Cookie-cutter retail crumbling

Retail: Some Columbia officials are hoping specialty stores will help reinvent the struggling village centers.

May 27, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Columbia is an incredibly diverse town where the schools teach children in about 60 foreign languages.

It's also a place that's bland as all get-out.

The planned community carved out of Howard County farmland 34 years ago drew people of all races, religion and income. It welcomed interracial couples at a time when state statutes had just quit calling them outlaws. Then it wrapped one and all in suburban sensibilities.

Cursed with 1970s architecture, committed to subtle signage and earth-toned exteriors, the place is a radical social experiment in Sears clothing.

Which brings us to shopping, the heart of this suburb built by the guy who coined the term "shopping mall." Shopping, strangely enough, turns out to be something that is not succeeding as planned in Columbia.

Not that there aren't retailing successes. The Mall in Columbia is full of shoppers, full of stores, mostly the same purveyors of upper-middle-class chic found in upscale malls across America. Same Restoration Hardware peddling vintage vent covers. Same frustrated concert pianists tickling the ivories near shoes in Nordstrom.

But the mall is only half of the Columbia shopping story.

Columbia also has nine village shopping centers around town, each with a supermarket, small shops and restaurants. Some seem to be thriving, but several are struggling in the era of big-box stores, supersized supermarkets and one-stop shoppers.

Outdated designs. Shuttered storefronts. Dwindling numbers of shoppers. Swelling ranks of loiterers.

In Columbia, the decline of village shopping centers is a source of much angst, even disbelief, given the buying power of a community in the richest county in the richest state in the union.

But the decline may point the way to salvation, for the centers and the city. Fixing what's wrong with the centers could fix what's wrong with Columbia, urban planning and retail experts say. By reinventing its village centers, they say, Columbia could rescue itself from relentless blandness.

The trouble with the centers, experts say, is too much planning.

"No matter how visionary they are, when a place is built from the ground up with every "t" crossed and every "i" dotted and no room for chaos, I think you run into this inevitable change," said Betsy Jackson, president of the International Downtown Association.

"A city is meant to have a little chaos and a little grit and a little weirdness to it," she said. "When you take all of that out and have every eventuality planned for, chaos finds its way in."

Now, retailing analysts think a little chaos could offer salvation to the village centers by setting the stage for specialization.

Changing the retail mix - from cookie-cutter supermarkets, dry cleaners and liquor stores to grocers and shops that appeal to specific ethnic or socioeconomic groups - could draw shoppers from across Columbia and beyond to now-forgotten centers, retailing analysts say.

The specialty stores would give the town some personality in the process, they say.

Whether that also would destroy the lofty social goals behind Columbia's intentionally homogenized diversity is another matter.

"When I think of a city, I don't think of a homogeneous place that has nine shopping districts, all of which are pretty much the same," said Michael Beyard, senior resident fellow for retail and entertainment development for the Urban Land Institute.

"When I view a city, I view a place that is incredibly diverse, that is eclectic in its choices, that offers you things you would not see in a shopping center at all - antique stores, art galleries, avant-garde clubs where musicians create music. ... The neighborhoods are all different. And if you live in that city, you know if you want upscale shopping you go to this neighborhood; if you want second-hand clothes and funky stuff, you go to this neighborhood. That's extremely hard to achieve in a city where the districts are planned to be more or less alike."

Some of Columbia's village shopping centers are starting to specialize - by design and, significantly, by happenstance.

After losing its bank, drugstore and several other stores, Long Reach Village Center got two new shops: a braiding salon and a beauty supply shop, both catering to African-Americans. A Caribbean produce market was in the works recently until the financing fell through. A black mega-church, Long Reach Church of God, also is at the village center.

In Oakland Mills, where the Metro Food Market closed last month, village officials think a new grocery with a large Hispanic foods selection might lure more shoppers to their out-of-the-way location.

In River Hill, Columbia's newest and most affluent village, the center has gone chichi. It boasts a fine jewelry store and a wine shop that sells Dom Perignon by the case. The supermarket has a sushi chef who makes California rolls to order. Its magazine rack is stocked with the Robb Report, a luxury lifestyle magazine.

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