Columbia's original village centers -- a key element in the Rouse Co.'s goal of creating small, close-knit suburban communities -- are in trouble.
Outdated designs, residents' fear of crime, busy lifestyles and mounting competition from the growing number of nearby superstores -- some even developed by Rouse -- all are working against the centers' original purpose as the focal points for each of Columbia's nine villages.
In the village centers, typically composed of a grocery store and about 15 specialty shops, Columbia shoppers were supposed to encounter their neighbors and together weave a community fabric. But particularly at the oldest village centers -- in Harper's Choice, Long Reach, Oakland Mills, Owen Brown and Wilde Lake villages -- times have changed.
"I walk around the village centers and there's no one there," says local publisher Marsha Berman, a longtime Columbia booster who sold her bookstore in the Owen Brown Village Center this year. "It's just not the same. I think this goes to the very heart of Columbia, which was the village concept."
Warns Fred Paine, who until recently managed the village centers for Rouse: "The older centers will not survive unless major changes are made."
Rouse officials say the centers' problems are not that great, but consider:
Columbia's first five village centers, built from 1967 to 1978, are designed around outdoor courtyards in a minimall concept that is failing nationwide, according to retailing experts.
All eight centers face stiff competition from the low prices and vast selection of goods offered at the "big-box" retailers now springing up in and around Columbia in "power centers." These include Snowden Square, off Snowden River Parkway; Columbia Crossing, being built off Route 175; and Long Gate, being built off Route 103.
Columbia residents often report a rising fear of crime in and around some of the older village centers -- particularly at those with enclosed courtyard areas. This fear prompts some to avoid these centers, they say, making them more desolate.
Vacant stores -- caused, some merchants say, by Rouse's high rents -- add to the desolate feeling at some of the older centers.
One of Columbia's key architectural elements -- its sign restrictions that have kept the planned community from looking like the U.S. 40 commercial strip -- may be hurting the village centers. Some national retailers say they are afraid to enter a market where they can't bring big, bright signs. Some new residents complain that they can't find the village centers, let alone the stores inside them.
Thriving new village centers at Hickory Ridge and Dorsey's Search are testaments to the flaws of the older centers. Dorsey's Search, in essence, is a strip mall -- which, retailing experts say, is just what today's time-short shopper wants. Hickory Ridge's design, while not a strip mall, is more open than the older centers. Both new centers are brightly colored, compared to the drab earth tones of their predecessors.
"It's all well and good to have a common area, but how much time do we have to lounge around?" says Ken Gore, general manager of Lord Baltimore dry cleaning, which last month closed its store in the enclosed Kings Contrivance Village Center.
Rouse officials are planning some changes at two of the oldest centers.
The company plans to renovate the Harper's Choice and Long Reach centers, each project keyed around huge new grocery stores. Rouse also plans to brighten the two centers with more lighting, more glass and new paint, and to open their courtyards to some extent -- although neither center will resemble today's more popular strip-style.
But for some Columbia residents, it's questionable whether the oldest centers can regain their original purpose as the focal points for their communities.
Witness Columbia resident and shopper Karl Smith-Berntson.
At 7 p.m. Tuesday, he stood smoking a cigarette outside Borders Books and Music -- one of the new mega-stores in Snowden Square off Snowden River Parkway in east Columbia. Inside, his wife browsed for sale-priced books on the bargain table.
Smith-Berntson has lived in the Kings Contrivance village for two years but says he goes to that village center only to shop at the grocery store or liquor store. He doesn't know what other stores are there.
He also says he has "absolutely no idea" about the locations of most of Columbia's other village centers. He used to go to Encore Books in the Wilde Lake Village Center before it closed -- although he jokes that the store was so well hidden that at first it took him three attempts to find it.
"My basic feeling is it's not a viable concept," he says of the village centers. "People are looking for one-stop shopping."
The large stores can hurt the village centers' stores even if they don't carry the same products. When Smith-Berntson goes to Borders or the nearby BJ's Wholesale Club, for example, he shops at a liquor store near the power center -- not at the Kings Contrivance liquor store.