Columbia mall still vibrant at 40, but redevelopment may change its role

Randy Brooks was just 19 at the time, but he remembers the Aug. 2, 1971, opening of the Columbia mall as if it were yesterday.

"The paint was still drying," said Brooks, now president of Edward Arthur Jewelers, the only original tenant still in operation as the mall prepares to celebrate its 40th birthday. "The bands were warming up outside. All the dignitaries in Howard County were here."

Brooks was living in Annapolis, and Howard County seemed like rural countryside, hardly a likely place for a retail hub. Yet from the first day, it was mobbed. "The shoppers, they seriously came in droves," he said.

In the early days, Brooks said, people would dress up for a day at the mall. Credit cards were rarely used, and people bought jewelry on layaway, paying a little each week. Now, shoppers buy online and comparison-shop with their smartphones.

Despite the changes, Brooks said, "The mall is still here and doing great." The jewelry company began with the mall store, eventually grew to seven locations, and now is once again a single store in the mall.

As the mall reaches its fourth decade of existence, it remains central to Howard County and to Jim Rouse's vision for the planned community of Columbia.

The Mall in Columbia was a centerpiece, along with the lakefront on the other side of Little Patuxent Parkway, of that vision. "Mr. Rouse, his idea was back then that this was going to be the new Main Street for the town," Brooks said.

"All the merchants that were coming here, we were told this would be the new Main Street, USA," Brooks added.

A lot has changed at the mall since 1971. Back then, it was a mere 640,000 square feet, not the 1.4 million of today. But a lot has stayed the same, too. The mall remains a vibrant destination for shopping, eating and meeting with friends.

Columbia never had a Main Street-style downtown. Instead, it has the mall, the lakefront and the village centers. Now it's natural to wonder how the mall will fit in as Columbia's new owner, the Howard Hughes Corp., plans to revitalize downtown.

John DeWolfe, senior vice president of development for the Howard Hughes Corp., said he could not yet reveal specific plans for revamping Columbia's downtown, but said it will focus on the mall and nearby Merriweather Post Pavilion. "It's probably a dual centerpiece," he said.

He described the mall as "really well run," and said it will remain "sort of the retail headquarters. I think things we do will complement that."

From the beginning, the mall hosted events that cemented its role as a community gathering place as well as a shopping venue. The first of several lavish Ball in the Mall parties was held in 1972 to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Columbia. Santa patiently listens to holiday wishes every December, and Girl Scouts are invited for annual sleepovers in the mall. Health fairs, a weekly "Family Fun Day' and Boy Scouts Pinewood Derby races are also held at the mall.

"I think the mall has always been sort of a family-friendly, community-focused mall," said Michelle Jose, the mall's marketing manager. "It was always intended to be the center of the area."

"It seemed a very important addition to what was a very small community at the time," said Padraic Kennedy, 78, who was president of the Columbia Association from 1972 to 1998.

"In the early days, if you walked through the mall you basically knew everybody," he said. But as Columbia grew and added village centers, "the mall became less of a center of the community and more of a regional shopping center."

The mall, designed with natural light and open spaces, retains a remarkably fresh and modern sensibility, particularly for a 40-year-old building. It has undergone major expansions twice, and the indoor trees have been removed at the request of retailers who sought better sight lines. And, of course, the stores themselves have changed.

The two department stores that served as the mall's first anchors were Hochschild Kohn, a Baltimore-based chain, and Woodward & Lothrop, based inWashington, D.C.

Architect Monk Askew, 69, was Rouse's design director from 1972 to 1999 and led the planning of Town Center. "It was anticipated that it was to be, while it was a privately owned building and facility, it would feel like it was absolutely a public place and the people who used it would feel like it belonged to them," he said.

Before the Columbia mall, he said, two-story malls were designed "like two shopping centers, one put on top of the other." The holes between the first and second floors were small, so people on the ground floor could not see the skylights. The Mall in Columbia, by contrast, has a light and open feel, with skylights visible throughout the space.

"It's a very successful shopping center, no doubt about it," Askew said.

From the start, Rouse wanted the mall to have locally owned stores, and it still does. Bun Penny, a gourmet food store that was locally owned and an original tenant, closed in 2008. But locally owned stores in the mall today include Kokopelli, which opened in 1988 and sells products with a handcrafted or artistic touch; and Silver Heron, which sells silver jewelry and started as a cart in the mall in 1985 before moving to a store two years later.

Though it's hard to imagine now, in 1971 there weren't many shopping options in Howard County. The mall changed that.

"Most of us were thrilled that the mall was open," said Cy Paumier, 77, who was chief land planner for The Rouse Company from 1969 to 1972. "It had two very good department stores right from the beginning."

In fact, said Askew, it took a lot of convincing to get those two department stores to open in relatively rural Howard County, in a shopping center not particularly close to an interstate.

The Rouse Co. was in the mall-building business, so a mall was almost inevitable as a centerpiece for downtown Columbia, Paumier noted. "In the two to three years I was in charge, they opened seven malls, in the East Coast and Midwest, including The Mall at Columbia," he said.

But the Columbia mall was not just any mall. "The Columbia mall is probably the very best cared for and designed mall that the Rouse Company owned," Paumier said. "Jim Rouse wanted that mall to be the very best that it could be. I think it fairly well achieved that goal."

A pedestrian bridge made it possible for walkers to cross Little Patuxent Parkway and get to the lakefront, but that bridge is virtually unused today, noted Paumier. People simply don't walk from one destination to the other.

However, Kennedy believes the role of the mall has changed over time, and will continue to do so as Columbia's downtown is revamped. "It still is a very successful and important mall but less as Columbia's town center," he said.

"As Columbia develops a true downtown, the mall will become less important but will remain a very important commercial center," Kennedy added. "That's to be desired."

The Rouse Company was purchased in 2004 by General Growth Properties, which in 2010 created the spin-off Howard Hughes Corp., which is in charge of Columbia development. The mall is owned by General Growth Properties.

Paumier believes the retail market is saturated, and residential space will become more important in Columbia's downtown. Yet the mall's role as a social center is not likely to disappear.

"The mall, particularly for teenagers, is probably the only meaningful place to hang out," he said.

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