Having spent an hour touring around the Owen Brown Village Center, my home village center, I have thought it would be a good blog to look at what the original intent was for a village center and what new realities are forcing the reassessment of what the purpose of the centers are in 2011.
To get a perspective of the thinking of the planners of Columbia in 1964 I spent a little time at the Columbia Archives this past week. The drawing above is from some of the early discussions of what ingredients should be in a village center. If you spend anytime reading the meeting minutes from those early meetings you are impressed how well Jim Rouse was interested in building “community” into the vision of what Columbia was all about. This is truly remarkable because most developers have only a vision of what makes the most money. Somewhere Rouse had an idealistic side that firmly believed that the most connected livable community he could create would also be profitable. He didn’t start out with profit in mind but what was good for people.
Rouse and the planners he brought into plan Columbia often looked backward in their thinking of what an ideal community would look like. The ideals of a small town where everyone shopped, worshiped and played together was seen as better than the impersonalization of the suburbs created after World War II by Levitt and other builders. The development of mega stores and national chains of every type was going to be years in the future in 1964. But this trend is having an impact on the village center concept today.
When I moved to Columbia in 1977 and wanted to go to a restaurant you had to basic choices—the Mall and a restaurant in one of the village centers. There wasn’t a Panera, Starbucks, Macaroni Grill or Outback to be found. If you needed a hardware supply you had a choice of a hardware store in Oakland Mills or Wilde Lake. Home Depot and Lowe’s were nowhere to be found. I remember the excitement of the DC based Hechinger’s moving into Dobbin Center, one of the first centers to compete with the village centers. In trying to keep up with new trends in shopping center development the Rouse Company was creating competition that would lead the to the loss of relevance of the village center.
We didn’t realize that the future of village centers as Rouse envisioned them was changing when the uncertainty of the Rouse company developing a village center in Owen Brown led to having to have the Owen Brown Village Center being developed by Giant rather than Rouse. Would Giant have the same vision as Jim Rouse for a village center? Not likely.
The Owen Brown Village Center was also changed by not having the village office and community center based in the village center. The Dasher Green neighborhood center was enlarged to become the village community center. What Slayton House provided as linking village activity to the business hub of a village center in Wilde Lake would be missing in Owen Brown.
Today we see that difficulty to determine what is relevant for a village center in the lengthy discussion of the new Wilde Lake Village Center, the first of Columbia’s village centers. The loss of Giant as an anchor grocery store and Produce Galore a once successful homegrown store dramatically impacted the viability of this once thriving village center. It is not a coincidence that Produce Galore disappeared after a national chain Trader Joe’s moved into town.
It is ironic in a way that Wilde Lake was the first village center to be radically examined in what a village center is meant to be. The proposal from Kimco seems to be saying that village centers should be a mixed commercial/residential development. This is interesting because Jim Rouse also thought of having this mix with apartments above retail stores like in Europe. Know the only village center in which this was done? Harper’s Choice.
Something that has been a dream of urban planners is the development of a public transportation system with a high usage. This dream was also something that the planners of Columbia had as a way to draw residents to the village centers. The centers were seen as transportation hubs that would be easy to get to and catch public transportation throughout Columbia and connecting with other longer distance transportation systems. The thought was that residents would either walk or bike to the village centers to catch a bus. There was even a mention of a monorail system like what you see in Disney World but it was rejected because of cost. Additionally there was the thought that in this time of a large number of stay at home moms that many families would opt for only having one car if an adequate public transportation system was developed. I have to say that when we moved to Columbia we did sell our second car as my wife took the commuter bus to DC. The only problem was when our one car needed repairs or broke down. I can’t imagine too many families today who would think it is possible to exist with one car. There was a time when we had four drivers in the family with four cars taking up the parking spaces in front of our neighbor’s houses.
If you want to see the village center that represents the truest Jim Rouse vision for a village center you have to look at Wilde Lake. All the ingredients are there--village community center in Slayton House, high school near by, recreational facility in the Swim Center, underground walkway to shopping and interfaith center. No other village center was able to combine all those ingredients. Rouse had looked at the village center architecture in Reston but thought it was to sterile and he fashioned Wilde Lake Village Center’s style after Cross Keys in Baltimore that the Rouse Company had developed.
The talk around town is that it is only a matter of time until we see another village center struggle. The Long Reach Village Center when Wegman’s moves into town and Target expands its grocery section this year may have difficulty remaining viable. As a Neighbor Ride volunteer I have taken seniors to shop at the Safeway in Long Reach and see the same thing that I once saw at the Giant in Wilde Lake. People were only picking up a few items instead of doing their weekly shopping. A grocery store being used as a convenience store won’t last long.
So what does the future hold for our village centers? Are they no longer relevant in connecting people within a village as a place to shop and meet? The answer may actually come from looking back at those early ideas from 1964 on what was to be in a village center. The ingredient that seems to be missing in our village centers is the non-commercial component of the village center. In thinking about the village centers the early planners didn’t focus on the commercial establishments as much as the amenities that they thought would create a sense of “village connections.” Their was discussion of a village welcome center, health center staffed with nurses which sounds like the modern Minute Clinics, education centers for tutoring and continuing educational programs, a village park near the center with both active and passive activities, social service office that looked after the human service needs of all the village residents (Family Life Center in Wilde Lake was the only example of this developed), drop in babysitting and a library (remember the libraries in Long Reach and Wilde Lake). All of these ingredients were directed to have village residents look at the village center the way that small towns looked at their main streets. As a side note I remember growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania in the 50’s and everyone going to the weekly drawings on Main Street that the merchants held. Every time you made a purchase with a merchant during the week a ticket was put into the drawing for merchandise and one large cash prize every week.
In the tour of the Owen Brown Village Center that I mentioned at the beginning of this blog it was hard not to notice the vacant commercial spaces in the village center. I think you would find the same in many of our village centers. I doubt if that is going to change even when the economy improves. There are just too many competing commercial venues with more traffic flow. So how can those spaces be converted to non-commercial uses along the lines of those early planners? I will mention just a few ideas for those spaces.
Today we have a Howard County Neotech Incubator to provide space to new tech startups and other businesses to temporarily access space in the county quickly. Couldn’t some of this unused space be offered at a reduced price to start up companies? Isn’t some rent better than a vacant space? What about offering space to artisans to display their works and teach classes, rent a daily flea market space, rent a farmers market space, reduced rents for non-profit social service agencies, village welcome centers staffed by volunteers as a base for the old Welcome Wagon concept. Years ago some vacant space in the Wilde Lake Village Center was provided to students from Wilde Lake High School to learn how to run a business. How about spaces offered to Junior Achievement to work with village school students to learn entrpreneurialship?
What is it going to take to have any of these ideas to happen? It will not happen unless we can bring together the Columbia Association, County government, village center managements, community advocates, educational institutions, non-profits, civic associations and local funders to strategize on how these ideas can be made to be economically viable. It might be challenging but not impossible. We would have Jim Rouse smiling down on the effort.