Imagining a very different Wilde Lake Village Center can be tough for Columbia's pioneers nostalgic for the past, but about 150 mostly older residents took a stab at it Monday night as efforts to plan the half-empty center's rebirth got rolling.

The group was invited by the village board to Slayton House, the center's original community building. The board is working on concepts to present Jan. 11 to Kimco Realty, the firm that owns most of the commercial buildings at Wilde Lake, Columbia's oldest retail village hub.

Under a county zoning law approved last summer, Kimco, which owns five other Columbia village centers, will incorporate residents' desires into a plan they will present to the community and county zoning authorities next year.

"We're trying to be very creative and flexible," board chairwoman Nancy Alexander said after the more-than-two-hour skull session. An early Kimco proposal to demolish the center for up to 500 apartments in mid-rise buildings with a small adjunct of retail shops sparked strong opposition. That led to a County Council bill last summer that provides an elaborate redevelopment and rezoning process for eight of the planned town centers to use if they want to add large-scale residential construction.

The issue of creativity versus preservation was debated frequently by residents Monday night. Some criticized a preliminary board concept plan calling for preservation of several aspects of the existing center as too restrictive.

"In an effort to preserve the past we are hindering redevelopment," said Bill Miller, owner of Today's Catch, a small seafood store struggling to survive beside a 23,000-square-foot supermarket building empty for three years. Some residents, many of whom said they'd lived in Wilde Lake since the early 1970s, openly pined for the return of a long-gone village pub and Produce Galore, a once popular deli/fruit and vegetable merchant that closed after the Giant's demise.

"We are an aging community, but we're not dead," said the Rev. Whitty Bass, pastor of a congregation that shares the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center, another large building the village board wants preserved.

"The Jim Rouse I knew would be the first to talk about creativity ... not preservation and control," Bass said.

The board presented the group with some basic ideas about preserving village center landmarks Kimco doesn't own, like the community center, the Interfaith Center, the central village green and nearby schools and Columbia Association swimming and tennis facilities.

In addition, the board members propose that any new center provide for residents' daily needs with a grocery store, retail shops and restaurants. Rhoda Toback, a former board chairwoman, referred to this as "The Cheese Shop Plan," meaning a plan to keep the village center design as it is.

But the board has also suggested demolishing the former Giant supermarket building and talked about possible new residential units over retail shops in taller buildings.

"Make no apologies for being original founders of Columbia," Lisa Mikkelsen admonished, with a nodding Del. Elizabeth Bobo and her husband, former County Councilman Lloyd Knowles, looking on with approval.

Mikkelsen said she felt Kimco merely wants to enhance the value of the center with an approved plan, and then sell it.

Jeff Kamala, who operates a Crown gas station at the center's edge, also criticized Kimco for refusing to cut merchants slack because business is slow.

"They'd rather see us go out of business so they can do what they want," he said.

George Wood acknowledged that "we are an aging community," but he rejected some modern retail concepts.

"I hate big-box stores. I really miss a smaller grocery and catering service. Produce Galore was wonderful," he said.

Cy Paumier, a veteran Columbia architect who helped design a plan for bringing more visitors to Symphony Woods next to Merriweather Post Pavilion, said there need not be a conflict between the past and future.

"I think it's possible to develop into a vibrant, probably mostly residential place," he said, adding that that can be achieved without demolishing all of the original buildings.

"I love the village green, but the reality is people don't want to get out of their cars and walk around," said Barbara Kellner, Columbia's archivist. She wants a balance between preservation and new things, she said, but it's time to move on.

"You can't have a vibrant center with old buildings," Kellner said.

Ian Ferguson also wanted more hard-edged realism.

"The thing I haven't heard is about anything financial," he said, noting that if what residents want won't produce a profit, it won't work.

As the meeting ended just after 9 p.m., attorney Michael Davis tried to put a hopeful spin on it.

"I don't know where we're going," he said, adding that "maybe we will be able to succeed because the cheese shop idea of a center has not gotten support."

Kimco vice president Geoffrey Glazer, who sat at a table with a group of colleagues, said nothing to the crowd.

"I thought it was a productive meeting," he said after the session.

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