When Mike Davis, who has been a resident of Wilde Lake for nearly three decades, looks at the Wilde Lake Village Center, sometimes he can’t help but imagine tumbleweeds blowing across the quiet roads and empty sidewalks.
In fact, many residents think the village center has a “ghost town” feel, as vacancies have grown every year since the Giant grocery store closed there in 2006.
However, now that the Howard County Zoning Board has approved a preliminary plan to redevelop the center with a minimum of 85,000 square feet of commercial space and a maximum of 250 residential units, Davis said he’ll be glad to see the ghost town come back to life.
“I know people might get upset with change,” he said, “but the fact is, change is coming. After four years of going through this process, everybody’s voice has been heard.”
Davis echoed the sentiments of other residents who said they were pleased that something — anything — was going to happen to change the village center. “When Giant left, that was a signal it was time for a change, and that was six years ago,” he said, “[and] a lot of people were starting to wonder whether it was going to happen in our lifetime.”
For Some, Disappointment
But not everyone is excited. Bob Tennenbaum, one of Columbia’s chief original architects, is so disappointed in the approved plan that he has resigned his position as chair of the Architectural Advisory Panel to the Wilde Lake Village Board Architectural Committee.
Tennenbaum believes that the plan locates David’s Natural Market too far away from the rest of the village center. “Nobody walks to the village center now from David’s,” he said. “You either go to the village center or to David’s, and that won’t change.”
He believes that he and other members of the advisory panel were ignored by Kimco Realty Corp., the owner of the village center, and the village board.
Part of Tennenbaum’s objection concerns the tearing down of one of the three buildings that currently constitute the frame of the village green. He believes that, during the construction process, the already faltering village center will completely die, given “the noise, dirt, construction equipment and difficulty providing access.”
The long-time Columbia resident also criticized community members for their lack of concern regarding the new plan. “It’s a bad, bad plan, and the village board leadership ignored everything we said and pushed forward. The community just sort of sat there and took it without responding or criticizing the results of the village board’s decisions.”
Jurvis Dorton, who took over as chair of the Architectural Advisory Panel upon Tennenbaum’s exit, accentuated his colleague’s criticisms.
“The village board didn’t really take the advice that the advisory panel gave them on the major issues. On the minor issues, they listened, but on major issues, they deferred to what the developer wants,” Dorton said.
Like Tennenbaum, Dorton argued against the demolition of one of the three village green buildings. “It has historic significance,” he said, “and I believe it can work very well on an ongoing basis as the village center.”
He also believes the residential building is too large to aesthetically fit into the village center. “Originally, when the plan was submitted, there were two buildings. Now, it’s one building that’s 700 feet long and five stories high,” Dorton said. “It’s an enormous building. It will overwhelm every building around it. The drugstore is only one story high. The building that will house David’s is two stories high.”
Still, he said, he isn’t going to resign. “We’re still in there pitching. You tend to want to quit in frustration. But unless you’re involved, you’ll have no influence at all.”
Landscape architect Sam Crozier, owner of Crozier Associates in Savage, designed an alternate plan that was ultimately rejected by the village center’s board. “The village center has several components and stakeholders, including a parcel of the land for a religious interfaith center, a Columbia Association parcel, and a company-owned parcel now with Kimco,” he said.
But Crozier believes the focus of the village board quickly honed in on the debate surrounding the preservation or demolition of the original buildings. “The entire planning effort became limited to the Kimco parcel and an overall inclusive plan, including the other components, was abandoned.”
Yet stakeholders involved in the planning process — including, Crozier said, “the interfaith parcel, the Columbia Association and the county” — never seemed to question that the focus was limited to one parcel.
“There wasn’t a plan developed to illustrate how the other component parcels would come together in the near and far future,” he said. “The adjacent areas of land use, the [Wilde Lake] high school, tennis courts, indoor pool and the Rouse Theatre, were not considered as any strong influence in the planning process.”
Character of Columbia?
Change, not only in Wilde Lake but across Columbia, is inevitable, albeit painful for some people, said design consultant Phil Engelke.
“The way we live, work and shop has changed dramatically,” said Engelke, who moved to Columbia in 1972. “We have to figure out how people live and how they want to live, and face the economic reality of that.”
Columbia’s village centers no longer serve the same purpose their designers once envisioned. “The kind of village center shopping experience people dreamed about isn’t going to happen because people’s habits have changed,” he said.
The redevelopment of parts of Columbia has many people asking: “What is the essence of Columbia?”
Engelke believes that, ultimately for Wilde Lake, bringing a “ghost town” village center back to life will be a positive change economically, even if it doesn’t hold the promise of a whole lot of unique character for the village center.
“The design is a market solution, almost purely,” he said. “There isn’t that little extra bit to make it a special place. But, at this point, something is a whole lot better than nothing.”