Rouse action worries villagers


Leaders in four Columbia villages are worried about the fate of their community shopping centers because the Rouse Co. has requested paperwork normally needed for a sale.

Rouse has asked for "certificates of compliance" for the village centers it owns in Long Reach, Oakland Mills, Wilde Lake and Harper's Choice, village officials said yesterday.

The certificates, which confirm that properties meet local architectural standards, are needed before a sale or refinancing can take place.

Alton J. Scavo, a Rouse senior vice president, said this week that the centers had not been sold.

"We're looking at restructuring, perhaps," Scavo said, declining to elaborate. "People look at all kinds of stuff. We look at that at every center."

Scavo and other Rouse officials could not be reached yesterday to comment specifically on the certificate requests.

Scavo is scheduled to talk today with Howard County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray to discuss "Columbia operating properties," Gray said yesterday. Gray said he was not sure whether the meeting, which Scavo arranged, would have anything to do with the village centers.

Village officials have been trying to discover Rouse's intentions since the company requested the certificates last month.

"We're in the dark as much as everyone else," said Neil Frock, a board member in Harper's Choice. "We have gotten, not the run-around, but we haven't gotten a straight answer from them."

Local officials take a keen interest in Columbia's nine village shopping centers, which were planned as social hubs for the community. Near schools, sports facilities and community buildings and designed to encourage socializing, the shopping centers helped create a sense of place in a town created out of farmland 35 years ago.

"It's a community focal point. It's a place where everybody meets," Frock said. "That's what the village is about, some central point where everybody comes together socially, for business purposes, politically. It's the melting pot for human intercourse. And we have a vested interest in it because we live here and we want to support our businesses. It's a point of pride."

Some of the centers have not been much to brag about in recent years. Crime and vacant buildings have been a problem. Big-box stores have taken a toll.

Scavo has acknowledged that nine village centers are too many in an era of 60,000-square-foot supermarkets - about triple the size of Columbia's original Giant.

Even so, Columbia residents want their village centers to survive and thrive and reflect positively on their property values.

The Oakland Mills Village Center Revitalization Committee meets regularly to plot how to attract a new supermarket to the anchor space Metro vacated in April after three years.

One member of that committee is Wayne Christmann, vice president and general manager of Columbia Management Inc., the Rouse affiliate that owns eight of the centers. (The ninth center, in Owen Brown, is owned by Giant Food Inc.)

"Wayne Christmann has been fully a part of those meetings and has never indicated that anything was going to happen with regard to the ownership," said Columbia Councilwoman Barbara Russell of Oakland Mills.

"I certainly hope the Rouse Co. will be forthcoming immediately with any plans that they might have to sell village centers because that will certainly have an impact on the residents, especially the residents of those village centers that are currently having problems and trying to resolve those problems," she said.

Christmann could not be reached for comment.

The potential sale of the centers concerns some village officials, who see it as an indication that Rouse has lost interest in older, poorer parts of town, in favor of newer, more expensive projects. Rouse announced last month that it was buying eight high-end shopping malls for $1.45 billion.

But others say a sale could benefit the centers, since a different owner might breathe new life into them.

"It could be very beneficial for us to have new owners," Frock said. "If it happens, we'll just see what happens. It's just so ambiguous right now."

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