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Friday, December 20, 2013

Making Village Centers relevant for 21st Century Columbia

   

      We all remember how we used village centers in the early years of Columbia.  We didn't have many choices for where we could shop, get groceries or eat out. It was pretty much the Mall or a village center.  Remember when we had hardware stores in our village centers? I remember the excitement when Hechingers came to Dobbin Center.  Unfortunately it was the death knell for the two village center hardware stores that gave you such good individual attention.   Columbia today is a much different place.  Is there any national chain that hasn't found us?
      Our present multitude of retail choices leaves the question of exactly why do we need village centers and what viable retail model works for today's retail realities. We can clearly see that some of our village centers are struggling.  Unleased space is all to common in these village centers.  Some now no longer have a grocery store anchor.
      Recently I attended an informational session hosted by the Columbia Association to introduce the contractor, Retail and Development Strategies LLC, that has been hired by to  "evaluate current and projected demand for development in Columbia’s village centers, as well as an interrelated analysis of the Dobbin Road/Snowden River Parkway/former General Electric manufacturing area."  Given the large turnout for this session it indicated that this issue is of wide public interest. Retail and Development Strategies LLC is to hold another session around mid March to report on the findings of their study and have some recommendations by mid April.  This study's progress can be followed at this site.
      One of the issues raised at the session was that when the village centers were originally conceived they were designed in a "cookie cutter fashion."  Every village center was designed to be pretty much like every other one.  Each would be anchored by a grocery store, have a restaurant, pizza shop, drug store and then a mix of other small retailers like liquor store, barber/beauty store, hardware or photo store.  It is easy to see that many of these types of items are now found in the larger grocery and department stores we now have.  Individual stores for many of these retail items can no longer be a viable business.  The contractors will be looking at what mixture of uses can be viable today.  It might be a mixture of residential, retail, office, hotel and light industry.  The village centers of our future may look very different and serve very different purposes than they have in the past.  They may no longer be designed to serve just the retail needs of a particular village.   Maybe the new concept could be more focused on "community" need and less on "retail" need. Those components that make us a more complete community might be more important than what retail need we still have.  One idea that has been discussed for a long time is the idea of a "themed" village center.  A village center could be designed to have an "international" theme, be a location for a center for community services and local non-profit organizations or an arts center?  Each of these themed centers would not just serve one village but the entire community.  I recognize that whatever is designed for the future does have to have an economic viability but that viability might have to have an infusion of financial support from the Columbia Association and Howard County Government.  This may mean that the County Government may locate some of its offices in village centers and CA may have some activity spaces in each of the village centers in addition to what they presently have next to village centers.

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