Howard County Blog

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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Preserving Green Space, Revitalizing Columbia’s Village Centers, and Absorbing Population Pressures

As I have written in previous posts I think over the next thirty years our county will face significant population pressures. Our location between Baltimore and DC, our excellent school system, and our proximity to the soon to be expanded Fort Meade will only increase these pressures.



I mentioned in a previous post, one way to absorb this population pressure and preserve green space is to be creative in revitalizing Columbia’s village centers. Last week the Columbia Flier published my letter to the editor on how this could be done:


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.


With the plans to replace the Safeway in King’s Contrivance with a Harris Teeter, my own village of King’s Contrivance might represent a great opportunity to start this.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Michael Drakos said...

I am wary of bringing Big Box stores, even stacked ones, into the Village centers.

I am NOT in favor of the Strip Mall either, and I do think that we should revitalize and strenghten the Village centers, I think that too much retail and corporate buisness ownership could distract from and even be contrary to the goals and best aspects of the Village centers.

In our efforts to improve what we have, let us not design away the intention behind for our endeavors.

My suggestion is to attract more institutions such as public services, non-profits, and community events as well as transportation links (buses for now). Employers who would provide jobs but without must need for heavy truck access or consumer density.

Examples: Greenbelt's Village Center has a Co-Op Grocery store. Can we attract some educational facilities? Music teachers? Private practise Doctors? What about outdoor theatrical performances, even Indoor ones. Maybe confrence space. We should definatle get some WIFI and public computer work stations. Artist housing and studio space!

Let small buisnesses come to where the people are instead of trying to attract big businessess to lure in more people/traffic. We need to bring the people in the Villages together more than we need to attract new customers to the Village Centers.

The Village center is first and foremost a Civic environment: A "Commons". The Shoppes that are in the village centers are supposed to serve the daily needs of the community: Groceries, Barber, Pharmacy, etc. As they are, they do underperform in both their civic and their "needs" roles. But would adding a Target or a Borders help or hinder this purpose?

I realize the value of stacking and veticality in urban planning, and have been to Chicago, NY and DC and experienced convenient Trader Joe's and Borders' and such tucked nicely into urban blocks, but I think that while this works well in high denisty urban environments, I don't think it's right for the Columbia Village concept.

I need to elaborate on the Village Concept a bit to make my point here.
This section is a bit wordy and supplimental, so feel free to skip it if you'd like...

---

When Rouse finagled his way into developing the new suburban community, he had a desire to see the small town experience of his youth in Easton, MD incorperated into this New Town of Columbia.
He persisted in his demands for this type of environment during the early Work Group planning session, and the Village concept was offered as the most possible.
(to those unfamiliar with the Work Group and Columbia's original planning, it was a team of academics and professionals gathered and paid by Rouse to brainstorm and develop innovative new concepts and strategies for community planning)

The concept was to organize the population into 10 or so distinct Villages, each comprised of clusters of different density housing developments that were carefully integrated around a central village center, which was to provide for the daily shopping, schools, and civic needs of the people of that particular village. The higher density apartments and condos were to be nearest the Village Centers with a system of paths that a allowed for a continuous and pleasetly naturalistic pedestiran environment within each Village.

The 10 Village Centers would then be linked by transit (bus or some type of rail) to each other and to a central hub within a slightly more "urbane" Town Center.

The Town Center would house larger scale civic functions, entertainment, and commerce. I don't know if there was ever intended to be residential use in the immediate Town Center, although some was developed on the northern edge of the lake.

There would also be a seperate industrial section on the periphery of the New Town to where the more "dirty" buisness would be contained. This became Dobbin Center and the Office Parks that extend along Snowden River Parkway.

This is how the first few Columbia villages were built, with the commitment to economic integration and density and the careful integration of the residential developments with their Village center fading as time went on.

The abandonment of the extensive bus connection system in favor of a less frequent, extensive and reliable County Bus system also led to further weakening of the structure and accessibility of Columbia and fostering the more disintegrated environment that now exists.

To get to my point, the Village is meant to be more than a economically sucessful physical form, it was meant to simulate, if not encourage a social environment akin to a small town, fostering the bonds of friendship and community to help balance out economic and ethnic stratification.

Do small towns really do this?

The point of the multiple Villages, the Town Center, and the transit system was to inject a bit of cosmopolitanism into the small town; To provide for the uncertainty and openness that cities are ofern associated with.

Do cities really do this?

Are any of these appropriate goals for real-estate developers?

Rouse seemed to think so.

---

I agree that the question we need to ask is how beholden are we to the form of Rouse's vision?

Would we be better off trying to discern and elaborate a "spirit" of his vision; carry on the ideals while moving foward with a new form?

I think so, but at the same time, what has historically fostered the kinds of social and civic goals that underly the Columbia concept? Have they been profitablity, convience, or size?

I think they have been civic spaces, public investments, social capital.

The diffrence between simply Economic development alone versus Community development, which is often more an issue of Community Empowerment.

And respecting the historical form is an example of empowering the community by continuing its symbolic geographic aesthetic.

So, While I am in full favor of revitalizing the Village centers, I think we need to do it in a way that enhances the current form in still reconizable ways, and fosters local public ownership and leadership rather than blind buisness interests.

11:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with Michael's sentiments. Optimistically, I believe Big Boxes, for purely profit-driven reasons, won't be interested in occupying village center spaces. Big boxes need lots of traffic. Big boxes want to be clustered with other Big Boxes to generate that traffic. And no village council would allow a cluster of big boxes to sit on top of their village center.

This will make it easy to keep the village centers as venues serving our communities' daily needs.

A more detailed discussion of big boxes can be found here.

10:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where did you find it? Interesting read » » »

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