Reimagining Columbia’s village centers for the 21st century

Yesterday HoCo Connect posted an interesting article on whether Columbia’s village centers are still relevant, including a look back at the original village center vision as laid out by Jim Rouse and others. I was moved in response to offer my own two cents on the village center issue. So without further ado, my thoughts:

We need to think of village centers as resources for Howard County as a whole, and not just for the Columbia village in which they’re situated. I don’t happen to live in Columbia, and hence my opinion would be considered somewhat irrelevant in the context in which the village centers were created. However I think the original village center vision is not sustainable, at least not as the main function of a center. Village residents no longer see their center as a primary destination, instead driving by it on the way to the Mall in Columbia, big box developments like Gateway Overlook, or other places scattered around Columbia and the county (e.g., off Dobbin Road). This means that village centers can survive (let alone thrive) only if they can become major destinations for others elsewhere in Columbia and in the county at large.

How to do that? The key to making village centers attractive destinations is specialization and concentration ot related uses and establishments to produce critical mass. The centers cannot compete with the Mall in terms of overall diversity of establishments, they cannot compete with the big box developments in terms of scale (including access to category-killer national chains), and they cannot compete in discoverability with strip centers and standalone establishments located on major roads. Their only hope of competing is to each specialize in attracting a certain type of customer and providing those customers a complete and exciting experience they can’t find anywhere else.

They’d still be village centers, but the villages they would serve would be extended communities of people with common interests, whether they live in Columbia, the rest of Howard County, or even in nearby areas in adjacent counties. The general idea is to discard the traditional role of providing essential services to local residents (throw out the tired grocery + dry cleaner + bagel place + ethnic takeout template), serve very specialized but potentially lucrative niches that the Mall and the big box centers aren’t able to address, and neutralize the discoverability advantage of strip centers elsewhere in the county (if you’re part of a center’s intended community you’ll already know that it exists and where it is, whether through social media or plain old word of mouth).

For at least a select few, a village center shouldn’t be just a place to go, it should be a place to live and work as well. If the village center experience is compelling enough you’ll want to be there after closing hours and make it your home. You might even choose to work there, either in one of the main establishments or in a complementary business.

To avoid NIMBY backlash, village center uses must be compatible with the surrounding villages. Thus, for example, there’s no point in trying to make a village center into a hub for nightlife and entertainment. Such a use is much more appropriate for Columbia Town Center, where it can be isolated from predominantly residential neighborhoods and integrated with existing resources like the Mall in Columbia and Merriweather Post Pavilion. However I also think village centers shouldn’t be places where everything shuts down at 6 pm or even at 9 pm; a thriving village center should be going strong at 11 pm or midnight, with some places even open 24 hours.

(Having people live in the centers may actually help here, since if they’re part of the community of interest that the center is intended for then they’ll quite likely support appropriate late-night or even all-hours establishments serving that community, and that support would help counter any complaints from village residents further away from the centers.)

Finally, if we want village centers not only to survive but to thrive, village centers should be subsidized and supported by both the Columbia Association and the Howard County government where necessary and appropriate. Such support could be in the form of subsidized rent or zoning variances for particular uses, or it could be through using the centers for CA or Howard County facilities compatible with each center’s specialization. The goal would be to establish enough of a critical mass in each village center that further development could proceed naturally as the center attracted compatible businesses and other establishments wanting access to that center’s community.

What sort of specialty village centers might make sense? Here are some off-the-cuff ideas for future village centers, with informal names for each. I’ve left the proposed locations open, but those familiar with the current village centers can imagine some of them fitting into these schemes based on their current uses and existing facilities. Also, note that some of these proposed centers may not include a grocery or any other of the amenities traditionally associated with Columbia village centers.

