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Howard County eyes bids for Long Reach sale

Long Reach Village Center in Columbia has struggled to maintain tenants. The county plans to sell the property in hopes of redeveloping.
Long Reach Village Center in Columbia has struggled to maintain tenants. The county plans to sell the property in hopes of redeveloping.(Jon Sham)

The county executive has withdrawn plans to sell Long Reach Village Center, an aging, dilapidated center in Columbia that faces increasing vacancies and an uncertain future.

The move came after the Howard County Council pressed the administration to reintroduce the plan to sell once the county selected a preferred redevelopment proposal after developers bid on the project.

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In 2014, the county purchased most of the center for $5 million. County officials planted greenery and music echoed through the center later in the year as part of a push to "reimagine" the center. In 2015, the county bought the former Safeway grocery story — vacant since July 2013 — for another $2.5 million. The county's real estate firm, Chartwell Enterprises, is working on assessing the current value of the land and the administration expects the project will go out to bid by mid-September.

Nearly two years after the Howard County Council declared one of Columbia's largest and earliest village center's a blight zone, the administration is seeking a new state designation for Long Reach Village Center and its surrounding areas as a part of a multi-year push to breathe new life into the dilapidated center.

Raj Kudchadkar, deputy director of the county's Department of Planning and Zoning, said the county executive's administration introduced the plan to sell early in the process to assure developers the council and the administration agreed with the sale of the project.

At a work session last week, council members questioned the need to request the council's blessing without a plan for the project.

Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty called the request for the council to authorize selling the project "premature."

"We are eager to see something forward, we're not just open to it," Sigaty said.

County Council Chairman Calvin Ball, who represents Long Reach, said the council should not approve the sale of the property without a clear plan for revitalization.

"Frankly, I have talked to some people I might be interested but this doesn't give me any more comfort that is going to be predictability in the process," Ball said.

Kudchadkar said developers have expressed interest in the center.

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More two years ago, the council declared the area surrounding the center a "blight" zone, a move that allowed the county to purchase the site in hopes of redevelopment.

The declaration labeled the area — which includes about five acres owned by the Columbia Association and almost two acres owned by Celebration Church — an "urban renewal zone," allowing the county to purchase the commercial property.

Since then, the administration led multiple community meetings to gauge public input on plans for revitalization.

Celebration Church hopes to sell the its portion of the property, Kudchadkar said.

Future plans for the project remain intentionally broad, Kudchadkar said. The administration envisions a village center with ample community spaces and connectivity, he said.

"The goal posts for this project are admittedly very wide," Kudchadkar said. "We don't want to pigeonhole any developers and we certainly don't want to be overly prescriptive."

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After the project goes out to bid, a committee that includes county officials and residents, will review redevelopment proposals for the center.

With community input, the planning board, an advisory board, will review the preferred proposal, which the council will consider along with the move to sell.

The center's former Safeway site, vacant since July 2013, is being used by the library system as a temporary storage facility. The Safeway was the anchor grocery store of the center, which fell into disrepair as the center passed the hands of multiple owners.

The administration will reintroduce the move to sell along with the preferred development proposal after the project goes out to bid.

Market surveys suggest the new village center should not follow the traditional grocery store anchor model. Five grocery stores are within a six-minute drive of the center, including two Giant stores, a Food Lion, Trader Joe's and Wegmans.

"Our vision is a village center. It's a broad goal and we are working to achieve it," Kudchadkar said.

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