The initial results of an economic study of eight of Columbia's village centers identified adding more restaurants as the best future use for the centers, some of which have seen a decline in recent years.

"Most of the village centers, from my point of view, are under supplied in restaurants, cafes, formal dining, coffee shops," said Tom Moriarity, the lead consultant on the study, at Tuesday's public meeting held at Slayton House.

"People are eating out more often, the millenials, [generation x] and [generation y] want to go out more. There aren’t that many options now, and some of those could fit in some of the village centers if they are planned appropriately. We see a big opportunity for more food and beverage." 

The concept of adding more restaurant space to the centers was perhaps the biggest revelation to come out of the public meeting on the study, which was commissioned by the Columbia Association in conjunction with Howard County's Department of Planning and Zoning and the Howard County Economic Development Authority. 


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The study, which began in December, is examining the economic health of eight of Columbia's nine village centers -- Wilde Lake was excluded because it is undergoing a comprehensive renovation -- as well as the health of the commercial hub in east Columbia that encompasses Dobbin Road, Snowden River Parkway and the General Electric commercial area, referred to in the study as "GEDS."

Of the nine village centers, six are owned by Kimco Realty Corp., the largest operator of shopping centers in North America. The three not owned by Kimco are Oakland Mills, owned by Cedar Realty Trust; Long Reach, owned by America's Realty; and Owen Brown, owned by GFS Realty.

The purpose of the study is to evaluate the economic landscape and develop potential solutions for the future because, according to Moriarity -- the grocery-anchored, neighborhood-serving model the centers were built on might no longer be feasible.

"The world as it existed when originally envisioned has now changed pretty dramatically," Moriarity said. "From our point of view, the grocery anchor model is somewhat outdated."

Moriarity said people are moving away from frequenting one local grocer in favor of shopping around to specialty grocers like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, and mega-grocery stores like Wegmans, Wal-Mart, Costco and BJ's Wholesale Club.

"Everybody shops everywhere based on what they can get, what the price is, what's on sale this week or where they want to get to," he said. "It's not as focused. Customer loyalty has changed. Grocery is a pretty volatile aspect of this."

Although it appears clear the model needs to change, what it should be emains uncertain. While Moriarity said that adding restaurant space is the leading candidate in some cases, the study is not complete.

According to Jane Dembner, CA's director of Community Building & Open Space Bureau, the market potential for each village center will be presented at an April 23 public meeting followed by a late May meeting where recommendations tailored to each village center are scheduled to be revealed.

Other options explored in the study include adding hotel space, residential or anchoring the center's around a civic use like the Swim Center at Wilde Lake.

Moriarity said the study also showed Columbia could support additional hotel space, but putting it in the village centers might not be the best option because of a lack of visibility.

Moriarity added residential, similar to the 250 units being developed in the Wilde Lake Village Center, is also a possibility. 

"We are very interested in what's going on in Wilde Lake," he said. "That's going to be a good indicator for us when we look at strategies for other village centers."

Moriarity said the study showed that changing the village centers to be primarily office space would not be an effective use. He also said that adding strictly retail stores could be a challenge given the state of the industry.

"Retail, right now, is the most distressed asset class," he said. 

Moriarity and Jane Dembner, CA's director of Community Building & Open Space Bureau, said comprehensive recommendations are still being formulated. 

"It's not about what we want yet, it's about what the market can support," Dembner said. "This is the basis for making policy, regulatory and other market investments."