Nerd Heaven. This center would have everything the geeky and (at least potentially) entrepreneurial Howard County resident might want. It would be organized around a complex that included an incubator for high-tech startups, a combined coffee house and Beehive Baltimore-style coworking space, a hackerspace like Baltimore Node, and perhaps a modest public space suitable for holding Ignite-like presentations or Hackasaurus-style educational sessions. Complementary businesses and other uses could include a 24-hour nerd-friendly ethnic restaurant, a PC bang, a copy shop, a comics and (board) gaming store, a GameStop-style video game store, a Radio Shack-like store selling hardware components, lawyers and CPAs specializing in small to mid-size businesses, a math and reading tutoring center, and possibly a home brewing store, chess club and a small Exploratorium-style science museum.

Global Village Center. Designed to inspire a steady stream of HowChow posts, this center would be anchored by a Lotte– or H Mart-style ethnic supermarket, and would also include various smaller specialty groceries for particular cuisines, a diverse set of sit-down ethnic restaurants, a set of outdoor food carts (weather permitting), and possibly a farmers market. Complementary businesses and other uses could include any of the kinds of establishments you find in current ethnic centers (e.g., like those along Route 40 serving the Korean-American community), as well as county, CA, or nonprofit facilities designed to serve foreign-born Howard County residents.

Holistic Howard. Organized around a natural foods grocery and a day spa, this center would cater to all your wellness needs. Complementary businesses and other uses might include a fitness and yoga center, one or more vegetarian or vegan restaurants, a funky clothing, accessory, or jewelry store, massage therapists, acupuncturists, aromatherapists, and related practitioners, and possibly a future satellite facility of the Tai Sophia Institute.

The Artistic Complex. This center would be focused on the production, practice, and (to a limited extent) performance of art in its various forms. Anchored by a CA or Howard County art center along with art galleries and studio spaces (including live/work spaces), its complementary businesses and other uses could include a store for artist’s supplies, a Pottery Stop-like store for home-made crafts (with attached coffee shop?), a framing shop, architects’ and interior decorators’ offices, a Design Within Reach-style furniture and design store, small music and/or dance schools, a writing center, a small children’s theater, and a specialty bookstore (carrying the sorts of art and design books best equipped to survive the ebook revolution).

Two final notes: First, this is a long-term vision. I don’t expect specialized centers like the above to appear full-blown in five years, or even in ten or fifteen years. But if this is a viable vision for Columbia’s village centers (and that’s a question for better minds than mine) then now is the time to begin laying the groundwork for it, just as the groundwork was laid for the long-term development of Columbia Town Center.

Second, I’ve presented only four ideas, not enough to cover all current village centers. Some village centers (like River Hill) will thrive regardless, and don’t really need reimagining, while others (I won’t name names) may not be sustainable in any form and should be considered for redevelopment as offices or residences. Finally, there may be other extended villages that could use their own center—what would you like to see?

19 thoughts on “Reimagining Columbia’s village centers for the 21st century

  1. TeeJay

    I love this idea. Keeping with the recent “8 to 80” buzzword being floated around, a center could certainly be aimed at Seniors (older-skewing “quiet” library, health clinic, coffee shop/deli) or young parents (child care center, gymboree type environment, toddler-friendly library like Storyville, toddler-friend restaurant, or better yet, child care provided in a meeting space). I’m not sure of the feasibility of this concept, but my ten minutes of reflection say this is the way to go.

    1. hecker Post author

      TeeJay: Thanks for stopping by. I think the general point is that once we stop thinking of village centers as having to serve an actual Columbia village first and foremost, lots of possibilities arise, among which I think both of yours are good ones to think about. I think the key is finding specializations for each center that make sense and can be economically viable with minimal subsidization.

  2. JessieX

    Nerd (or Geek, preferably) Heaven? Count me in … at least to be a hanger-on-er. Mr. Hecker, yet again, a most thoughtful and interesting post.

