Public input sessions focused on the redevelopment of Columbia’s Long Reach Village Center continued in May and June, with separate meetings targeting case studies on other redevelopment projects and the introduction of four preliminary concept plans.
According to Mark Thompson, director of Downtown Redevelopment for the Howard County Economic Development Authority, the final concept plan will be introduced to the public on Sept. 7.
The initial concept plans, developed by Morris, Ritchie & Associates (MRA), a design firm from Laurel, are available for public view and online feedback at www.co.ho.md.us/LongReach.htm.
All told, the county has spent about $7.5 million to acquire most of the property at the village center. In addition to Celebration Church and Columbia Association’s (CA) Columbia Arts Center, three retail properties — Richburn Discount Liquors, Deli Town and an Exxon gas station — remain privately owned.
The county’s strategy for the property is to eventually issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) for the private sector to implement a redevelopment plan.
“We feel strongly that a stabilized asset with a very clear plan is going to be an attractive opportunity for the private sector,” Thompson said.
The rough project timeline foresees completion of an Urban Renewal Plan by year’s end, selection of a private sector partner in the summer of 2016 after a five or six month RFP phase, and the start of redevelopment activity nine to 12 months later, depending on the complexity of the final plan.
In the interim, the county has hired a third-party property management firm to install additional lighting and security systems and has also contracted with AlliedBarton to provide an added daily security presence at the center, between 2 and 10 p.m.
Citing the recent redevelopment of Wilde Lake Village Center as a precedent, Geoff Glazer, vice president for Kimco Realty, which owns the center, presented his views on lessons learned and expectations for Long Reach.
“It took us seven years, and we’re still doing reconstruction today,” Glazer said. “The process doesn’t happen quickly.”
The good news for Long Reach, however, is that part of that time was spent crafting legislation to allow this type of redevelopment and Final Development Plan modification to proceed without seeking approval of the original signer.
“In our case that was The Rouse Company and General Growth Properties, then Howard Hughes and HRD [Howard Research & Development], and they were natural competitors of ours,” Glazer said.
Another challenge Kimco faced was the realization that small strip retail was not enough to sustain a village center, even with David’s Natural Market and a CVS Pharmacy as tenants.
“For us, residential new quality marketrate housing became the anchor,” he said, a strategy that took advantage of a market study showing opportunity arising from a blend of empty nesters looking to age in place and an influx of young couples looking for a central location.
Storm water management considerations will likely pose the greatest obstacle for Long Reach, he said.
“Investment is huge, and [Wilde Lake] doesn’t have the storm water management issues that this village center does,” Glazer said. “It’s over the top expensive, and the only way to get projects approved in Maryland.”
Additionally, a wide range of covenant agreements and undocumented utility connections need to be taken into consideration. It’s still unclear as to whether corresponding public hearing requirements called for in both the covenants and in the county code could be combined to help streamline the process.
Working from the county’s intent to transform Long Reach by using the Arts Center as the village center’s hub, a needs assessment performed by Webb Management Services, of New York, provides additional guidance for development and tenant considerations.
Although government funding for arts programs and audiences for the traditional performing arts are both in decline, “the good news is that we’re moving away from the idea of passive participation in the arts to active participation,” said Webb Management Services President Duncan Webb. “There’s also been a strong move within the arts sector to fill the gaps being left by the schools, with nonprofit organizations expanding education and outreach programs, which is really helping their sustainability.”
Webb’s study suggests limited demand for large performance and rehearsal spaces with more than 750 seats, and more of the demand tied to smaller venues.
“We determined that investing in arts and arts facilities could theoretically help with economic development, driving arts education, bringing arts and technology together, putting entrepreneurs and incubators together and driving innovation,” Webb said. “The market is strong; there’s user demand.”
Webb’s recommendation is to develop two performance and education centers in downtown Columbia, one with 500–750 seats and one with 250–300 seats, that feature teaching and production facilities.
“For Long Reach, we think the thing to do is more artist-focused facilities for creation, production, exhibition, rehearsal and teaching,” he said. “Ten or more studios, shared storage and exhibition space, retail and administrative space, as well as classrooms and shared production facilities. It would be great if the arts council’s incubator program was there to be a part of that.”
Two of the concept plans introduced in June focus on the arts, one focuses on food and food service, and the final plan places the emphasis on health and fitness.
“We show two concepts that do not have any housing and two that have housing,” said MRA Principal Sean Davis. “There is a lot of flexibility in these.”
Likewise, the plans exhibit a range of intensities in the scope of redevelopment and building reconfiguration, demonstrating a Main Street configuration and other alternative configuration ideas.
“Every one of the concepts … focuses heavily on the arts center and opens up that view,” Davis said.
A survey of attendees at previous meetings indicates tentative support for some type of residential housing to be included in the redevelopment, with approximately 58% in favor. Approximately 86% were against the idea of single-family detached housing, and 62% did not support townhomes.
Artist housing received the greatest support, with 59% in favor, while 45% of respondents agreeing that senior housing or mixed-income housing would be a good fit. Only 34% favored apartments as a housing option.
In terms of development form, 60% opposed the typical retail pattern; 56% felt that the Main Street retail pattern would be a good option, and 53% agreed that the village center should be oriented in a scaled-down retail pattern.
“It’s important for us to write the new next chapter for Long Reach Village Center and make it better than our last chapter,” said Howard County Councilman Calvin Ball (D-Dist. 2), who represents Long Reach. “We are only limited by our creativity and our will.”