbia’s Crown Jewels
During Columbia’s beginning’s, Wilde Lake was called Wilde Lake Village Green, and it was to be a hub of commerce and activity for residents in the city that burst onto the landscape in 1967.
Newspaper advertisements promoting a new Columbia : everything from a grocery store, to a candy store and butcher shop.
Authentic down to its sawdust-coated floor, the butcher shop couldn’t survive in a modern ‘bigger is better’ retail climate and closed in the 1980s, according to Rouse Co. documents.
Little by little, other shops closed in an exodus that gained more steam after the village center’s anchor, Giant Food, shut its doors in 2006.
“Since Giant closed, the village center essentially died,” said manager Trevor Gardner, whose business is located in Wilde Lake.
‘The village center needs something to propel it farther’
To date, Kimco’s proposed plans for a revamped village center include and the demolition of the vacant Giant Food and one building of the center’s three original retail/office buildings.
That building houses a bank, Today's Catch and offices, according to Explore Howard, which also reported that Kimco’s proposal aims to renovate the remaining two buildings in the center.
Today’s Catch seafood market plans to reopen a new store in the refurbished strip center on Lynx Lane, according to Bill Miller, who has owned the fish market for 35 years.
Kimco’s proposals from some of Columbia’s early planners, who have remained concerned about the future of the center.
“You can’t destroy the heritage of Columbia,” said Robert Tennenbaum, a former Rouse Co. architect who has lived in his Wilde Lake home for 44 years, “because it’s the first village center in Columbia and Jim Rouse had a heavy involvement in it.”
Tennenbaum is referring to Jim Rouse, the developer who founded Columbia and is credited for seeking advice from sociology, education, religion experts—and more—in his planning of the city.
Tennenbaum, a former special Wilde Lake Village architectural advisor until he resigned last summer, pointed to Wilde Lake’s village center community plan,” which he said outlines how “village green buildings are historically significant.” He said that any developer “should upgrade village green buildings, not demolish them.”
Village board chairman Bill Santos said while that’s true, the plan “doesn’t carry any teeth.”
So far, he said the village board has approved Kimco’s overall site plan for everything the company has proposed, from new apartments to enhanced retail projects. The board is writing a “community response statement” that will go to Howard County's planning board regarding Kimco’s for the residential segment.
Miller, a former Rouse Co. landscape architect before he launched his fish market, said he favors the redevelopment of Wilde Lake’s retail hub.
“The village center needs something to propel it farther. It’s not a museum,” he said. While he said Kimco’s plan “doesn’t show the originality of a Rouse Co. project, it’s OK. The proposed plans will open up the village center. It’s the 21st century; we don’t want to warm over 1968.”
Beating the Odds in Wilde Lake
Two 30-year mainstay Wilde Lake shops--Bagel Bin and Today’s Catch--appear to be beating the odds in the struggling center.
Anne Arundel County resident Emily Park bought the bagel shop five years ago from its original owner and works tirelessly seven days a week until 4 p.m. selling bagels, sandwiches, pastries, coffee and beverages to what she calls “so many loyal customers.”
Today’s Catch manager Trevor Gardner said his business has thrived because it has long catered to a niche market for premium, fresh fish. “People come from out of state . . . Virginia . . . to buy fresh fish here.”
Both said they want an anchor grocery store in the center to attract more traffic to the area.
The in Columbia also has some village merchants concerned.
“The elephant in the room is the coming Wegman’s store,” said fish market owner Miller. “We don’t know how this will affect Columbia’s village centers.” But with a new revitalized Wilde Lake Village Center, he said, “I think we can compete.”