Reimagining Columbia’s village centers for the 21st century

6 minute read

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?