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Making 'sense' of the Columbia village centers

John DiTomasso is not an authority on economic development, but the 40-year Oakland Mills resident can't help but notice the change at his local village center.

"You are not seeing the same kind of commerce that used to go on at the village center. I don't go to the village center the way I used to 30 years ago," DiTomasso said.

DiTomasso is not the only one concerned. Empty storefronts and unkempt conditions at some village centers have residents wondering if shopping in their neighborhood will become a thing of the past.

Not so fast, said Tom Moriarity, the lead consultant hired by the Columbia Association and the county to study the economics of the centers.

"We are going to make them better. The village centers aren't dead," Moriarity said.

Moriarity, a managing principal at Retail and Development Strategies LLC, leads a team of consultants studying the economic feasibility of eight Columbia village centers. The only center omitted is Wilde Lake, which is undergoing a full-scale renovation after an arduous planning process that began in 2006.

The study, which also is being sponsored by the Howard County Economic Development Authority and the county's Department of Planning and Zoning, will also evaluate the Snowden River Parkway and Dobbin Road corridor, which is home to a number of restaurants, grocers, big-box stores, retail outlets, office space and more.

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.

"I have enormous respect for the original vision for this place. Thinking about what Mr. (Jim) Rouse would be looking at today; he was not someone who was afraid of change," said Moriarity to approximately 100 residents who attended a Dec. 5 "Listen and Learn" public session on the study.

"I think it's timely for us to be saying where do we stand today? ... What makes sense now?"

Moriarity said economic trends and unanticipated development, including the infusion of big-box retailers and specialty grocers like Wegman's and Trader Joe's at Gateway Overlook and Whole Foods, which plans to open on the Columbia lakefront next year, have forced a re-evaluation of the centers' grocery-store-anchored model.

"We have to be careful having seven grocery-anchored centers when you have a lot of new grocers on the perimeter that are competing in many ways," Moriarity said.

Moriarity said one of the questions the study hopes to answer is, "Does Columbia have too many grocery stores?"

He suspects yes. "My gut says we have too many," he said.

Perhaps there is no worse publicity for the grocery-anchored center model than what transpired at Wilde Lake.

After the Giant left in September 2006, with one year left on its lease, it took seven years for construction to begin on a new concept for the center, which will open in stages beginning next year.

At first, residents vehemently opposed the plan, which included a mix of retail and residential units, and insisted Kimco find a replacement for Giant. There were no takers, which ultimately led to the current redevelopment, which includes an expanded space for David's Natural Market, an existing organic market tenant, and a CVS Pharmacy.

And, while what happened in Wilde Lake might seem to some like a precursor for what's to come in Columbia, resident and former village board member Bill Santos said the situation was not typical.

"I think to a certain extent what was going in Wilde Lake was unique in terms of timing with the recession," said Santos. "If we were in other times, we may not have be in the same situation we were in."

According to Jane Dembner, chief of Community Building and Open Space for CA, what happened at Wilde Lake was not something that fueled the impetus for the study.

"We are not going in with any preconceived notions," Dembner said. "This is not a process a developer is taking to redevelop. It is a factual basis for our own edification and for the community to be better informed for what's possible."

Dembner said some of the village centers are doing well while others are not, which demonstrates that the model still is viable on some level.

In places where it is no longer viable, recommendations for various retail, residential, office and even hotel space will be considered, according to Moriarity.

"Our focus is on the market and what is sustainable from a commercial sense," Moriarity said.

Moriarity said the recommendations for each center most likely will differ, and that "the village centers were not intended to be duplicates."

Long Reach resident Ken Cooper said that the public meeting was "a good positive first step.

"I think they did their best to be as transparent as possible," Cooper said.

Dembner said there were "good questions" asked at the session, ones that needed to be "answered publicly."

She added: "We heard concerns and interest here. I think the interest is really high. Now we have to look forward, do more analysis and come back to the community with what we have."

The consultants are scheduled in March to present preliminary findings to the public. A set of recommendations is slated to be announced in April.

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