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Columbia Lakefront Whole Foods preps for business

ArchitectureDining and DrinkingWhole Foods MarketRestaurant and Catering IndustryKen UlmanFrank Gehry

Forty years after it opened as the headquarters of the Rouse Company, the iconic white stucco building on Columbia's Lakefront will officially welcome a new tenant: Whole Foods Market.

On Aug. 20, the successful grocery chain, which prides itself on its healthful offerings, will open its 44th store in the mid-Atlantic region — and its first in Howard County. The opening follows an extensive renovation of the landmark building, during which the lower level was gutted and the bottom two floors transformed into one.

About 50,000 square feet in size, the store will include the usual Whole Foods offerings of organic and local produce, store-brand products, a café and an array of bars featuring olives, pickles and pasta, to name a few of the offerings.

But it also will include a couple of unusual features geared to its relatively affluent, health-conscious neighborhood. These include popsicles made from cold-press fruit juices; a vegetarian diner that will offer everything from vegan crab cakes to vegetarian tacos; and a do-it-yourself body-care section that will provide customized shampoos, oils and lotions.

"Every store is unique, depending on the community," Svetlana Piskounova, who will manage the store as store team leader, said during a tour of the soon-to-open store last week. "We've gotten a good sense that people here care a lot about the health of their family.  Knowing that, we think what we're offering will be a good fit for this community." 

The store is due to open at 9 a.m. following a brief "bread-breaking ceremony" (Whole Foods' version of a ribbon-cutting) and remarks from company executives and County Executive Ken Ulman. 

"I'm super-excited," Piskounova said. "We're ready for this, and I think the community is ready for us."

'It fits the space'

The Rouse Building was designed by architect Frank Gehry at the start of his storied career and has long been considered one of Columbia's seminal buildings. But in recent years, it fell into disrepair.

"The building was falling apart, frankly," said John DeWolf, senior vice president for development of the Howard Hughes Corp., which owns the building. "It was kind of collapsing in on itself. The roof leaked everywhere."

DeWolf said Hughes, which has put the building up for sale, spent $25 million to gut the building and "prop it back up." He said the company "needed a commercial engine in the form of a lease to support that expenditure." 

He also conceded that a museum would have been his first choice for the building, but that Whole Foods has built "a spectacular store. The graphics are off the scale. … It really fits the space.

"It almost looks like we designed it for them, it looks so great," DeWolf said. "Their sign on the front just feels perfect."

Gehry could not be reached for comment. But DeWolf said the architect has said that, while he also would have preferred a museum in the space, he was happy to see the building survive.

"He said if this is what keeps this building together, then so be it," DeWolf said.

County Executive Ken Ulman said Whole Foods has led to "a new vibrancy and life all around Downtown Columbia." He pointed to the renovated Clyde's, expanded Columbia mall and a $19 million commitment to improve Merriweather Post Pavilion. 

"Something special is going on in Downtown Columbia," Ulman said in an email response to a question. "Whole Foods is proving to be the ideal fit and the perfect re-use for the iconic Frank Gehry-designed former Rouse Company headquarters building." 

Last-minute touches 

At the former Rouse Company headquarters last week, scores of Whole Foods workers were busy making sure the store will be ready for opening day. 

Most of the signs were in place, including the typical Whole Foods signs explaining how they rate their fish and meat for humane treatment and environmental concerns.

The shelves in the store's middle were well stocked with canned and dry goods. But around the store perimeter, the bins and counters that will sell fresh meat and fish and produce were still empty, a concession to freshness. 

The bakery shelves also were largely empty, but bakery coordinator Gerard Partoens was happy to detail what customers could expect. 

"We'll have a whole 35 [counter] feet of breads and pastries and muffins and rolls — an enormous amount of variety in one lineup," Partoens said. "It'll have a really awesome feel. We've never done it that long." 

The bakery also will feature gourmet ice cream cakes, he said, and 80 to 90 types of more traditional cookies. 

Nearby, in the body-care department, whole body team leader Camden Ramsay was similarly effusive about the do-it-yourself component of her section. 

"It's going to be awesome," she said. "It's really an opportunity for people to customize the body care that they use. We're going to have almost like a menu board, so they can come in and say, 'Hey, I'd like to get a facial cream with rose-hip oil,' and we just make it for them right on the spot, totally from scratch." 

In her tour, Piskounova took special pains to point out such Columbia-tailored features as the vegetarian diner — "our pride and joy" — and the café seating area overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi. 

"The community piece is very important to us," Piskounova said. "The way we design the store and how we merchandise it, what we offer — it's all catered to the community we're in. 

"Kittamaqundi stands for gathering place," she added, "so we're trying to embody it here. From the cooking classes to the store design to all the things we're doing in the community, we try to embody that mission here."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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ArchitectureDining and DrinkingWhole Foods MarketRestaurant and Catering IndustryKen UlmanFrank Gehry
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