“There’s basically nothing for sale.”
In truth, there were three, in a neighborhood with about 800 housing units: one condo, one townhome and one single-family home.
Denise and I were talking about the neighborhood I grew up in, Bryant Woods. Starting in 1968, my family moved into the first of what would eventually be three separate residences in Bryant Woods — a single-family home, a condo and a townhouse.
I was in eigth grade when we moved to William Tell Lane, and my mother stayed on Thicket Lane until well after I graduated from college. There were always houses for sale in the neighborhood in those early years of Columbia. It was still pretty much a transient place. As kids, we saw that first-hand, as familiar faces were replaced with new faces at the beginning of each school year.
I was taking a new look at my old stomping grounds because I was curious to see how home values were holding up. I happen to believe that the older neighborhoods surrounding downtown Columbia, like Bryant Woods, Running Brook, Vantage Point and The Birches, will benefit from the redevelopment of downtown. Those neighborhoods have the only single-family homes that are within a relative easy walk or bike ride to downtown.
At first glance, this side of Gov. Warfield and Little Patuxent parkways doesn’t look all that healthy. The nearest village center, Wilde Lake, is half empty with boarded up stores.
Back when I was a kid, the Wilde Lake Village Center was the commercial and social center of Columbia. It held the town’s only library, grocery store, gas station and community hall. Even as other villages started getting their own centers, Wilde Lake remained the most popular. Columbia was small back then, and everything was new; Wilde Lake Village Center looked more like Disney World than a suburban shopping center. It almost seemed magical.
Until 1971, that is. In 1971, The Mall in Columbia opened and the village center was forever changed. In 1970, there were 8,815 people living in Columbia. When Columbia celebrated its 10th anniversary in 1977, the community was averaging double-digit population growth every year. The Rouse Company was rocking, too, opening up about five regional malls a year.
I was in awe of Jim Rouse. For a kid who grew up pushing Tonka trucks around in the dirt, he became my idol. At the time, I didn’t pay much attention to what has happening to my village center. That would soon change.
In 1977, after graduating from college, I went to work for The Rouse Company. My first assignment was marketing the Columbia village centers, which by then included Oakland Mills, Long Reach and Harper’s Choice. At that time, there were still a number of merchants in Wilde Lake who remembered those prosperous years, before the mall came along and spoiled everything. They were somewhat embittered about the center’s declining fortunes. To them, I was the face of The Rouse Company and I quickly became the target of their angst. They blamed Rouse for failing to keep that early magic going.
I couldn’t wait to get another assignment.
Today, it might be hard for a newcomer to imagine that Wilde Lake once had it going on. The library branch closed in 1981, when the new Central Library in downtown opened. The grocery store closed in 2007, Produce Galore closed in 2008 and last summer even a fast food joint threw in the towel.
In the meantime, Columbia’s population has grown to almost 100,000, and there are no houses for sale in Bryant Woods. It’s long past time for the village center to catch up with the neighborhood.
That is finally about to occur. Perhaps, even as you are reading this column, it has already begun.
After about five years of planning and countless community meetings, Kimco is ready to begin a major makeover of the original Columbia village center, with new stores and apartments. It probably took longer than necessary, as some community activists fought the developer’s plans. They wanted to preserve as much of the original center as possible. They insisted that Kimco needed to do this in order to bring back the magic that the place once held in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
To me, that makes about as much sense as preserving carports because half-built garages were what Jim Rouse originally intended.
I think that some sort of magic will take hold again in Wilde Lake once it’s reborn. Sometimes you just have to let go of the old magic first in order to allow it to happen.
Dennis Lane co-hosts “and then there’s that…” a bi-weekly local news podcast on hocomojo.com and blogs about stuff around here at wordbones.com.