Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Village center redo...

Sometimes I wonder if HoCo Blog (a.k.a. Howard County Blog #2, a.k.a. the Charrette Blog) even knows I exist. I’ve written several posts about or in response to him, but as of yet, I haven’t heard anything back (not even a measly link). Maybe it’s just a matter of priorities and I’m pretty low on the list.

My fragile emotional state and need for validation aside, I always prefer linking to other blogs rather than newspapers. Blogs present thoughts, opinions and ideas, all the things that make up a discussion, while newspapers, for the most part, tell you what happened-a good starting point for a discussion, but that's about it. So while blogs are an ongoing, forward-looking dialogue -- the territory of dangerous/new/compelling/visionary ideas -- newspapers are a static monologue for days gone by.

Today, HoCo Blog presents one of those interesting, forward-looking ideas. After providing some context (population growth will exert pressure on the county), Evan links to a letter to the editor of his in last week’s Flier, which offers a possible solution to the growth problem.

The concept of the mall or the big box strip has always been that people like to shop where they can do all their errands in one place. Thus the more draws to an area the more likely people will shop there and eat in the restaurants there. In recent years I have heard much debate about the "death" of the village center concept. As a result the Owen Brown and Oakland Mills village centers have been downsized and turned into strip shopping centers.

Instead of downsizing the village centers for them to survive, they need two things: 1) better signage and 2) to be upsized for our modern scale of retail. If we were to integrate the modern scale of retail into our village centers by stacking big box stores like Borders and Best Buy on top of grocery stores we could add economic draws to the village centers, make the shopping experience more pleasant and absorb the population pressures that face the county without destroying existing green space.

If we could stack big box stores on top of our grocery stores, then the land taken up by big box stores could be used to build a new village of Columbia, allowing developers to get more bang for their buck off that land and allowing the county to steer new development into this space rather than existing green space. This is not a new concept, but has been used very successfully in Seattle.

It's an interesting thought, though one that is doomed in practice, for several reasons. But first, some clarity. Though it isn’t said explicitly, I’m guessing that once big box retail stores have been established in village centers, the existing big box shopping centers (Snowden Square, Columbia Crossing, Dobbin Center) would be demolished to make way for a "new village." With that cleared up, on to why it doesn't matter in the first place.

Although considered "commercial" areas, village centers are supposed to be a part of and serve the daily needs of the local neighborhood. In that sense, they are as close to a residential-type use as a shopping center can be. They're meant to meld with the neighborhood in ways that more commercial type uses don't or can't. As such, the centers are home to convenience shopping establishments--grocery stores, dry cleaners, liquor stores, drug stores,restaurants, local insurance agents, and so on.

These are the types of establishments we need to visit several times a week. Moreover, they are the types of businesses that can thrive off of low population densities because their customer base, though small, is built in (the surrounding neighborhoods) and dependably regular. Businesses like these have been a part of all communities for as long as capitalism has reared it's cold, ugly head on American society. Hence the inspiration to include them in the neighborhood context as part of the original Columbia plan.

Big box retailers, meanwhile, are a product of car-centric suburbs. They serve a much larger, more dispersed customer base, and provide a wide range of purchasing choices--the economics of which depend on serving a large, heterogeneous community rather than a smaller, more-homogeneous neighborhood. What makes them convenient is the fact that such businesses support each other--customers can go to one big box store for books, then go next door for sporting goods, and then another door down for computers. Thus, people are willing to make extended trips to these shopping centers because they can do a lot of shopping in a relatively compact environment. (I know, calling big box centers compact seems like an oxymoron, but considering the range of buying choices available and relative ease of navigating them in cars, compact is not such a misnomer.)

Trying to build big box stores in a neighborhood setting, however, is like trying to fit a square peg in a circular hole. It just won't fit. Instead of concentrating big boxes -- which, don't get me wrong, I think are the scourge of communities -- we're dispersing them, and in so doing we eliminate their one saving grace -- that they can all be relegated to their own centers. So, instead of having ten stores on convenient location, we've got them spread throughout the county, potentially causing more driving and bringing the dreaded holiday traffic into our own neighborhoods. No thanks.

Moreover, demolishing the existing big box shopping centers and replacing them with a "new village" probably wouldn't represent the most wise use of this land. The fact is that big box stores were built around Snowden River Parkway for a reason -- it's already a fairly intense commercial/industrial corridor. And many of the existing commercial/industrial uses in this area, presumably, would not be demolished as part of the big box relocation, meaning we'd plunk down a new village in an area where it's not very appropriate to build houses. That's not to say it won't ever be appropriate, but it will take more changes than just removing big boxes.

Finally, I'm not so sure the big box retail model is very sustainable. Each year Amazon and other online retailers (including big box retailers) take a little more business away from the big bricks and mortar boxes. In time, costly construction measures, such as the one Evan is proposing, will lose their appeal to these businesses, and they'll find that it's better to use existing spaces or rely solely on online revenue. I know Target's been willing to build multi-level stores in urban places (and even Montgomery County), but they days of expensive liabilities -- like physical stores -- are coming to end. And I wouldn't at all surprised if these days are gone before the big box village center concept becomes a viable option for Columbians.

Of course, Evan's idea that village centers should serve a wider purpose is spot on. As is his desire to see residential growth kept out of "green" spaces. So why not skip the big box idea and just build residential units in village centers. Although this idea failed in some early village centers, the loss of developable areas for homes and the increased growth pressure means its an idea whose time may soon come again--only this time, it will be successful. Indeed, I think we'll see a need for residential units in village centers long before we'd see a need for big box space.

It makes sense to build residential in village centers. Such an option really does build in a customer base to support the businesses, which is especially useful in they "dying" village centers. They are already centers of moderately intense land uses and activity. Parking is never an issue. Village centers already serve as mini transportation hubs, and their use in this capacity should be expanded. And finally, the most vocal opponents to such an idea -- NIMBY-ites, often found in single family housing -- are shielded from village centers by apartments and condominiums -- places where people are used to living close to others.

In addition to redeveloping village centers into truly mixed use areas, I foresee a time when much of our existing stock of garden apartments gets redeveloped. The life span of these places is only so long, and some are already good candidates for Extreme Makeover: Apartment Complex Edition.

Clearly, this isn't a fully reasoned argument. It's all just coming off the top of my head, and I'm sure there are things I haven't thought about. But it's a discussion, right? I'm just throwing something out there, hoping for a response.

No comments: