Wednesday, February 20, 2008

I've been trying to get down to the heart of the matter...

There's this conventional wisdom floating around that the health of our village centers is contingent on the health of their anchors, grocery stores. Example here:

[Wilde Lake] Village Board Chairman Vincent Marando told [General Growth Vice President Greg] Hamm that the village had gone without a grocery store for a year and a half. The Giant store at that location closed in September 2006.

"I'm not sure the health of the Village Center can be held hostage for the next couple years," he said.
While not stated explicitly, the underlying sentiment in this statement seems to be that without a grocery store, the health of the village center is in peril. But is that really the case?

Once but, perhaps, not anymore.

For instance, compare the offerings at Wilde Lake's village center versus those in Oakland Mills (PDF) and ask yourself: Which would you rather live near?

I can count the businesses in Oakland Mills with just my hands (nine establishments). In order to count those in Wilde Lake (19), I need to take my shoes off, and trust me, you don't want that.

Wilde Lake has everything Oakland Mills does and much more to boot. Yet, the former is the center without a grocery store.

What gives?

Many hands have been wrung over the future of our village centers, about how we keep these vital components of our community relevant in the face of significant social and economic change. But we seem to keep coming back to the idea that an anchor grocery store is the most essential element. Maybe it's time to ditch that idea.

Back in the day, grocery stores were physically smaller and drew from smaller geographic areas. Today, however, with increasingly diversified tastes and shopper preferences, the thought of getting groceries at the store that happens to be closest to you is almost quaint. People want to go where they want to go, not where they should go because of geography and some mushy ideals about community.

Big families like Costco. Funky folks like Trader Joe's. Hippies like natural food stores. Rich hippies like Whole Foods. Cheapskates like Wal-Mart, Target or some other discount retailer that squeezes everything under the sun into their aisles. People who want it all like Wegmans. And so on.

To be sure, there is still a small segment of the population that must or chooses to walk to get groceries. And most of us don't want to go 20 minutes out of our way to get milk, toilet paper or some other essential item. In general, however, the bulk of our grocery shopping seems to be done on a weekly basis at the store of our preference, assuming it's within a reasonable distance (10 - 20 minute drive).

If this is how society has evolved, why should we fight ourselves and insist on full-sized, modern grocery stores in every village center?

To be sure, the "daily needs" element of village centers is still very relevant. Dry cleaners, banks, barber shops, and the like all belong in village centers, as do places that provide basic food and grocery needs. Beyond these requirements, restaurants and other small businesses seem like the most appropriate uses. The dearth of such establishments is bemoaned by anyone who has sought good, non-chain restaurants, specialty items or just decent customer service -- that is, all of us.

Admittedly, I haven't fully thought out the repercussions of such a shift in thinking. Perhaps, as we ponder their future, we need to look at our village centers as a whole, instead of individually, and try to understand how they can serve as retail and commercial hubs for neighborhood needs as well as those of the broader community. Perhaps I'm wildly off base and most people still want to go to whatever store is closest.

Regardless, a discussion about the potential of post-grocery store village centers seems to be in order for our sake and that of one our community's most cherished institutions.

18 comments:

Jessie Newburn said...

Someone finally said it: "The emperor has no clothes."

The dreary insistence that every village center have a grocery store ANCHOR -- without acknowledging the radical shift in grocery store options in the last 20 years -- is dragging down the vision for what our village centers *can* be. And, dare I say, *need* to be.

I was just in Long Reach Safeway yesterday. What a sad, sad place. Desolate. Devoid of much activity (read: customers). And just sterile and barely functional.

Thanks, Hayduke, for your thoughtful and brave piece here.

Anonymous said...

Strange choice of words. Brave?

Hayduke, why the reorder of the blogs on the left side-bar?

Anonymous said...

Though I too have not thought this all the way through, but wouldn't it just resemble a strip mall? I guess some of the village centers, void of a anchor store, would be more of a circle, oval, or square mini-mall.

Slight side topic, but somewhat related, anyone know of a good butcher in Howard County?

Frank Hecker said...

I think you have a good point. When I guest-blogged on Hometown Columbia a while back, I argued that the village centers might be good places for coworking centers and other small business offices. The uses you mention (dry cleaners, banks, barbers, small locally-owned restaurants) would be compatible with such schemes, as well as copy shops, shipping centers, and related business facilities.

Of course, this particular vision depends on whether there's a critical mass of self-employed people and small 1-5 person companies who would be interested in locating in and around village centers. I don't think that there is, at least not yet. But over the longer term there might be enough such people to supplement shopping by nearby residents and make the centers more viable.

mamagoots said...

