Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman kicked off a series of public meetings in April to discuss future plans for the Long Reach Village Center and the development of an Urban Renewal Plan.
Working in conjunction with the Long Reach Village Board, Kittleman has scheduled four meetings to seek direct input from residents regarding plans for the center.
During the first meeting, Mark Thompson, director of Downtown Redevelopment for the Howard County Economic Development Authority, presented an overview of Long Reach Village Center’s decline, owing to the loss of its grocery anchor and the subsequent purchase of a significant portion of the center by the county.
“The previous administration determined that would be a good thing,” Thompson said.
Related legislation passed by the Howard County Council authorized the administration to purchase the property, established an Urban Renewal Area and required the preparation of an Urban Renewal Plan.
Since then, the county hired Paragon, a third-party property manager, to assist with those efforts.
“We’re working with existing tenants, we’ve done a lot of cleanup, repairs and fix-ups, and we’ve also addressed many of the security issues,” Thompson said. “We’re doing our best efforts to stabilize the property.”
Among those efforts have been the hiring of a design team, Morris, Ritchie & Associates, of Laurel, and to conduct an arts facilities study.
Conducted by Webb Management Services, the study calls for small and mid-sized performance facilities, including one theater with 250 seats and another with 500 to 750 seats located in Downtown Columbia. It also cites strong demand for classroom and studio space in Long Reach.
The consultants, who conducted interviews with artists, performers, audiences and consumers, have developed a list of locations where art facilities could be opened in a redeveloped Long Reach Village Center or in Downtown Columbia.
“There are strong arguments for both,” Kittleman said. “Our focus … will be to hold discussions with residents and the art communities to do our best to ensure we meet everyone’s needs.”
Tom Moriarity, principal of Retail Development Strategies and a familiar face from Columbia Association’s Village Center Market Study effort, was invited to review that study, in the context of Long Reach.
“We think that Wilde Lake is a very important precedent,” Moriarity said. “That’s the first village center … that’s getting new infill housing, a new configuration, a new way of thinking about how the village centers have operated traditionally.”
Among the top considerations for creating a redevelopment strategy at Long Reach will be to consider how fast housing absorbs at Wilde Lake and how county policy is shaping Downtown Columbia.
“That sets the tone that there’s a different role for the village centers to play,” Moriarity said. “We also have limited land in the village centers.”
In a retail context, the original village center model no longer works, and each center faces unique market conditions.
“It can be misleading to look at today’s physical condition and say there’s no future, because that’s not true,” he said. “The market here is not bad.”
Although Long Reach has the highest retail vacancy rate and a higher level of competition than other centers, “what we want to find is something that makes sense for this place and this market,” Moriarity said. “[It] will be the first non-grocery anchored village center to evolve, so you’re setting the precedent.”
Businesses that complement the Columbia Art Center and serve the population drawn to art lessons and programming make the most sense, he said, and could include art supply stores, dining options and a coffee shop.
“Layout and sightlines could be dramatically improved,” Moriarity said. “We want to look at how housing, if you want it, could be infilled in a careful way, where it doesn’t alter that character too much.”
Other factors that have played into the demise of Long Reach include access and visibility. “A vehicle entrance connecting to Route 175 would be awesome, but difficult because of topography and road considerations,” said Sean Davis, principal of Morris, Ritchie & Associates. “We also don’t want to disturb the sanctity of the Columbia Association trail.”
Among some of the other possible uses put forward by the public at the meeting was a rehabilitation center or emergency medical center.
Security at the village center is still a concern, though some questioned that perception.
Lydia Overton, whose work shift at the Stonehouse community center ends at 9 p.m., said she has never felt unsafe leaving work at night. “I’ve worked at events when people rent the facility and called the police when there are problems,” she said. “They came and resolved everything. This might be a perceptual problem rather than an actual problem.”
Citizens who attended the April public meeting participated in a tabletop exercise designed to elicit ideas for suggested uses at Long Reach Village Center.
The compiled comments skewed heavily toward dining and food service establishments, with secondary interest expressed toward health and fitness, government and nonprofit uses, medical services and retail specialty/ethnic grocery. Only 1% of responses indicated a desire for a housing component.
Case studies on redevelopment, including Wilde Lake, were on the agenda for the next meeting in the series, which was held on May 28, too late to be included in this issue of The Business Monthly.
“In June, we’ll be looking at some preliminary concept plans that Morris, Ritchie & Associates will prepare,” Thompson said. “They’ll take feedback from the community, refine those plans, and we’ll come back out again in September with some final concept. We’re not doing this as coming up with the answer, but we want to crystalize some ideas.”
Ultimately, the process will enable the department of planning and zoning to produce an urban renewal plan that will be submitted to the county council as part of the legislative process, which will include hearings and opportunities for testimony.
After passing the plan by resolution, “the county looks to turn back to the private market with a defined plan and a stabilized asset,” Thompson said. “We think this will represent an attractive sale back to a private sector developer to then take the guidance provided … and bring it to life. We hope to come up with a lot of creative options to consider.”