Harper's Choice troubles that don't get mentioned


SOME EXCITING things are brewing for Columbia's Harper's Choice village center, although at the moment they're hard to picture.

The most beleaguered of the Rouse Co.'s commercial centers in Columbia stands out like a virtual ghost town, with most of its merchants having fled or on their way out.

Recently, the departure of a Subway sandwich shop and Little Caesar's pizza was followed by the sudden closing of a High's convenience store. Over the years, the center has lost restaurants, banks and a host of other establishments.

Early next year, Valu Food, the supermarket, is slated to go, leaving Harper's Choice without an anchor tenant. That will leave the center with little more than a drug store, a new restaurant, a liquor store and two hairstylists.

In fact, Harper's Choice may well become Columbia's first true urban renewal project. Rouse officials plan to tear down one of its buildings in an effort to make customers feel less boxed in and vulnerable in the middle of the complex. Also, negotiations are under way to land an upscale grocery, perhaps Fresh Fields, the health-conscious supermarket found in Montgomery County and Annapolis.

But if anyone believes that the village center itself is some sort of dilapidated edifice in the throes of urban decay, think again.

Completely renovated about eight years ago, Harper's Choice's esthetics are actually quite good. The community surrounding it is growing, and the new homes are decidedly upscale, full of the kinds of people one would assume do a lot of shopping.

Why then is Harper's Choice in such straits?

touchy topic

This is not something Rouse Co. officials like to talk about, but one of the biggest problems at Harper's Choice is that it has long been a popular place for unruly youths and idle adult men to hang out.

They congregate on the periphery of a rear parking lot, where alcohol consumption and gambling have been known to be big problems.

And they do it in the middle of the center, often in groups and in a manner both intimidating and disruptive.

I can count on one hand the number of times I have visited the center when there was not a group of people, with seemingly no purpose, occupying the center, often using profanity.

On a recent visit, a group of men had congregated in front of Slayton House, the community center.

To my dismay, two of the five men were Columbia Association employees in uniform.

The fact that they were just standing around was not the main issue. But the profanity they used, coupled with a conversation about someone being shot, was inappropriate and highly offensive.

When I talked with Columbia Association officials about this, they assured me that they would put an end to it as far as their employees are concerned, and I haven't seen a repeat performance.

But on the question of loitering, I have gotten a more ambiguous answer.

Not only is there apparent confusion about what Howard County's loitering laws are, there is a reluctance on the developer's part to insist on strict enforcement.

Why the ambivalence

Part of this I understand.

The village centers were laid out so that people would congregate in them. Benches, water fountains and common areas were designed to encourage this.

But when the behavior of those standing around is disruptive or offensive to others, the law does provide remedies.

The county's code says that anyone who lingers at a commercial establishment without patronizing it or without leaving after patronizing it is subject to a $100 fine and/or 10 days in jail.

But the law is seldom invoked. In some rare instances, the Rouse Co. does prosecute people for disorderly conduct in an effort to bar them from a commercial establishment.

But the reluctance to be tough has another aspect that does not get talked about much.

Unfortunately, and particularly at Harper's Choice, those who are loitering most are African-American males.

No one should need to be told at this point that our society is sick with racism.

This sickness has led to overzealous, unprofessional conduct on the part of law enforcement officials and others.

It also veers in the other direction, with a conscious attempt not to enforce the statutes out of a fear of being labeled racist.

Seldom is there a simple, unbiased application of the law.

If there were, you wouldn't have situations like Harper's Choice.

It is shame that in Columbia, of all places, common sense has not prevailed when it comes to demanding appropriate public behavior without regard to race.

L Kevin Thomas is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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