Columbia is an incredibly 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 all races, religion and income. 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 guy 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, supersized 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Outdated designs.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 relentless 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 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 also would destroy the lofty social goals behind Columbia's intentionally homogenized diversity is another matter.
"When I think of a city, I don't think of a homogeneous place that has nine shopping districts, all of which are pretty much the same," said Michael Beyard, senior resident fellow for retail and entertainment development for the Urban Land Institute.
"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. ... The neighborhoods are all different. And if you live in that city, you know if you want upscale shopping you go to this neighborhood; if you want second-hand clothes and funky stuff, you go to this neighborhood. That's extremely hard to achieve in a city where the districts are planned to be more or less alike."
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 selection 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 chichi. It boasts a fine jewelry store and a wine shop that sells Dom Perignon by the case. The supermarket has a sushi chef who makes California rolls to order. Its magazine rack is stocked with the Robb Report, a luxury lifestyle magazine.
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. The Columbia Association's indoor swim center and tennis center are part of the village center, making Wilde Lake a hang-out for the triathlete crowd. They get their carbo load at the center's Bagel Bin.
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, should really be called Lilliputian. The 34-year-old store has no pharmacy, no cosmetics - not so much as a single lipstick.
The 4-year-old Giant in River Hill, by contrast, has 63,000 square feet.
Bill Miller started Today's Catch fish market in Harper's Choice Village Center in 1977 and began looking for a new location in the early 1990s when that center started to slide.
He settled on Wilde Lake because the shops seem to cater to the same folks who frequent specialty fish stores: health-conscious empty-nesters who have the time and income to do European-style shopping.
"The profile of that shop is the same," he said, referring in particular to David's Natural Market.
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 social 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 right next to condos, townhouses and subsidized apartments. He steered homebuyers in ways that would be illegal today to ensure that blacks and whites lived side-by-side, not neighborhood-by-neighborhood.
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.
"If it becomes the Hispanic place, then it becomes segregated," said Nicholas J. Mangraviti, an local architect and city planner who, as a graduate student in 1966, worked as a summer intern for Morton Hoppenfeld, Columbia's chief designer.
"The goal of Columbia is an ideal of heterogeneity and mixture," Mangraviti said. "If we fall back to that kind of specialty, it's an admission of failure. ... It's abandoning the concept of Columbia."
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 face lift, 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."
Lately, the Oakland Mills board is also talking color in terms of house paint. As they search for ways to keep their shopping center afloat, board members also are trying to give the whole village a face lift by overhauling local housing rules, including those governing house colors.
They're thinking about branching out from earth tones.
Anchor: 24,000-square-foot Giant
The original village center seems to thrive with a collection of tenants catering to health-conscious consumers - a running-shoe store, fish market, health food store and produce market.
Anchor: vacant 43,000-square- foot space
The smallest and most out-of-the-way center has lost its Metro supermarket, along with an adjacent gasoline station and convenience store. "We know there are brighter and shinier village centers out there. We want to be like them," says Kathryn Sullivan, part-owner of Last Chance Saloon.
Anchor: 39,000-square-foot Giant
This center belongs to Giant, which plans a $10 million renovation to produce a new 60,000- square-foot grocery. The makeover is long overdue, but some residents and tenants object to the plan, which could isolate some shops. "I hope they do something nice for us because we can definitely use it," said Greg Troendly, part owner of Sonoma's Bar & Grille
Anchor: 55,000-square-foot Safeway
Renovations in 1998 more than doubled the size of the supermarket, but the center has lost its bank, drugstore and other tenants. In a sign of ethnic-oriented revitalization, two new tenants, a braiding salon and a beauty supply store, cater to African-Americans.
Anchor: 43,000-square-foot Safeway
Set a little apart from the scrum of Columbia supermarket competition, the center in the town's southernmost village has held up well. Its shops go beyond the basics of groceries and banking to cigars, jewelry and formalwear.
Anchor: 63,000-square-foot Giant
Columbia's newest village center sits in plain sight at a major intersection and successfully caters to the rich, sharp departures from the original Columbia concept. "I get a lot more visibility here," said jeweler Rick Everett.
Anchor: 58,000-square-foot Giant
This successful center blends some of Rouse's original design concepts with up-to-date retailing and architecture. Shops lining an airy pedestrian avenue reflect Columbia's diversity and affluence.
Anchor: 55,000-square-foot Safeway
Shoppers must walk down a long, dark covered corridor to reach smaller shops. Customers sometimes phone from the parking lot and say, "Where are you at?" said Vivian Nguyen of Nail Center.
Anchor: 55,000-square-foot Giant
With columns, arches, teak benches and pretty landscaping, this 12-year-old center looks attractive to shoppers and national retailers like Heavenly Ham and Blockbuster.