To anon 7:51 regarding a butcher: Try the Laurel Meat Market on Main Street in Laurel - it's just a wee step across the Howard County line.

Frank Hecker said...

On butchers: There's also Boarman's in Highland at 216 and 108. I haven't tried their meats in general, but they make great sausage.

Hayduke said...

Anon 7:21: The changes to the sidebar was mainly about cleaning out some of the older blogs that no longer update. The reordering was an attempt to balance local relevance with new post frequency.

Anon 7:51: I don't think the lack of a grocery store would necessarily lead to change the layout of these centers. After all, OMVC -- like many other shopping centers around the county -- is pretty much a strip mall with a grocery store. But, certainly, as we think about their futures, our experiences with village center and regular (or strip) shopping center layout should factor into our vision for their future.

As for butchers, there's also Wagner's Meat Locker in Mount Airy. I'm pretty sure you can watch them kill your meat there, too. Appealing, I'm sure, for the carnivores.

Anonymous said...

"Maybe it's time to ditch the idea of a grocery store in each of Columbia's villages?" Yikes.

For how many years have we heard Town Center's residents lament their lack of a village grocery? How many times have other villages' (Oakland Mills, Harpers Choice, Kings Contrivance, Wilde Lake) residents fought hard to regain *local* groceries? How many other villages would you also recommend forego a *local* grocery?

While outlying groceries' owners I'm sure are applauding your apparent acceptance of the demise of these more convenient, closer, local, pedestrian-friendly, anchor groceries, the need continues to exist to have *local* groceries within Columbia's villages to meet the needs of their varied residents and to serve as anchors that retain the village centers' other merchants who also meet the needs of the villages' residents. I think it's very premature to begin a discussion of just post-grocery village centers' potential.

Village grocery stores don't *need* to be exciting, but for many people they do still need to be *village* groceries. I'll take an ok local grocery I can walk to any day over whatever fad grocery requires a 10-minute car trip each way. I don't *need* a gourmet display of all fruits, nuts, and berries of the world, each bearing a handwritten description worthy of publication in the J. Peterman catalog to make my shopping experience joyful.

I still can't quite figure out why a grocery is being proposed to be put at a spot within one of Columbia's industrial zones that is outside of any village instead of within one of the villages currently lacking a local grocery. Shouldn't Columbia's zoning both help the villages grow people and prevent placing competing groceries too far afield in Columbia where they don't make sense on so many levels?

Unfortunately, at least one of those blogs deleted from the sidebar still has content on its last post that is as relevant today as it was when posted months ago.

Chris said...

anon 11:14:

I would hardly call a 1 mile walk to the grocery store "pedestrian friendly". Most people i see at grocery stores leave with more bags than they can carry to their cars, never mind a 10-15 minute walk to their house.

One thing i miss about living in the city were the small market/groceries on almost every corner. These truly were "pedestrian friendly" in that they only provided essential items and you would have to buy every item in stock to be unable to carry it all home.

If people are going to drive to get groceries anyway, why do they have to go to a village center?

B. Santos said...

Chris,

The small grocery market is starting to boom in the United States. The Sunflower Markets have been springing up in the midwest and the Fresh and Easy chain has taken hold in California, Nevada, and Arizona. Granted, each of these offerings is a subsidiary of a large grocery chain, but they do keep their square footage under 20,000 sq ft and offer organic produce.

Hayduke said...

Small markets. Corner stores. That's what I'm talking about with "places that provide basic food and grocery needs." Clearly, this is an essential function of village centers that needs to be preserved, and these smaller, more basic establishments seem like a much better fit for the village center model than ever-expanding modern grocery stores.

Anon 11:14: Which blog are you talking about? I still have links to all the same blogs on the sidebar. The only things that were deleted were the RSS feeds for Fine Line and Howard County Education Blog, blogs that have been dormant for months.

Anon 7:51 said...

I guess it is my craving for a good smoked brisket, but why not a butcher in OM? Wouldn’t a good butcher go nicely in OM with what b. santos. has pointed out in the small grocery store market? I don't know where OM's Foodlion fits in...

Thanks everyone for the suggestions.

Anon 7:51 said...

I guess it is my craving for a good smoked brisket, but why not a butcher in OM? Wouldn’t a good butcher go nicely in OM with what b. santos. has pointed out in the small grocery store market? I don't know where OM's Foodlion fits in...

Thanks everyone for the suggestions.

Hayduke said...

