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Hoping to alter a retail worry


Columbia is a diverse town, where the schools teach children in about 60 foreign languages.

It's also a place that's bland as all get-out.

The planned community carved out of Howard County farmland 34 years ago drew people of a wide variety of races, religions and incomes. It welcomed interracial couples at a time when state statutes had just quit calling them outlaws. Then it wrapped one and all in suburban sensibilities.

Cursed with 1970s architecture, committed to subtle signage and earth-toned exteriors, the place is a radical social experiment in Sears clothing.

Which brings us to shopping, the heart of this suburb built by the man who coined the term "shopping mall." Shopping, strangely enough, turns out to be something that is not succeeding as planned in Columbia.

Not that there aren't retailing successes. The Mall in Columbia is full of shoppers, full of stores, mostly the same purveyors of upper-middle-class chic found in upscale malls across America. Same Restoration Hardware peddling vintage vent covers. Same frustrated concert pianists tickling the ivories near shoes in Nordstrom.

But the mall is only half of the Columbia shopping story.

Columbia also has nine village shopping centers around town, each with a supermarket, small shops and restaurants. Some seem to be thriving, but several are struggling in the era of big-box stores, super-sized supermarkets and one-stop shoppers.

Outdated designs. Shuttered storefronts. Dwindling numbers of shoppers. Swelling ranks of loiterers.

In Columbia, the decline of village shopping centers is a source of much angst, even disbelief, given the buying power of a community in the richest county in the richest state in the union.

But the decline may point the way to salvation for the centers and the city. Fixing what's wrong with the centers could fix what's wrong with Columbia, urban planning and retail experts say. By reinventing its village centers, they say, Columbia could rescue itself from unrelenting blandness.

The trouble with the centers, experts say, is too much planning.

"No matter how visionary they are, when a place is built from the ground up with every 't' crossed and every 'i' dotted and no room for chaos, I think you run into this inevitable change," said Betsy Jackson, president of the International Downtown Association.

"A city is meant to have a little chaos and a little grit and a little weirdness to it," she said. "When you take all of that out and have every eventuality planned for, chaos finds its way in."

Now, retailing analysts think a little chaos could offer salvation to the village centers by setting the stage for specialization.

Changing the retail mix -- from cookie-cutter supermarkets, dry cleaners and liquor stores to unique grocers and shops that appeal to specific ethnic or socioeconomic groups -- could draw shoppers from across Columbia and beyond to now-forgotten centers, retailing analysts say.

The specialty stores would give the town some personality in the process, they say.

Whether that would also destroy the lofty social goals behind Columbia's intentionally homogenized diversity is another matter.

"When I view a city, I view a place that is incredibly diverse, that is eclectic in its choices, that offers you things you would not see in a shopping center at all -- antique stores, art galleries, avant-garde clubs where musicians create music," said Michael Beyard, senior resident fellow for retail and entertainment development for the Urban Land Institute.

Some of Columbia's village shopping centers are starting to specialize -- by design and, significantly, by happenstance.

After losing its bank, drugstore and several other stores, Long Reach Village Center got two new shops: a braiding salon and a beauty supply shop, both catering to African-Americans. A Caribbean produce market was in the works recently until the financing fell through. A black mega-church, Long Reach Church of God, also is at the village center.

In Oakland Mills, where the Metro Food Market closed last month, village officials think a new grocery with a large Hispanic foods section might lure more shoppers to their out-of-the-way location.

In River Hill, Columbia's newest and most affluent village, the center has gone upscale. It boasts a fine jewelry store and a wine shop that sells Dom Perignon by the case.

Columbia's original center, in Wilde Lake village, has evolved into a magnet for health-conscious consumers. A natural foods store, a produce shop and a fish market have opened, and a running-shoe store draws athletes from beyond Columbia.

Those attractions help make up for the fact that the Wilde Lake center is anchored by a 24,000- square-foot Giant that, by today's standards, could be considered Lilliputian.

Repositioning village centers to serve specialized niches might make perfect business sense, but it raises some fears in Columbia because it represents a shift from the town's original design and goals.

Developer James W. Rouse wanted Columbia to be a place where people of all stripes would live, work and shop together. He plunked single-family houses next to condos, townhouses and subsidized apartments.

The village centers, which include courtyards, schools, athletic facilities, community buildings, interfaith worship space and shops, were supposed to play a big role in that neighborhood meeting and greeting. They were built for Everyman, not target marketing.

That's why a trend toward specialized centers troubles some Rouse devotees. They worry, for example, that Oakland Mills might become a Hispanic enclave if the supermarket caters to that demographic -- something they fear not out of prejudice, but out of devotion to Rouse's melting-pot ideals.

"The goal of Columbia is an ideal of heterogeneity and mixture," said Nicholas J. Mangraviti, an architect and city planner. "If we fall back to that kind of specialty, it's an admission of failure."

Oakland Mills village officials, upset by the loss of the Metro just three years after the Rouse Co. gave the center a $3.5 million facelift, say specialization is nothing to fear.

"Any food store situation that would be viable long term there would be good for the village," said Bill McCormack of the Oakland Mills Village Board. "It's not about culture or colors. What's important when you talk color is green."

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