SOCIAL LIFE in Columbia was designed to revolve around village centers.
In a recent retrospective book, "Creating a New City: Columbia, Maryland," architects of the planned community said the centers would offer "many more opportunities for social interaction and joint social activities which cut across a larger socio-economic // grouping than the relatively homogeneous neighborhood."
True believers in the town's utopian concepts feel passionately about their village centers as the planned community's focal point.
Thus is the reason for outrage in Oakland Mills over the planned closing in June of the Giant store.
Like the concern not long ago in Harper's Choice and Long Reach, residents of Columbia's third-oldest village fear it will be impossible to keep their neighborhoods viable if the center of their universe disappears.
Center of social universe
Concern had been rising for years in Oakland Mills over the sagging rate of home ownership, crime and the quality of education in area schools. The closing of a store at the nucleus of their social universe spurred people in this normally complacent community to action.
Oakland Mills residents vented their rage at Rouse and Giant Food officials Tuesday at a neighborhood meeting convened by the Oakland Mills Village Center Committee, which formed immediately after the announced supermarket closing.
Neighbors arrived in big numbers, about 230. Several speakers identified themselves as residents who have lived in Oakland Mills for more than 20 years.
They felt used and betrayed.
Giant's decision to close its tiny store at the village center and Rouse's lack of answers for the center's future have sent tremors through a neighborhood that, born at the end of the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, is already growing old by Columbia standards. The meeting, at the Other Barn, gave residents an opportunity to criticize, insult and ridicule representatives of two well-known Maryland companies that they believe are aiding and abetting the demise of their dog-eared village center.
'We stood by you'
Del. Frank Turner, a Democrat, articulated the sentiment when he looked across a table at Rouse vice president Wayne A.
Christmann and said: "We are the generation that stood by you as you built Columbia."
The community demands more of Rouse than it would from another developer. Founder James W. Rouse built a reputation as a savvy businessman with enormous social conscience. The company continues to benefit from the great man's legacy.
Oakland Mills residents have turned up the heat on Rouse, starting a petition drive that aims to delay Giant's closing, bring in a new store and develop a long-range plan for the center. Their chances of keeping Giant appear slim, and their complaints became redundant, but their collective activism was a welcome sight.
"I think it's great to see the community pull together like this," remarked County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who sat in the audience with residents and said he was confident that Rouse would improve the village center.
Voices of residents rose above the squeaky floors of the large room in the Other Barn. Their growing numbers and intense concern might threaten the town's reputation for apathy. They are not as confident as Mr. Ecker that Rouse will stand by them.
In all fairness, Rouse has shown some commitment to Columbia's older villages by agreeing to revitalize the Harper's Choice and Long Reach centers.
But the company has shifted some attention away from Columbia's "original villages" over the years to develop communities in River Hill and North Laurel and to create "big box" retail complexes.
Focus on Summerlin
Rouse also has its new Columbia, the planned community of Summerlin in Nevada, which is larger than the 30-year-old original model and eventually will have nearly twice as many residents. Summerlin, 15 minutes from booming Las Vegas, was acquired by Rouse last year from the estate of billionaire Howard Hughes and will require plenty of the company's resources.
Meanwhile, it is time for residents to move past Giant.
The village center is the central issue facing Oakland Mills, but there are others. Residents have formed committees to help improve area schools and to find ways to participate in discussions about the 300-acre Smith Farm that borders the village.
Chuck Scudder, a nine-year resident of the village's Talbotts Springs neighborhood, is ready to deal with some of those issues.
"I just hope this is the start of something. Some energy, some movement," he said. "We can start at the [village] center and move from there."
It is good to see this momentum among residents, who realize no one will work harder than them to rescue their community from decay. Their energy is bound to revitalize Oakland Mills.
Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.
Pub Date: 4/13/97