Even though I have no desire to patronize one, a butcher shop would be a good addition to OM.

This actually gets to one of the lesser points I was trying to make with this post and the comparison between OM and Wilde Lake. Although WL lacks a grocery store, it has a wide enough variety of smaller specialty shops that a full grocery store is kind of redundant, or so one could argue. OM has a grocery store but none of the specialty shops. With respect to the nebulous and mythic "vibrancy", I would say WL's diversity gives it a leg up.

Anonymous said...

there was a butcher in the old oakland mills village center (back in the days of superthrift, people's and venarri's)

Anonymous said...

Frank,

Your point that village centers might be good places for coworking centers and other small business offices has merit, as many village centers have since their inception have had small business offices. As you noted for the short term, I wouldn't expect a groundswell of new small businesses looking to occupy such spaces currently, especially not enough to offset the lost benefits of a local grocery. The current credit tightening for small businesses and the economic news being what it is doesn't help.

Chris,

A 1-mile walk may not be the epitomy of convenience for grocery shopping (nor is having to drive out of one's village), but don't forget students are required to cover that and, in even greater distances in some other even more civilized places, daily while also toting their day's needs. From a preference standpoint, walks of a quarter mile or less are what many adults find acceptable. And I've walked past many people and their grocery carts (or pushing one of the store's) well beyond that range around town. Many thousands of people live well within these acceptable walking ranges of the village centers. Some attribute such walks to healthier populations as well.

And for some, driving across town is just not an option, either due to cost, ability, or time.

As B. Santos mentioned, smaller groceries are proliferating, but I do sense a difference between those smaller groceries and what Hayduke's alluding to with places having "basic food and grocery needs". Just how basic is basic? 7Eleven? A gas-n-go quickie mart? My concern is that such smaller, far more solely convenience-oriented stores wouldn't be groceries in the best sense, but rather very-limited-choice and exhorbitantly-priced places. Many cities' neighborhoods, upon incurring the loss of their local groceries, have had smaller stores fill the void, but at much higher cost to the consumers who can afford it least. Three-day old taquitos from the greasy roller machine don't count as daily sustenance.

I do agree with Hayduke that the village centers shouldn't be trying to chase after ever-expanding BlobMarts, but instead accomodating right-sized groceries for villages.

To accomplish that may also require more comprehensively addressing the competition posed by superstores. Beyond invigorating village centers with additional small businesses therein, recent and future legislative efforts that rebalance the market may be in order, ensuring the outlying superstores aren't externalizing the effects of their low pay and low benefits as costs to be borne by the general public.

The dropped RSS feed (not blog, my mistake, as the blog link remains) linked to still very relevant statements on current events.

Hayduke said...

Me: "Small markets. Corner stores. That's what I'm talking about with "places that provide basic food and grocery needs.""

Anon 1:16: "As B. Santos mentioned, smaller groceries are proliferating, but I do sense a difference between those smaller groceries and what Hayduke's alluding to with places having "basic food and grocery needs"."

I know it's generally frowned upon to agree on things when involved in an online discussion, but, Anon, you and I aren't so far apart.

Actually, oddly, the vacant 20,000 square foot Giant at Wilde Lake is a perfect size store for a village center grocer (maybe it's a little big). Unfortunately, until these midwest and west coast chains that Bill mentioned see fit to come our way, there's no one to fill the old Giant space. And by the time those chains do come, I'm afraid we'll probably be looking at a very different village center in WL.

Beyond invigorating village centers with additional small businesses therein, recent and future legislative efforts that rebalance the market may be in order, ensuring the outlying superstores aren't externalizing the effects of their low pay and low benefits as costs to be borne by the general public.

Be careful where you go with this. Wal-Mart may be an easy target, but if you start going after Target (a place where teenagers generally seem to like working) or Wegamans (a place known for being among the nation's best employers), the silent majority just might start speaking up in anger.

Rather than beat on the market, we should be looking for niches and ways to exploit it. Perhaps we could create new zoning for village centers that makes them more appealing to these market chains Bill spoke of and thus speeds up their east coast expansion.

Just some thoughts.

Finally, why are you being so evasive about the dropped RSS feed? I'm guessing you mean Steve Fine's blog, however. I'll restore his RSS feed as soon as he starts posting again, but he hasn't had anything new since May.

And since I'm on this topic, I'd like to add RSS feeds for a couple of newer blogs -- James Howard comes to mind -- but when I tried to do so, I was rebuffed by one of those pesky internet ghosts. Perhaps I'll try again later today...

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