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Columbia Mall continues its evolution as it turns 40

Edward Arthur Jewelers owner Randy Brooks

Some things just get better with age — fine wine, a chunk of bleu cheese. And with the right vision and planning, a shopping mall.

That’s been the case for the Mall in Columbia, said many patrons Tuesday as they bustled from store to store and enjoyed the day-long festivities honoring the mall’s 40th anniversary. The activities — which included a fashion show and an outdoor “birthday party” complete with cupcakes and paper hats — were about commemorating the past four decades of retail success, but for many, the occasion prompted a look to the future.

The mall has been integral to the Columbia community since it opened Aug. 2, 1971, said shoppers and storeowners who’ve been along for the ride. And as Howard County moves forward with its 30-year master plan to revitalize the downtown area, officials predict the mall will continue to be a regional centerpiece that invigorates commercial activity in a family-oriented yet trendy environment.

When The Rouse Co. completed what was then a two-story, 640,000-square-foot shopping mall, the firm envisioned it would be the “Main Street” of Columbia, said Randy Brooks, owner of Edward Arthur Jewelers, the only store in the mall that’s been there since opening day.

Now 40 years later, as young patrons enjoyed the festivities alongside older loyal customers, Brooks said he thinks that dream has come true. It’s now 1.4 million square feet, with shops such as the Apple store that didn’t even exist in the early days. Many people said it’s not only become the go-to place for shopping, dining and entertainment, but it’s emerged as a primary social hub.

Carolyn Morgan, 37, said she’s been coming for years, and thinks the mall unites the community even more as more establishments are added, particularly a 1999 renovation that added multiple restaurants and an AMC movie theater in an outdoor plaza.

“What I like is that it’s still here,” said Morgan, who lives in Columbia. “Some malls, they close or they close major department stores. …There’s always people here, definitely to shop and also just to come and meet even if it’s to go to The Cheesecake Factory and then come back in and shop.”

Added Senior General Manager Katie Essing: “I think this mall will continue to do well. It’s got a very strong customer base and we’ll just see as this — it’s a very conceptual plan— evolves, how the mall will partner in.”

The master plan, which was approved by the Howard County Council in February 2010, would add about 13 million square feet of retail, commercial, residential, hotel and cultural development to downtown Columbia.

John DeWolfe, the senior vice president for the Howard Hughes Corp., which is leading the revitalization, has said that the plans will focus primarily on the mall and Merriweather Post Pavilion, a music venue nearby. DeWolfe and other Howard Hughes executives were not available for comment Tuesday.

In March, the County Council passed a set of design guidelines that address everything about living in the area. Howard Hughes Corp., a spinoff of General Growth Properties Inc., wants to make downtown more pedestrian-friendly, implement other environmentally conscious measures and expand the type of living options available, all while keeping an eye on preserving Columbia’s history. General Growth, a Chicago-based real estate investment trust, still owns the mall.

“You have to continue to evolve, which is what [the developers] are trying to do,” Brooks said. “I think they’re being very careful to keep the balance between this being a Main Street and the center of the community – and not just becoming another shopping district.”

Though there’s been some speculation about whether the mall’s role will be diminished as more retail space is added, most shoppers Tuesday said they don’t expect the mall to be left behind.

It’s “always kept pace with what the community and society is looking for,” and will continue to do so, Brooks said.

“I think it’ll be great,” Morgan said. “It’ll bring more people to the area, and more residential spaces will definitely bring in more business,” she said. “Bringing more people to Columbia is always a good thing.”

The mall’s broad customer base was highlighted Tuesday by the variety of patrons in the crowd outdoors, where officials passed out free munchies and giveaways and a disc jockey blasted feel-good music. Debbie Aldridge of Odenton, whose daughter, Taylor, got her face painted at one of the tents outside, said she wasn’t expecting the celebration but appreciated the community involvement it fostered.

Sydney Phillips, 18, said she visits the mall weekly and enjoys bringing groups of friends to the movie theater and restaurants as well as the indoor stores.

“It’s really easy to make a day out of it, and it’s really family-oriented, too,” Phillips said. “Whenever someone talks about going to the mall, it’s always Columbia Mall.”