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Tuesday 11 November 2003

The Retail Experience in Columbia, MD

One of the biggest problems of most suburbs is that marginal uses are squeezed out; in the developer’s drive to make as much money in rent, and, at least as frequently, the county’s drive to make as much money as possible in tax revenues, nothing but the very highest-yield activities are permitted.

Now, this is a problem not because small businessmen are being squeezed out, or that you can’t afford to operate the Lesbian Seagull Coffeeshop, Bookstore, and Discovery Center in the middle of the Mews At Windsor Heights. It’s a problem because communities, to function properly, need access to a number of goods and services the provision of which, while profitable, is not spectacularly so. For a place to be a convenient one to live in, there needs to be somewhere to get keys made; there needs to be a dry-cleaner; there needs to be a place to have a car repaired. You need churches and thrift stores. It’s nice to have small bookstores, hardware stores, bakeries, florists, and the like.

There are a number of reasons why most of these things don’t exist in large numbers in the suburbs, but one of the biggest is that there’s no cheap real estate. In most urban neighborhoods — even the trendiest and most expensive — there are some buildings that are not as nice as most of the others. Some of them have settled oddly and have slanty floors, others have odd obstructions that make them harder to use effectively, others that are imperfectly located, and still others have landlords who just haven’t spent enough money on maintenance over the years, and where tenancy means putting up with temperamental building systems and a lot of strange quirks. In the best space, the newer buildings on the main streets, you’ve got the stores that, in the suburbs, would be in the mall: big national chains and high-margin local operations. In the B-grade buildings, you’ve got these less-profitable businesses that make a neighborhood livable.

Suburbs, by design, don’t have any B-grade space. Any given chunk of suburb tends to be built all at once, building codes and zoning laws try to see to it that the buildings are all of a similar quality, and when things inevitably deteriorate from age, they’re often extensively renovated or torn down altogether and replaced by newer buildings.

What many suburbs — particularly those that style themselves as something more than just bedroom communities — do have is what might be called A-minus-grade space: the ‘industrial park’. And it’s into these industrial parks that some of the marginal but necessary businesses are moving, in the suburbs. This is happening in Columbia, Maryland, a planned town about thirty years old and halfway between Washington and Baltimore.

Apparently the situation with actual retail space there is pretty dire:

“All I do is retail, and I don’t try to do things in Columbia because it’s just so difficult,” said Dicky Darrell, a retail broker for Manekin LLC. “It’s gotten worse. There are more people who would like to be in the Columbia area. The combination of more people wanting [in] and the fact that nothing’s been zoned [for new retail] exacerbates that situation of trying to find something.”


And while Howard County is in the middle of a comprehensive rezoning, a process undertaken once a decade to change zoning designations and regulations, there are no plans to create more retail space in Columbia where land is primarily controlled by the Rouse Co. and Kimco Realty.

Everyone agrees that there’s not enough retail space, and the county is in the middle of a ‘comprehensive rezoning’. I don’t understand how it’s important who owns the land; it certainly doesn’t sound like zoning any more retail space would result in Rouse and Kimco’s properties suddenly emptying out.

In any case, there’s no plan to do anything about the problem — unless someone complains:

According to Steven M. Johns, a planning supervisor with the county’s Department of Planning and Zoning, the retail-style stores that are finding their way into industrial parks aren’t likely to be pursued by the county unless area businesses complain.

They aren’t likely to be pursued? Most jurisdictions pursue businesses in an attempt to get them to move in, providing tax revenue, jobs, and services. Howard county suggests that they might ‘pursue’ — i.e. chase out of town — businesses for which there’s a demand but no officially suitable space.

There’s not enough retail space, everyone admits it, and there are no plans to solve the problem. But should someone complain about people operating what are effectively retail operations out of non-retail space, then the county will do something, i.e. throw out the ‘offending’ business. That’s what zoning is all about!

That these public-facing businesses are able to survive at all in such lousy locations — the main characteristic of suburban industrial parks is that they’re almost totally invisible from the outside — would seem to indicate that there’s a strong demand for whatever it is they’re selling. And what’s the only action that the county contemplates? Further curtailing the space available to these businesses.

When these suburbs become slums, I predict that the people in charge of their local governments will stand around scratching their heads, too.

Posted by tino at 23:24 11.11.03
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I see a similar situation in Herndon, VA as well. The industrial park at Spring St. and Herndon Parkway contains contains an Asian food market, a ballet studio, at least two ethnic restaurants and a consignment shop, just off the top of my head.

Is this particular to the DC area, or is this a general tendency in more recently built out areas that don’t have the old construction to house lower margin businesses? I know that the first time I went to “Taste of the World” I was baffled that a sit-down pan-asian restaurant would be in an industrial park.


Posted by: Nicole at November 12, 2003 01:36 PM

I think the phenomenon is unique to master-planned and tightly-zoned high-dollar communities built within the last 35 years or so. Even as recently as 15 years ago, the “chains” hadn’t yet (for all intents and purposes) completely consumed the retail world. I haven’t seen the phenomenon in less wealthy areas that actually have at least a small amount of Grade-B commercial space (and especially not in areas where zoning didn’t come into play). Seems that big-money has finally been bitten in the butt by what it has always wanted - an area so bloody exclusive and unattainable by “The Little Guy” that Mr. Little is no longer able to set up shop to service Mr. Big’s needs.

Posted by: Mel at November 18, 2003 02:49 PM