An 'exciting time in Oakland Mills'

The Baltimore Sun

Things are looking up in Oakland Mills, with four different projects planned or under way near the village center, each boosting the community in a slightly different way.

The star attraction is the 58,890-square-foot, four-story "green" office building called Meridian Square planned for a vacant lot next to the village center. That $10 million project is moving closer to fruition, with a hearing before the county Planning Board scheduled for Thursday. Construction could begin this year.

In addition, four new homes with prices starting in the mid-$700,000s are rising within sight of nearby Stevens Forest Road, where the 108-unit subsidized Stevens Forest apartments are due for an $11.6 million renovation, and the county has set aside up to $100,000 to build a pedestrian plaza on the village center parking lot.

Several community leaders complain that the new homes and the apartment renovations, while welcome, don't perfectly fit their vision for Oakland Mills, but they say the overall effect is gratifying.

"This is like the bricks-and-mortar stuff that is starting to happen now. This is a really exciting time in Oakland Mills," said Karen Gray, village board vice chairman, who also heads the revitalization committee.

"Things are going quite well," agreed Barbara Russell, the village's representative on the Columbia Association board of directors.

Once confronted with an empty supermarket building, a closed pub, a demolished gas station and several other closed businesses, Oakland Mills has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years fueled by residents who have been working on revitalization.

They see the new Metro- ventures/USA Inc. office-retail building on the former gas station lot as the crowning touch to their efforts.

"Metroventures is a great success. We can't wait for that to get started," said Bill Woodcock, the village board chairman. He expects the new building to attract 100 more people a day to the village center, which would help all the businesses there.

"I think it will add a real sense of excitement and vibrancy," said Gray, a 15-year resident.

The 1.7-acre lot in the 5800 block of Stevens Forest Road where a gas station once stood has been vacant for years. The gas station closed in 1999.

Olusola Seriki, a principal in Metroventures, said his firm is moving its headquarters to the new brick structure, which is being designed to meet "silver" Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards by incorporating 26 different environmentally friendly features.

"The building is a modern contemporary office building that fits comfortably into a neighborhood setting," he said. "It will look like a series of broken boxes" he joked, rather than the standard brick rectangle.

The first floor will have six spaces for retail or service businesses, he said, while the upper three floors will be office space. Metroventures will occupy 5,000 square feet, Seriki said. He likes the location for its convenience, he added.

"It's virtually five minutes from Broken Land Parkway or Route 175," he said. The building will have 160 parking spaces, and entrances facing Stevens Forest Road and the village center.

The four large new homes are rising on about 2 acres at the end of Owen Brown Road, on what's called an "out-parcel," not technically in Columbia, but just behind homes lining Stevens Forest.

Tim Morris, vice president of Williamsburg Group, the builders, said each home will have between 2,500 and 3,500 square feet of finished space, plus an unfinished basement and a two-car garage. Two units are being built now and when they sell, two more will rise, he said.

Despite the slump in new house sales, Morris said he is not worried.

"It's Howard County. Compared to other centers, it's a desirable location," said Morris, who lives in Columbia.

Village leaders said they want more upscale housing in their village, but Woodcock said the builder did not work with the community. He has received complaints that too many trees were cut down.

"The entire clearing area was knocked out. Folks who lived there had their woodlands taken away. It's disruptive," Woodcock said. Morris said there was just not enough room to leave many trees standing and still provide usable back yards.

Russell praised the development. "That's exactly what we're looking to have happen in Oakland Mills. We, more than any other village, do not have that upper-end mix."

At the other end of the housing spectrum, Woodcock and others complained they received no advance word from county housing officials about the renovations at the Stevens Forest apartments.

Stacy L. Spann, county housing director, said the 18 three-story buildings will undergo an $11.6 million makeover that will preserve the complex as subsidized housing - something that also doesn't please all village officials.

"The community is really supportive of improving those apartments, but we're concerned that no one told us the details of the project," Russell said. "We already have more than our fair share of affordable housing," she said. Woodcock agreed.

"We want to see mixed-income housing there. It flies in the face of the master plan to have that locked in as low- income housing for 40 years," he said.

Plans for the pedestrian plaza are incomplete, though Gray said village leaders have decided they don't want to completely ban vehicles from the area.

The plaza could host the Sunday farmers' market in summer, festivals "and be sort of a connection between the main community buildings," Gray said.

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