  3. JL

    “throw out the tired grocery + dry cleaner + bagel place + ethnic takeout template”

    Here’s what I want within walking distance to my house, that I would use often:

    Grocery store
    Liquor store
    Pizza/Subs/Ethnic takeout (Chain acceptable, indie preferred)
    Cafe with outdoor seating (Starbucks acceptable, indie preferred)
    24hr convenience mart (chain store preferred)
    Post office annex or UPS or fed/ex store or Kinkos
    Bar
    Bank branch or at least a few choices of ATMs
    Gas station

    Things people might like (but not me):
    Storefront ministry
    Dry cleaners
    Daycare center

    These are all the kinds of places that people would typically choose a nearby one over a longer drive. The ONLY thing village centers have going for them is their proximity to residences. A themed center would necessarily alienate/exclude the majority of the nearby residents. Let’s say you put a kids/parents-themed center in Owen Brown. Bye bye liquor store, hello daycare center. Bye bye Sonomas, hello Chuck-E-Cheese. Bye bye cleaners, hello Storeyville. Owen Brown, like most of Columbia, is high on households with kids… But not more than 40% Would I hike my child to Owen Brown for those services? Yes. But I would hike him to the same destinations anywhere. The fact that it’s a village center is irrelevant. Whereas my Owen Brown friends without kids would be bummed to see Sonomas etc. go.

    1. hecker Post author

      JL: Thanks for stopping by and commenting. If your vision of a village center is economically viable, then more power to it. Certainly centers like River Hill appear to be thriving. However I think the key question is whether groceries are going to be viable anchors for all of the village centers going forward, especially as Wegman’s and other come to town. Wilde Lake has already lost its “traditional” grocery (David’s Natural Market apparently not counting as a real grocery, at least to some), and as I understand it the future of the Safeway at Long Reach Village Center is uncertain.

      So if a center loses its grocery, and has no real hope of attracting another, what happens then? One path is simply to shrink the (commercial) ambitions for the center: Redevelop part of it as something else, retain a small retail component that can service on local custom, and maybe put in some noncommercial facilities as HoCo Connect suggests. Another path is to rethink what village centers are for. That’s what I was attempting to do.

  4. JL

    More thoughts:

    Village centers are suffering under poor examples of the aforementioned local services, not a lack of a theme.

    I’ve been to too many bad bars that can’t decide whether they’re a family restaurant or a local booze and party destination. Solution: Every VC around has space for two restaurants. Why not invite one raucous party bar that closes at 2am and one quiet family-fun Americana restaurant that has highchairs and a kids menu and closes at 10:30pm?

    Some of the liquor stores are being out-competed by big-box Corridor and trend-savvy small shops like Perfect Pour. Solution: Let the market do its job. Invite finewine.com over, or World Market. Some of the local liquor stores do just fine.

    No casual cafes with comfy seating. Have you noticed that? Luna Bella comes close, I suppose. Sort of. Bagel Bin’s problem was always cramped space. I would take Starbucks, Potbelly, Dunkin’, or Einstein Bro.s in my VC if they could provide a comfy atmosphere and outdoor seating.

    No 7-11s, like at all. I think the Royal Farms at 175/108 probably makes a killing. All the VC convenience stores have is crappy slurpee knock-offs and overpriced everything (even compared to Royal Farms). These would be frequent destinations for the local teens and shift workers (Why aren’t there *several* 24hr places competing for business by the hospital?).

    More fast food wouldn’t hurt the VCs. Three of our VCs have McDonalds, and a few more have something else; and I never see them hurting for business. Stevens Forest is totally devoid of a fast food chain. I think it might bring some more business around.

    Why do we need so many dry cleaners? Seriously, are they government subsidized or something? And why do people even use most of these cleaners? Do they? I’ve tried four of them around me and they all charged me more than Zips.

    1. hecker Post author

      JL: I think the question is, can a village center traditionally envisioned (i.e., as a resource primarily for nearby residents) actually support two restaurants (family + bar-oriented) + a coffee shop + plus a high-end liquor/wine store, and so on?

