The Mall in Columbia -- designed to be the planned community's downtown hub -- is trying to make itself more competitive by courting as many as three high-end department stores.
Officers at the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer and owner of the mall and about 70 others nationwide, say they'd like to add the new "anchor" stores as part of an entire mall renovation.
They're also planning to build a 100,000-square-foot addition for smaller merchants and to bring in more restaurants.
Rouse officers would not specify the prospective high-end anchors -- though Nordstrom has been rumored as one. Company officials also would not say when the stores might be coming or when renovations would start.
This lack of specifics gives rise to skepticism among some of the mall's smaller merchants.
For years, they've heard similar promises -- while waiting for the arrival of big, high-end retailers to draw shoppers.
"They say they're talking to major retailers, major department stores. They've been saying that for nine years," says Ed Ward, an owner of Columbia Camera, which is closing at the end of the month.
The tension over the 25-year-old mall's plans and its realities underscores a key dilemma that is shared with many other U.S. malls.
Malls everywhere are fighting over a limited number of high-end anchors to draw shoppers as they battle increasingly stiff competition from each other, from newer "big-box" retail centers and from catalog shopping.
For years, The Mall in Columbia enjoyed a kind of captive market as the first and only large retailing center in a rapidly growing, relatively wealthy new town.
But now, at least one of its merchants has been defeated by competitive pressures from new "power" centers.
At the Columbia Camera store, Ward, whose business is an original tenant, says he could not compete with such big retailers as Best Buy and Service Merchandise.
Those megastores -- some being developed by Rouse -- are springing up in "power centers" in and around Columbia. They include Snowden Square, off Snowden River Parkway; Columbia Crossing, being built off Route 175; and Long Gate, under construction off Route 103.
To complicate the situation, The Mall in Columbia has a particular identity problem: It sits in the middle of an affluent community but conspicuously lacks a high-end department store.
"My husband and I are able to spend money. Most of our friends are," says Columbia resident Diane Batchik, sitting on bench in the poorly air-conditioned second floor of the mall recently. "We just don't do it here."
Batchik says she spends "thousands of dollars" in malls outside Columbia, particularly Montgomery Mall in Bethesda. "Columbia is very well off," Batchik says. "But this mall doesn't show it. I think it needs a major face lift."
Rouse officials acknowledge they need to draw more high-end shoppers.
"We realize that one of the areas we are weak in is high-end fashion, particularly women's," says Linda T. Lo Cascio, in charge of expansion plans for Rouse. "Obviously, J. C. Penney doesn't address the high-end fashion. I do believe there are Columbia shoppers who leave Columbia to shop at Nordstrom."
She hopes to draw some of them next year, when an Ann Taylor store moves to an interior space.
Ward and some other Columbia mall merchants say that, in such a retail environment, Rouse should lower its rents.
But Rouse officials say their rents are fair and that tenant-landlord tensions are typical in retail. They also point to the healthy crowds walking daily through the mall. "It's a darn good mall," Lo Cascio says. "It's busy."
Still, Lo Cascio says she doesn't blame the small merchants for their skepticism about expansion plans.
"I appreciate their frustrations," she says. "But we're moving as fast as we can. These are very long courtships [with major retailers]. It's almost like getting married. It's not something you can do overnight."
Lo Cascio would not comment on negotiations with prospective anchors, including any with Nordstrom. Nordstrom officials also would not comment.
Industry watchers predict varying outcomes for these negotiations.
"I'm confident that Rouse is close," says David Ward, a retail broker with Hicks & Rotner Associates in Chevy Chase. "I think the key to the puzzle is the Nordstrom deal. If they come, the other guys will fall in line."
By other guys, Ward means such stores as J. Crew clothiers.
But Joe Burke, a mortgage banker with Legg Mason Real Estate services, says Nordstrom probably has enough stores in the area -- with stores in Montgomery County, Towson and Annapolis.
"My guess is you're not going to see them there [in Columbia] anytime soon," Burke says.
Sonja Sanders, the mall's manager of sales and marketing, insists: "We're definitely going to get the anchors, and we're definitely going to do the renovation."
If not, Rouse will be relying on its three existing anchors: Hecht's, J. C. Penney and Sears. J. C. Penney is scheduled to open Saturday, replacing longtime mall tenant Woodward & Lothrop, which closed last year. Hecht's is adding a 60,000-square-foot third floor, expected to be finished this fall.
The situation in Columbia contrasts with some of Rouse's other malls.
At Grand Avenue Mall in Milwaukee, there's a Marshall Field; in Newport Beach, Calif., a Neiman Marcus; in San Antonio, a Saks Fifth Avenue; and in Salem, Ore., a Nordstrom.
Mark Schoifet, a spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, says the high-end department stores hold the cards during negotiations. Every mall wants them.
"It's probably the most competitive era in the history of the malls," Schoifet says. "You just can't snap your fingers and say, 'Now we're going to be a high-end mall.' "
Ward, the retail broker for Hicks & Rotner, says Rouse is being careful and wants to avoid a bankrupt and empty anchor in its mall. "Rouse isn't going to make a mistake, especially in their own back yard," Ward says.
Batchik and other shoppers interviewed recently say the overall condition of the mall may be keeping the large department stores away. Of particular concern among shoppers and merchants:
There are no elevators in the middle of the mall. Women with strollers must carry them down stairs or walk to elevators in Sears or Hecht's at either end. Last week, Debbie Altieri, with her year-old baby, cut her shopping trip short because she did not want to walk to the elevators. Altieri says she prefers shopping in Towson and Owings Mills.
The mall's bathrooms are too small and too far apart.
Poor air conditioning on the second floor, which is topped by skylights that tend to generate heat. Jennifer Mannix, a mall store employee, says she often hears complaints about the heat. "The longer I have worked in that mall, the more I have realized that [maintenance] is patchwork," she says.
Rouse officials say they will place an elevator in the middle of the mall and enlarge the bathrooms. And the company is looking into replacing air conditioners and using more efficient skylight panels in an effort to cool the top floor.
Some longtime shoppers and workers are hoping those efforts will mark the start of its renewal -- one built on its longtime base as the hub of Columbia.
"This mall will always have a level of success," says Batchik. "This mall could have an outrageous level of success."
Pub Date: 7/15/96
Vibrant retail centers are an integral part of the Columbia concept, but the town's village centers and The Mall in Columbia are suffering rising competition from Howard County's growing number of superstores. The second part of a two-part series examines the mall's future.