Monday, August 07, 2006

Round Up: Oakland Mills Edition...

A bevy of news stories recently chronicled the redevelopment situation in Oakland Mills, home of the sweetest Coke in Columbia and the county’s Best Blogger Named after a Fictional Character. Ah, it is truly magical here on the east side.

Anyway, the trajectory of Oakland Mills – specifically its village center – isn’t really news. After the anchor grocery store left in the late 1990s, the center’s decline, which was already underway, accelerated. Other, smaller stores closed and the gas station disappeared, leaving a vacant slab of asphalt in its place. Then, the center was redesigned, losing practically all of its character while gaining (for a time) only temporary tenants. The symbolic low point was probably when the Columbia institution the Last Chance Saloon lived up to its name.

More recently, however, things have been looking up. The community is reenergized, in part thanks to the work of current councilman Calvin Ball, who worked for a year as the Oakland Mills Community Organizer. The village center has a stable anchor tenant, the vastly underrated Food Lion (not to ruin the secret for fellow OMers, but no lines, cheap prices and a nice selection of organic/natural foods turned me – a diehard Giant person since birth – into a MVP Club member). And in the last year, a new bar opened in Last Chance’s old spot.

Now, as reported in The Examiner last week, long underserved Oakland Mills is actually worrying about being over-served.

The Oakland Mills Village Board in Columbia is busy refurbishing its village center — but a new strip mall that may be built less than a mile away could take away some of the center’s business.

…However, its efforts may collide with developer Robert Bavar of Bavar Properties, who owns about 2.5 acres where Branch Banking & Trust is located at Thunderhill Road and Route 175. He plans to build a different bank and about 9,000 to 10,000 square feet of retail.

“We are doing everything we can to support our businesses. We want to make sure that having competition a half-mile away is not overkill,” said Barbara Russell, the Oakland Mills representative for the Columbia Association Board of Directors.

Bavar will present plans for the buildings to the Oakland Mills community at a meeting at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 29 in The Other Barn on Robert Oliver Place in Columbia. He didn’t say which businesses will be included in his strip.
Oh, the troubles prosperity brings.

I hope to attend the meeting, if for nothing else to see what the new buildings will look like. Since I live on the other side of the village, I don’t know if I’ll ever patronize this new convenience strip, but it’s good to see a long vacant building being put to use again.

Just as it’s good to see the redevelopment of an empty, asphalt lot.
The vacant lot of a former Exxon Mobil gas station may become an office building, potentially prompting development in the Oakland Mills Village Center in Columbia.

…Oakland Mills Village officials said Exxon Mobil and Baltimore-based Metroventures USA Inc. recently agreed on the deal to build a condo-style office building on the lot on Stevens Forest Road near Robert Oliver Place.

…Previous proposals for the land have fallen flat. About a year ago, a developer proposed senior housing there, but covenants restrict selling land which was used for a gas station for the development of residential units...

Well, I’m not particularly thrilled about office buildings; ideally, I would like to see them build a mini-golf/go-kart/rollercoaster fun town there. But given the complications of bringing so much fun to the area (not to mention the liability), I understand that an office building is probably a much wiser choice for the developer. But would it kill them to throw a little retail in there, too?

Finally, the last story involves the only pedestrian (and bicycle) link between east and west Columbia: the Route 29 footbridge. Although his rhetoric might be a little overheated, Oakland Mills village board member Phil Engelke does a good job of summarizing our connection problems.
“Route 29 is like the Berlin Wall between East and West Columbia,” said Phil Engelke, property and business chairman on the Oakland Mills Village Board.

The path, tucked behind Lake Kittamaqundi and linking the Town Center to the Oakland Mills Village, will be key as the Town Center is redeveloped into an urban area, he said.

“People are paying half of a million on the Town Center side, and we have fairly derelict apartments on our side,” Engelke said.

“If you could connect the two, it would wildly improve the property values in Oakland Mills,” he said.

He’s right. A stronger link would be very beneficial for our village and much of east Columbia. As for me, I’m strongly in favor of a better connection between Columbia’s halves for entirely selfish reasons: 1) I’d like to see my property’s value increase; and 2) I’d like my commute to be even easier, which already happened to some extent when the bumpy path leading to the bridge was recently (finally!) repaved.

There are plenty of ways of accomplishing these goals (that is, the broader community goals, not mine in particular). During the charrette, many people spoke of the need to reduce the barrier caused by Rt. 29, and it is heartening to see that some of the good ideas brought forth by citizens are now being considered more intently. Among them, according to the Examiner, are “widening the path, installing lights, improving signs, encouraging kiosk vendors to set up shop, creating a dog park adjacent to the path, planting gardens along the path, and lowering the grade to make it accessible for wheelchairs and bikes.”

Some have proposed even more ambitious ideas, including a road connection and commercial development around or on the bridge. Ultimately, such development may prove feasible and essential to creating a whole town center. But it will come in time if needed. For now, I’ll welcome any improvements to make the bridge more useful and Columbia more connected (and, of course, my life easier and my house more valuable).

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