      For example, take the Frisco Grille and Tap Room, which recently relocated to a space on Dobbin Road that by all accounts is not ideal, especially with respect to parking? Why didn’t Frisco Grille relocate to a village center like Wilde Lake where there’s plenty of parking? And the same question exists for other establishments that are in Columbia but not in village centers.

  5. JL

    Final comment!

    I like your final point about the CA subsidy. If they want to make VCs work, they have to help them out. But subsidies should come with strings attached. You can’t subsidize the rent at the cafe, and have them charge $9 for a BLT sandwich, etc.

    1. hecker Post author

      JL: With all due respect, why not? Let’s take the cafe as an example, and let’s assume it’s paying market-rate rent. The cafe’s going to want to charge prices equivalent to comparable establishments elsewhere — it’s providing equivalent value in terms of its food’s appeal, and has a right to charge what the market will bear and realize the profit therefrom.

      Now suppose that locating this cafe in a village center isn’t economically viable, because the traffic is lower and the cafe can’t realize as much profit as in another location, and maybe can’t even cover its costs.

      So then CA or Howard County provides a rent subsidy to enable the cafe to locate in a village center. Having done that, why demand that the cafe charge below-market prices? That just makes the cafe less profitable than it otherwise would be, and if CA or Howard County wanted the cafe to stay in a village center they’d have to increase the rent subsidy beyond what it otherwise would be. Why should taxpayers take on that extra burden so that residents of that village can have cheaper-than-market sandwiches?

  6. JessieX

    I am not the subject matter expert here, but I do know that the CA-as-landlord concept of the village centers (and therefore, some benevolent subsidizer) has changed in the last decade or so.

    The commercial property of the village centers is owned by commercial entities, e.g. Kimco. In the village centers (most of them, I think — maybe Owen Brown is the exception) there is property in each of them that is community association property, e.g. where Slayton House is located in WL. And there is CA-owned and -managed open space near/abutting most/all of the village centers. (Again, I’m not the SME here, so correct me or fill in the bits if I got this wrong.)

    1. hecker Post author

      Jessie: You are correct that Kimco is in the driver’s seat as the landlord of the village centers (except for Owen Brown). My point is this: Left to its devices Kimco will end up doing whatever it has to do to realize the commercial value of the centers, including cutting back on retail uses as much as they can get away with in terms of zoning approval.

      My question is, can Kimco do better in terms of creating vibrant village centers, with the support and cooperation of CA and Howard County? One thing I’ve always noted about Howard County is the lack of real “districts”, in the sense of places that have a concentration of like uses and are an attraction in of and itself — downtown Ellicott City is the major exception here. I’d like to see more of that.

  7. Matt Kircher

    Really enjoying the conversation we’re all having about the village centers. Seems that nothing gets Columbia residents’ attention more than the comings and goings of the local VC scene.

    I actually have to take some fault with the basic premise of both this and the HoCo Connect piece that VCs have lost viability because of our ongoing habit of driving to destination shopping centers in the vein of Columbia Crossing or Gateway Overlook. I believe that the great American love affair with the automobile that drove the rise of suburbs and shopping malls isn’t necessarily destined to continue in perpetuity. As the pendulum swings back toward favoring locally accessible retail, the original VC concept seems well positioned to meet the needs of communities in a sustainable way.

    Now, I realize this sounds far fetched, but hear me out. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that trends in the census data showing a rise in affluent, young residents in urban areas (DC is a prime example) between 2000 and 2010 parallels the rise of the “green” movement and the coming of age of Gen Y. At the same time, I believe the rate of vehicle ownership among adults under 30 has declined (wish I could cite something here), which to me suggests that this generation is generally less interested in driving. The car no longer represents freedom, as it did to generations past, but instead the debt of car payments, sitting in gridlock traffic, and ever-rising gas prices. Plus, Gen Y isn’t as afraid of public transit, perhaps as a result of living in communities with an increasing number of options since the 80s. Like “digital natives”, more of us are “transit natives”, introduced to busses or subways as a way of getting to/from campus, first jobs, etc.

