Public meeting Thursday to discuss future of Columbia's village centers

When Columbia founder Jim Rouse came up with the concept for village centers, he had no idea how, nearly 50 years later, big box retailers and online shopping would challenge that model.

"The original idea was to have a grocery-anchored neighborhood center, with a hair salon, liquor store, local cafe, etc. There was a lot of repetition in the tenant mix," said Tom Moriarity, a managing principal at Retail and Development Strategies LLC. "There is a recognition that the original vision is still valid, but it may need some tweaking."

A study sponsored by Columbia Association, Howard County Economic Development Authority and Howard County's Department of Planning and Zoning will look into the current economic climate of eight of Columbia's village centers, with an eye toward redevelopment.

Moriarity, accompanied by other consultants and officials from the Columbia Association, Economic Development Authority and Department of Planning and Zoning, will give an overview of the project at a public meeting scheduled Thursday, Dec. 5, at 7 p.m. at The Hawthorn Center, 6175 Sunny Spring, in Columbia.

The study was commissioned by PlanHoward 2030, an update to the county's general plan adopted by the County Council in 2012.

The only village center omitted from the study, which also will evaluate the Dobbin Road and Snowden River Parkway corridor, will be Wilde Lake, which currently is being redeveloped. The new Wilde Lake Village Center, which will not have a traditional grocery store, will include 250 apartment units, a CVS Pharmacy and an expanded David's Natural Market.

Jane Dembner, CA's chief of Community Building & Open Space, said the study will analyze each village center individually, but that it also will take a comprehensive look at how they relate to each another.

"They can't be seen in isolation of one another," Dembner said. "You have to look at the whole thing."

The same goes for the Dobbin Road and Snowden River Parkway corridor, which Marsha McLaughlin, the county's Director of Planning and Zoning, said "has evolved differently from what was originally anticipated."

McLaughlin said the study also will look at the "New Town" zoning designation for the village centers, which McLaughlin said may need to be changed.

According to Moriarity, the consultant group, which also includes WTL+a, Folan Consulting and Gibbs Planning Group, has conducted preliminary research in advance of Thursday's meeting. Following the meeting, where input from residents, business owners and other stakeholders will be solicited, the consultants will begin compiling preliminary findings that are scheduled to be presented to the public in March.

The group is planning to submit a final report, which will have specific recommendations, at a meeting in April.

According to Dembner, CA is the lead agency conducting the study and is bearing two thirds of the total cost, which is approximately $137,000. The EDA is covering the remaining third.

Larry Twele, CEO of the EDA, said it is acting in a support role.

"What has happened in the county over the past several years has changed the dynamics of retail and that's a natural evolution," Twele said. "This study is going to look at how the village centers fit into that context and what is the best use of them."

Twele said the study is key to their work in supporting job growth in the county.

"It is going to help us as we look at our mission in terms of helping companies start and grow and relocate to create jobs in the county," he said.

Added Dembner in a statement: "We are keen to understand the market potential for each village center and the relationship of the centers to other competing commercial areas. This knowledge base is key to defining strategies and tools that can help revitalize and reposition the village centers, particularly some of the older centers."

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