The legislation supporting the redevelopment of the Long Reach Village Center has been submitted to the Howard County Council. It leads me to want to share some of the things we talked a lot about during the Master Plan process. This is based solely on my recollection and should not be considered official.
First, we had a very difficult time establishing the boundary of the Village Center. There’s an apartment complex, now known as the Timbers at Long Reach just behind the shopping center, down Cloudleap Court. Back in the mid-2000s, it was called Lazy Hollow and I lived there. In addition, the area down Foreland Garth includes a church and an apartment complex. Finally, between Foreland Garth and Old Dobbin Road is a large amount of open space supporting the BGE high tension lines that run north/south through east Columbia.
I argued all of this should be included within the Village Center boundary. This would enable a future developer to have access to a great deal of land, some of it already dedicated open space, and the ability to redevelop the apartments, which could only have been an improvement. In particular, the ability to redevelop the Timbers would give a future developer the access to several dozen acres below the neighboring ground level. Further, since residential would certainly be coming into a redeveloped Village Center, adding the apartments would likely lead to a lower net addition of units.
The Committee, ultimately, rejected this and made the Village Center the shopping center and the associated gas station and the open space under the BGE lines.
We knew residential was necessary for a future developer’s interest. The market can no longer support a destination grocery store in every village, and a standalone big-box-store resembles a strip center more than a vibrant residential community hub. At the same time, local stores, the kind we want like coffee shops, boutiques, and personal services, need the foot traffic to support them. Kids walking to and from the high school won’t be enough.
So we planned on residential. In addition, we knew the residential component would be able to offset much of the other costs associated with redevelopment. This is just a fact of life. Small commercial centers are not financially viable as standalone operations. Given the continuing shrinking of retail, this should be no surprise. So we expected mixed-use. This manifested in these critical three sentences in the Master Plan:
While Long Reach is not adverse to a mixed-use approach to any redevelopment of the village center, we feel that a strong emphasis should be placed on the retail portion in a way that will enhance the daily lives of Long Reach’s and the surrounding neighborhoods’ residents.
If done correctly, the use of a housing component in the village center could help attract a unique variety of vendors to enhance the shopping experience. It would also increase foot traffic and provide a vibrancy to the village center.
In other words, we were willing to embrace residential if done right.
Greening the Village Center
Right now, the Village Center is a concrete slab with a handful of storefronts around it. We wanted some place where we could be. Where we wanted to be. So it was important to us to see a site where there was something green, providing recreation and grounding. We also wanted to eliminate the risks associated with acres of pavement. So we made sure we included that. But we also wanted it to be sensible. So the plan included this:
Redevelopment should also incorporate green building standards, water conservation, native plantings.
Simple, elegant, and achievable. We expected the Village Center Redevelopment to be in harmony with its surroundings.
We got lucky. Howard County bought the property in 2014 and after a lengthy, professional, and public bidding project, the County has nominated a brilliant plan by Orchard Development that really does what we wanted. It provides sensible residential, with excellent options for shopping and services. And, frankly, it completely exceeds what we asked for in green space and sense of place. The vertical garden, for instance, is a wonderful contribution that will allow new local restaurants to service food grown in the Village Center!
This plan, when adopted by the County Council, will accomplish a great project in Columbia. It will give Long Reach a new vibrant core, not unlike we are seeing in Downtown Columbia. But it will also do it on a scale respectful of the neighbors, the village, and our history.
Image lifted from the Orchard Development Corporation’s plan.