    My personal experience as a mid-20s Columbia resident (Kings Contrivance) is that the village center model offers a welcome respite from the obligatory mall or shopping center trip. I can ride my bike there, aided by Columbia’s excellent path system, and buy smaller lots of groceries more regularly, offering a greater variety of fresh produce for a healthier diet. I can go to the bar without having to worry about driving home (at least I could, before Michael’s Pub closed).

    In fact, the biggest risk to the VC model as I see it is the lack of affordable housing options in Howard County for people in their mid-20s. Not that DC housing is more affordable, but you have to consider the related costs of living in a suburb, namely the need for multiple cars per family with long commutes to those urban job centers. If anything, I believe VCs should move to add office space and court professional-level employers, allowing residents a viable alternative to the major urban centers as a place to live, work and play. That would make the price tag of a $300,000 town house a little easier to swallow for early career professionals.

    Frank, if I’m not careful, one of these days you’re going to inspire me to start a HoCo-focused blog of my own…

    Cheers,

    Matt

    1. hecker Post author

      Matt, thanks for stopping by, and thanks to you and all the other commenters for taking so much time to reply in depth. To go in reverse, I’m absolutely in agreement on the desirability of having both office and residential uses in village centers. Among other things, that’s why I thought would make sense for Howard County to put its incubator facility into a village center instead of sticking it in an office park somewhere.

      On the question of future lower automobile use, you may well be right; I have no crystal ball there.

  8. Raymond

    Another anchor store dies… hopefully the VC will live on. I heard word today that the Long Reach SafeWay store, is closing for good in June (it was only a matter of time once their pharmacey closed – the writing was on the wall). With that, as a Long Reach resident (all my properties are in LR), I must agree with you (on almost everything)that it is time for the VC to “freshen up” a bit. The concept of a grocery store at every VC made sense 20-25 years ago when Columbia was still being built and you didn’t have fifteen other choices close by but now with all the competition that model needs to die. However the VC should live on. I would like to see them take on a more historical Ellicott City approach small specialised stores/resturants – not chains. Give me a little farmers market where I can by fresh produce, a nice little resturant to eat in that I wont find anywhere else, a nice place to socialize, exercise, and work and I and many others would once again flock to the VCs (loved the idea of the NERD village too I would be there). The problem is getting these things to happen. We need opportunities to speak with the owners of the VCs and form joint planning ventures so that the ideas of the community can be addessed and not just those of big corporation trying to make money.

    I agree that The CA can assist us in our endeavours but I disagree with you when you say they should subsidize the VC’s – The CA can’t even decide on a yearly basis if they have budget for towels or not (not to digress) if we add them to the mix they are liable to mess it up even worse (they would probably outsource the NERD VC and waste millions on it… OK I am digressing again, sorry).

    1. hecker Post author

      Raymond: Thanks for your comment. In terms of subsidization, I think what would make the most sense would be for either CA or Howard County to take space within a village center for CA or HoCo functions that were contemplated in any case. Thus, for example, if people thought a “nerd VC” made sense then I would expect to see HoCo consider locating a startup incubator there instead of putting it in some random office park.

      1. Raymond

        I see your point; however, I still think the best thing CA can do is get out of the way and let good old fashion greed take over. If these VC owners want to make $$ they will wnat to make improvements. If they make improvements the companies will come and thus the $$ unless CA gets in the way and slows things down.

  9. JD Smith

    I have to agree with Matt. I was initially taken with Hecker’s idea of niche centers, and although I still think some aspects have merit, the overall concept encourages more auto use. Perhaps if there were an adequate low energy public transportation system or bike path system that connected all the centers, it would be more viable I believe CA is currently studying that very possibility.

    1. hecker Post author

      JD Smith: Thanks for stopping by. Some sort of convenient transit system between village centers would indeed strengthen the case for having niche centers; I think this would counter to some degree Matt’s concern about increasing automobile use.

      P.S. Feel free to call me Frank; nobody I know of calls me “Hecker” 🙂

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