Warehouse-size stores hailed, but draw concern


The explosion of plans for warehouse-sized retail stores in Howard County -- bringing to Columbia and Ellicott City such retailers as Target and Wal-Mart -- also may ripple through Savage and Elkridge.

So far only one collection of such retailers has opened in Howard: Snowden Square off Snowden River Parkway in Columbia. But since it opened in June 1993, it's proved so successful that other big-time developers are clamoring to erect their hangar-like stores.

Prompted by its success at Snowden Square, the Rouse Co. has quickly followed with plans for an other such center, called Chalice Commercial, at Snowden River Parkway and Route 175.

In Ellicott City, Minnesota-based Opus East is planning what it has called a power center at Route 100 and U.S. 29, a site known as the Long Gate Shopping Center. And Wal-Mart, know for its warehouse-sized stores, is coming to U.S. 29 a mile north at U.S. 40.

That leaves Howard planners, commercial real estate developers and residents wondering where the next so-called power center will be planned, whether the county can support so many large retailers and the effect they'll have on their communities.

According to county officials and developers, Howard only has two sites left that are appropriately sized and zoned for such centers, both along U.S. 1 -- one in Savage and the other in Elkridge. In both areas, community leaders are worried about the future uses of those properties.

In Savage, Virginia-based Lincoln Properties -- marketing 112 acres of the former Freestate harness racing track along U.S. 1 at Gorman Road -- recently announced it was about to reach agreements with four "major" retailers.

But Lincoln representatives would not identify the stores because their negotiations weren't completed. County officials say they don't know if another power center is to take shape there.

Savage residents are worried that development of a power center at the Freestate property could leave them without a long-desired neighborhood shopping center. The site is the only one in the area appropriate for retailing -- and they say that they were promised that a local shopping center would be developed there in exchange for supporting a 1993 zoning change allowing retailing on the property.

"We actually testified in favor of it, to make it more of a neighborhood shopping center," says Bill Waff, president of the Savage Community Association. "If it went to all large stores, I don't think the community would like that."

The Savage community wants a grocery store and perhaps movie theaters, he says, even if these were packaged with a major hardware store, such as Home Depot.

But development of a power center may be just what's needed to draw investor interest in the Freestate property, which has sat undeveloped since the 1993 zoning change. The property's owner, the New York subsidiary of Finland-based Skopbank, demolished the former harness track, realigned Gorman Road and graded the site for development, but it still has had trouble sparking interest in the site.

Similar to their counterparts in Savage, Elkridge leaders also had no problem with a 1993 zoning change allowing retailing on the one site there that may be attractive to a developer, the 43-acre Troy Hill site on U.S. 1 just north of Route 100.

The fast-growing area needs a neighborhood center but -- unlike Savage -- it would accept warehouse-sized retail stores, says Ray Miller, president of the Elkridge Community Association. Residents really fear development of another of the warehouse-distribution centers that already line U.S. 1 in the area.

They also fear retailers coming in and failing. "The worst thing that could happen is if they went forward with a retail center that was ill-conceived," he says.

The Columbia-based Manekin Corp., marketing the Troy Hill property, would not outline this week its specific plans for the site.

The company originally had envisioned a local shopping center there, says Suzanne Warren, Manekin's vice president for land development, but now is considering all options for the property. Mr. Miller, of the community association, maintains the company always had planned to put the warehouse-type retailers there.

"We think we have the right mix for the long term" at the site, she said, including completion within five years of Route 100 and the rapid pace of homebuilding in the Elkridge area.

She would not name any of the retail companies that had looked at the property. "We've had several close encounters, but we have not landed anyone yet," she said.

Commercial real estate experts interviewed this week said they were not surprised by the lack of information the futures of the Elkridge and Savage sites, because of the untested locations of the two properties along U.S. 1 and the prospect of competing with two Rouse Co. centers in Columbia.

"The problem is rooftops," said Dennis J. Lane, a Columbia real estate adviser who hunts properties for commercial tenants and buyers. "Retailers look for rooftops. You take an aerial photograph of a site, and you see how many rooftops there are around it."

Even though such power centers need to draw customers from larger areas than a traditional shopping center, so-called big-box retailers want to have a solid customer base nearby, he said.

From a bird's eye view, he noted, Rouse's Chalice site on Route 175 is ideal: "What do you see? You've got rooftops all around."

Another problem with sites along U.S. 1 is the narrow corridor's lack of a track record.

Mr. Lane said one of his clients, whom he would not name, wanted to build a warehouse-sized store in the Baltimore area but refused to come into Howard before Snowden Square broke the ice. "They had no interest in being a pioneer," he said.

The nation's largest retailer, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., also was reluctant to become a trend-setter.

During 1992 rezoning hearings for the company's Ellicott City site at U.S. 29 and U.S. 40, a company representative testified that Wal-Mart marketing gurus deemed the Snowden Square site unlikely to attract buyers. Just three years later, however, it has joined the parade of mega-stores eager to join in Howard's retailing boom -- with a new outlet to open perhaps as soon as Christmas.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad