Columbia's Town Center does not have most of the traditional amenities that grace the planned community's other nine villages.
It has no community swimming pool, no grocery store and the pathway around Lake Kittamaqundi is not a complete circle. Instead, it was designed to be an urban center, offering a mall and offices.
But as General Growth Properties and the county are working to transform the area into a bustling downtown with added shops and homes, the question of whether a grocery store is appropriate is surfacing.
As draft plans are under way to develop the 51.7-acre, crescent-shaped property next to Merriweather Post Pavilion, residents have talked about their desires for stores such as Trader Joe's or Whole Foods. But community leaders want to make sure a downtown Columbia food store would not threaten the grocery stores that anchor the town's nine village centers.
"I am incredibly interested and focused on making sure that what happens in downtown strengthens the village centers, rather than sucks the life out of the village centers," said County Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat.
Each of the town's village centers were designed as one-stop shopping areas, where residents can buy groceries and alcohol, gas up their cars and drop off dry cleaning.
Village centers are largely defined by their grocery stores, with Giant, Safeway and Food Lion being the main stores in each of the centers. When the Oakland Mills center lost Metro Food Market in 2001, the center struggled to attract customers to its smaller stores. But the center has had a resurgence since a Food Lion opened in November.
In Town Center, Ulman envisions a food store of about 20,000 square feet, which he said would accommodate something like a Trader Joe's or a Dean & Deluca. Such stores would not compete with supermarkets because "you can't really go there and satisfy all your needs," he said.
Dennis W. Miller, General Growth's general manager for Columbia, said he does not believe that a large grocery store, such as Giant or Safeway, would be appropriate in Town Center because of the size. But he said a gourmet food store could complement the area.
"If you look at Town Center, if you look at urban areas, this is one of the needs," Miller said.
Miller said he does not think that such a store would compete with the village centers' grocery stores, and he added, "I'm sensitive and aware of the village centers and would never want to do anything which would be devastating to the village centers."
Bridget Mugane of Columbia, a lawyer who helped spearhead community opposition to General Growth's plans to only commercially develop the land by Merriweather, agreed that a Trader Joe's would complement the village centers because "its offerings are distinctive and different, and most often are not available at conventional grocery stores.
"I think this affluent community, with its very highly developed tastes and knowledge, would very much like a specialty store," she said. "And I think it's about time we do that."
Audrey Dumper, a spokeswoman for Trader Joe's, said the company does not comment about looking to open a store in specific communities, but she said, "We tend to go to places where people understand and enjoy different kinds of foods."
The company opened a store in Silver Spring last month and is planning to open another in Pikesville this fall.
Amy Hopfensperger, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods, said the company does not have any publicly announced plans to open in Columbia. In selecting sites, she said, the company looks for a number of factors, including: at least 200,000 people within a 20-minute drive; a 40,000- to 75,000-square-foot space; abundant parking; and a large number of college-educated residents.
Hopfensperger said the company, which has 170 stores, plans to have 300 locations by 2010.
"We're growing pretty rapidly, so were always looking for good sites," she said.
Residents have also talked about their desire for a Wegmans in the area. But Miller has promised that a Wegmans or Wal-Mart would not be built in Town Center. The stores, which can be more than 100,000 square feet, are too big, he said. Wal-Mart has stores in Dobbin Center and off Ridge Road in Ellicott City.
When Wegmans wanted to move to Columbia last year, county planners and the Rouse Co. opposed the idea of the store - which is known for its in-store dining and a huge variety of cheeses, produce and prepared meals - because they feared it would hurt Columbia's village concept. The plan ultimately failed.