Eight village centers at the heart of James W. Rouse's vision for a new suburban city are being sold with other major Columbia retailing hubs as the Rouse Co. shifts its focus away from the community it created out of 14,000 acres of Howard County farmland.
Rouse is selling a majority interest in the properties to Kimco Realty Corp. of New Hyde Park, N.Y. The price of the deal, to be completed in 30 to 60 days, was not disclosed.
The news arrived in letters hand-delivered by the Rouse Co. to dozens of Columbia merchants yesterday afternoon. It left many Columbia leaders expressing both concern and hope for the social and economic future of their community with the company's guiding hand removed.
"I knew [Columbia developer] Jim Rouse personally. He never foresaw the Rouse Co. guiding this town forever," said Bill Miller, owner of Today's Catch Seafood in the Wilde Lake village center. "He always had faith in the people. It's the people's town now to run or run into the ground."
The properties involved in the deal reflect the major social and retail changes that Columbia has undergone in recent years -- from the small-scale village shopping centers, which were supposed to form the civic hub of Rouse's new town, to the big-box stores -- which have killed businesses in many village centers.
Community leaders expect that Kimco, the nation's largest owner and operator of neighborhood and community shopping centers, is likely to take a more hard-nosed view of the properties than Rouse.
"Strip mall management companies aren't particularly known for their community-spirited nature," said Columbia Councilman Joshua Feldmark of Wilde Lake. "They may not even know really what Columbia is at all, so that's kind of sad. But it could also turn out to be a blessing. They could be revolutionary strip mall owners."
Some think it is good that the Rouse Co. is focusing on new communities and high-end shopping malls elsewhere across the country.
Howard County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray agreed that the centers could benefit from new ownership. "Hopefully we'll have a greater commitment to the shopping centers," he said.
Alton J. Scavo, senior vice president of Rouse, said the Columbia centers are no longer a priority for the company.
"We developed and managed most of Columbia's retail space over the past 35 years, and we're proud of what has been accomplished," Scavo said in a statement posted on the company's Web site. "However, The Rouse Company's two major areas of business focus are large-scale regional retail centers and large-scale community developments."
Rouse announced last month that it was buying eight high-end shopping malls for $1.45 billion, creating what analysts described as a financial crunch for the company.
The sale announced yesterday involves three apparently thriving big-box shopping centers on the eastern end of Columbia: Columbia Crossing, a large plaza with a Target and Borders Books; Dobbin Center, anchored by a Kmart; and Gateway Retail, which includes the MegaBytes Cafe.
The village centers -- which range in size from 56,000 to 104,000 square feet -- are more of a mixed bag. The fully occupied River Hill location caters to that affluent village, with a fine jewelry store, a wine shop that sells Dom Perignon by the case and a Giant that stocks the Robb Report, a luxury lifestyle magazine.
But some of the older centers are struggling with vacancies, loiterers and crime. Oakland Mills has been without a supermarket since Metro left in April. Long Reach residents say they're afraid to visit their center at night, despite a police outpost there.
Scavo has attributed the problems to overbuilding: Rouse planned the village centers when grocery stores were about 20,000 square feet. Modern supermarkets are about three times that size now, and most of Columbia's supermarkets have grown, too, creating overcapacity.
In recent years, Rouse has invested millions in some of the older centers -- and suggested that in some cases, the effort was driven not by economic sense, but by sentimental attachment to the Columbia dream, Scavo said.
"James Rouse's dream became their nightmare," said Fred Leunissen, a barber in the Oakland Mills village center, referring to current company management. "James Rouse wanted to bring the classes together, wanted the people to live together, be kind to each other," he said.
"After he was gone, nobody was interested. They don't want to take care of people. They want to make money. Pay your rent and shut up."