The parking lot of the Oakland Mills Village Center on a recent weekday morning appeared largely deserted, the shuttered Weis Markets grocery in the right corner of the strip shopping center.
The regional grocery store chain, which was converted from a Food Lion in 2016, closed its 43,000-square-foot space June 1, leaving a vacancy in the Columbia village center that was designed to be anchored by a supermarket.
The closing is again prompting community leaders to wonder if the village center, which was redeveloped 20 years ago, needs a more radical development approach.
Cedar Realty Trust, a regional real estate investment firm that owns the space, as well as 85 percent of the retail space at the center, declined to comment on plans to fill the store.
Village centers throughout Columbia continue to go through upheavals in attempts to attract new businesses and customers in a changing retail market, one that no longer centers around one community shopping place.
Plans to revamp the Long Reach Village Center were approved by the county’s Zoning Board last month and similar plans to overhaul the Hickory Ridge Village Center await approval.
Columbia’s nonprofit community services corporation, the Columbia Association, teamed up with the county last year to produce a feasibility study for what changes could be possible at the Oakland Mills Village Center.
The study laid out several options including the possibility of residential properties, but any action on the property would need to come from the private sector. The county has no plans to buy any piece of the center as part of a redevelopment strategy, according to Department of Planning and Zoning Director Val Lazdins.
While they await word from Cedar about its plans for the center, members of the Oakland Mills Village Board have begun discussions of what could best fill the Weis space.
Board members, such as 45-year resident Paul Verchinski, are skeptical that another large grocery store could survive. The center has seen five grocery stores come and go in its 50-year history, including the change from Food Lion to Weis Markets when Weis bought 38 Food Lion stores. The regional chain closed the store when its lease ended because of underperformance, Weis spokesman Dennis Curtin said.
Verchinski said he’s brought up the idea of moving the East Columbia 50+ Center, in the beginning stages of a redesign and expansion, to the grocery space. Lazdins said the county has had no discussions about such a move.
“It’s inconceivable that another supermarket’s going to go in there, this is number five and they’ve all failed,” Verchinski said. “It’s true that we have a big older adult population on the east Columbia side. And Oakland Mills would be ideal [for a 50+ center], it’s easily accessible, it’s something that the county should consider.”
Chairman Jonathan Edelson said board members have brainstormed several more creative alternatives for the space, including an indoor market stall space or dividing the space into multiple shops, one of which could be a smaller grocery.
Edelson said one possibility could be a smaller grocer that offers more specialty foods, perhaps to cater to the area’s Latino population. Census data shows 16 percent of the population within a mile radius of the center is Latino.
Edelson said he believes the village center needs a grocery,given that some residents rely on public transit or walking to get their food.
The village board has invited representatives from Cedar Realty to meetings to discuss the future of the center, according to Edelson.
Columbia’s founder Jim Rouse envisioned village centers as community gathering places for residents to mingle and shop for their daily needs, with a grocery a key amenity. Nearly all of the village centers have supermarkets.
Other changes are headed to the Oakland Mills center, including a MetroPCS cellphone store and a Dunkin’ Donuts in what was a Columbia Bank.
Edelson said he hopes the new tenants, as well as whatever replaces Weis Markets, will help draw more customers to the shopping center, which he believes struggles because of what he called an out of the way location, off Stevens Forest Road in eastern Columbia.
“Obviously I think having tenants instead of vacancies is certainly beneficial, because you don’t want to get into a vicious cycle of things moving out,” Edelson said. “The community has been by and large excited [in favor of] the Dunkin’ Donuts; one of the things we’ve heard from people in Oakland Mills [is they wish] there were someplace you could grab a cup of coffee after the ice rink. Dunkin’ is a national brand name, it could attract some traffic to the center the Columbia Bank couldn’t.”
The shopping center’s other major property owner is the Columbia Association, which owns The Other Barn event space, a teen center at The Barn and the county’s sole ice rink.
Another idea discussed by the board, Edelson said, has been to push for the expansion of the rink. Columbia Association President Milton Matthews however said the idea isn’t one the organization is pursuing, given challenges with zoning and parking at the property.
In thinking about the village center’s future, Matthews said he believes a grocery of some kind is still necessary, but that a more creative approach, such as the David’s Natural Market at Wilde Lake Village Center, could be successful. It’ll be up to the businesses, he said, to determine how to compete with the increased stores and supermarkets in eastern Columbia, particularly along Snowden River Parkway.
“The village centers still should have and will have a place in the Columbia community because they’re just such an anchor,” Matthews said. “We just need to step back and look at what we’re trying to accomplish 45 years later and understanding that those models originally put in place need to be changed.”