Before I purchased my first home, I walked around the neighborhood to check out the surroundings. I then went in search of the local grocery.
I figured if there was one place I would rely on more than any other, it would be the one that provided my food. And I wanted to live near a decent supermarket.
I was in luck. My little townhouse in Springfield happened to be a short hop from a brand new Giant, which in those days was rolling out big roomy stores with lots of ready-to-go meal options.
I have since moved to Columbia, and for the 47 years of its existence, this city in the suburbs has lacked one obvious amenity in its downtown — a grocery.
That always seemed odd for a community that prided itself on its exhaustive planning. There were supermarkets in the surrounding villages, but the town center, with its shopping mall, movie theaters, restaurants, lake and large music amphitheater, was a place designed mostly to visit by car, and not live on foot.
Last week, Columbia took a step in correcting that omission. Whole Foods Market opened a store on Lake Kittamaqundi and you could sense — finally — a new future in the wind.
The 50,000-square-foot store is distinguishable mostly for the fact that it occupies the former Frank Gehry-designed headquarters of the old Rouse Co., the development firm that laid out the original plan for Columbia. The interior was gutted and now makes liberal use of reclaimed wood and tiles fashioned from recycled glass, an updated take on Columbia’s fondness for ’70s earth tones.
Whole Foods’s “firsts” for the new store are more iterations on others in the 36-year-old natural food chain: popsicles made from cold-press juices, in-house-created infused honeys, handmade gelato treats, a vegetarian cafe and self-serve bulk bins of frozen vegetables. There are, of course, plenty of locally sourced goods, as well.
Columbia’s establishment class, the politicians and pioneers, turned out in force for an opening preview, and for a group that often disagrees on the course of change, they seemed mostly pleased with Whole Foods’s arrival. There’s much debate about how much of a downtown town center should be, which might explain the most frequently heard critique of our new “urban” store.
Would there be enough parking?