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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Are village centers needed anymore?

     Last week I attended the last meeting of the consultant group hired to look at the future directions for village centers.  The partners in this effort should be commended for recognizing the need for this type of study.
     We have all seen the signs that some of our village centers are struggling. The original concept of the village centers in Columbia was to serve as the retail anchor for each village.  Anchoring each village center was a supermarket.  Surround that with a bank, dry cleaner, gas station, pizza shop, a restaurant, a drug store, a doctor, a dentist and a village office and you had all the frequent retail needs for that village.  Today that retail mix has abundant competition from other retailers outside the village centers.  This leads me to the question posed above---is a retail village center even needed anymore?
     When I moved here in the 1970's I shopped for my weekly groceries at the Giant, did my banking at Columbia Bank and Trust (long since merged out of existence), visited my dentist and took home an occasional pizza from the pizza shop from my village center.  I never did buy my gas from my village center gas station but used a gas station in another center where I had my car repaired.  My doctor was also in another village center.  I got my hardware needs from the Village Hardware stores in Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake Village centers.  Had my photos developed at James Ferry's store in Oakland Mills.  Went to the library in Long Reach or Wilde Lake Village Centers. My Howard County government office was even in a village center.
     So how much of that shopping pattern remains?  Not much.  Costco, BJ's, Wegman's and Trader Joe's get most of my weekly shopping dollar.  I find myself using the local Giant like a convenience store picking up a few things needed to make dinner or some milk, eggs or bread.  The most I ever spend at the Giant is $10-15 a trip.  Last year I spent under $800 at Giant.  My doctor and dentist are no longer at a village center.  Hardware comes from Lowe's or Home Depot.  My bank is in Dobbin Center.  I get my car repaired in Elkridge.  Digital photography eliminated the need for film and developing.  I make my own pizzas.  I can't remember the last time I ate at a restaurant in a village center.  I usually choose one of our ethnic restaurants in other locations around our area.
      All of these retail realities don't even touch how online shopping has impacted local retailers.  My Amazon purchases now make sense to pay for Amazon Prime for the free shipping.  With Amazon set to be a major player with groceries by developing local warehouses to have same day delivery I can only assume that they will be the next threat to the local Giant stores.   With the experience of the Wilde Lake and Long Reach Village Centers we can see how questionable the viability of a village center is without a supermarket.
     So what are the consultants recommending for keeping the village center concept viable?  Most of the report seems to be focused on what alternative retail choices could still be viable in the future.  Food and beverage retailers, office and housing development with some new alternatives such as churches, medical offices, preschool centers, ethnic markets and some recreational uses seemed to be the areas to be recommended.  Nothing too earth shaking in the recommendations.
     Having done some consulting I know that you tend to give your client what you think they want to hear. You run a risk if you come back with something too different for them to consider.  It is always safer to recommend an incremental change from what exists than to recommend a new strategic direction that will scare them about their current vulnerabilities.   Maybe the study having a retail focus is not surprising given that the consultants seem to have a retail background.  The old saying that "if you have a hammer every problem looks like a nail" may apply here.
    If the answer to my question of "are village centers as retail hubs still viable" is "no" then can they serve a useful purpose for a village today? Maybe the future of the village center needs a more diverse group of players to create a new paradigm for our centers.  Something like what Rouse did when he brought together a wide range of professionals in a work group in the early planning of Columbia.   What other "people needs" would bring village residents to a village center if it isn't retail isn't the answer in the future?  Maybe some library services, County Government services or services directed at a mature or ethnically diverse population might be the new model for village centers.
     One of the difficulties with moving the village center concept in a new direction is that there is no one entity like the Rouse Company that has the vision, financial means and authority to create the new model.  Now you have Howard County Government, the Columbia Association, GGP, Howard Hughes and Kimco which each may have very different ideas on what a village center should look like in the future.  This may lead to slow incremental change that will not respond quickly enough to add new vitality to the village center model moving forward.  It is encouraging to see the County Government take the lead in trying to revitalize the Long Reach Village Center.  This may not be the last village center that will need this help in the future.

    I came away a little disappointed that the changing demographics of Howard County (aging population with increasing ethnic diversity) had not played into the thinking of the study.

   In addition to the involvement with the Long Reach Village Center, I am impressed with the strong role that Howard County Government is taking with our health care system, our transportation system and with the Merriweather Post Pavilion renovation.  Government can be a positive force for change in spite of what seems to be happening in Washington.

P.S. 2
    As I mentioned above many times being too tied into a certain type of business blinds you to your vulnerability in a changing world.  Two good examples of this are Kodak and the Swiss watchmakers.  Did you know that a scientist at Kodak invented the digital camera? What they missed was the potential game changer that digital photography would become.  Something similar happened to the Swiss watch manufacturers in the 1970's with the movement to quartz watches. In both of these examples it was the Japanese manufacturers that didn't have a stake in the existing technology that took advantage of the new technologies.
     Both of these changes are examples of how dangerous it is for existing businesses in a time of "shifting paradigms."  I blogged on this a few years ago.



Unknown said...

If you are looking for the demographic effect on Village Centers, I wrote the following blog post:

You can agree or disagree with my conclusions, but the data does provide a starting point for discussion.

Also, if you look back at the outcomes of the working group that was put together by the Rouse Company, you will find most of the references for the intended outcomes are couched in terms of families. Family households have almost dropped by 50% in the last forty years. We are a community of predominantly singles and couples. A newly constituted working group would either have to abandon the thinking of the original working group, or state that change must happen to fulfill the promise of the original thinking.

Anonymous said...

Wow, it's like we live in different Columbias! We are a family that lives among many families and we love having the village centers - it's part of what attracted us to Columbia. If we can avoid the big box stores, we do and we know many like us. Pushing everyone to typical busy suburban big box zones for even the basics would really decrease Columbia's attractiveness to new residents, imo.

duanestclair said...

I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about shopping at the national merchants rather than supporting the local merchants. Our sense of community and uniqueness is certainly lost by the changes in how we shop.

Adam Paul said...

Living on the western end in Clary's Forest, I may be a bit more partial than many in favoring the Village Centers near me, leaving the tiring trek through traffic on Snowden and 175 to the Big Box centers to be made only when absolutely needed.

Convenience aside, I feel that if the Village Centers were totally marginalized or diminished, it would truly turn Columbia into "a generic late 20C suburb with nice lakes and trails" and nothing connected to them. Meanwhile, we'd have an even worse set of choke points near the Mall and along Snowden and Route 40, as there would essentially be nowhere else to do one's shopping. It would transform the area (in my eyes) into one that would be pretty inhospitable.

Adding in that not everyone in Columbia has a car, the thought of having to take a taxi, or a 90 minute bus ride between the Red and Green buses just to get some groceries or essentials is pretty daunting and depressing.