It has been dubbed the “Wall Street of Columbia” because seven banks are clustered in and around River Hill Village Center's retail core, and its few shortcomings, according to residents, are the result of “being successful.”
So if it’s not broken, why tinker with the 15-year-old River Hill Village Center?
The answer, according to Dr. Trevor Greene, volunteer committee chairman of the River Hill master plan, is because “we’re trying to be proactive and deal with issues that aren’t the same as other Columbia villages. Our problems are those of being successful.”
From data collected from resident surveys and a “walk-about” last year, Greene and others discovered residents’ major concerns center on safety—for pedestrians, vehicles and bikes—and also on making the center a better gathering place.
Information gathered also confirmed residents’ desire “for new businesses other than more banks,” he said.
Those concerns were relected last summer when some residents opposed a county plan to build a new road that would go behind Auto Drive behind Kendall’s Hardware and stop at the Great Star and Maryland Route 108 intersection, according to River Hill Village Manager Susan Smith.
Some residents opposed the project because of the traffic it was thought to create. Kendall's Hardware opposed it as well because part of the road changes would slice through the hardware’s site to get access to a then-proposed mixed-use development nearby, according to Explore Howard.
The county has put the project off and is now in the midst of conducting a traffic study of the area, officials said.
Columbia’s 10th Village Center: A Strip Mall with Pedestrians
The idea of Columbia’s village centers, said River Hill Village board chair Tony Miceli, “was not only a place to shop, but to be a place for gathering, … for people to come and stop awhile.”
But most of River Hill stores face the street (Maryland Route 108) and a small courtyard between Vintage Cellars and the River Hill Sports Grille was not conducive for shoppers to linger, chat with others and relax—until outdoor chairs and tables, paid for by Kimco Realty Corporation, were added to benches already there last summer, Miceli said.
When River Hill Village Center opened in 1997, it was immediately seen as a different from Columbia’s other village centers because it was located on the fringe, instead of in the middle of the village, and it was built like a typical suburban strip mall.
But the center’s openness is what attracted some merchants.
Rick Everett moved his jewelry store, Everett Jewelers, from Owen Brown to River Hill Village Center when it opened because he wanted street frontage for his upscale shop.
“I’m happy with the center,” he said. “It was a good move for us.”
Today, River Hill’s 18 businesses include a Giant Food supermarket, dry cleaners, liquor store, optical store, banks and restaurants.
Making River Hill a Place for Pedestrians
Although “everything is fine” with his business, Everett said he realizes the center must adapt to a growing area. There weren’t nearly as many homes around the center in the early days as now, he said.
“The recent pedestrian improvements are good and make it safe for people to walk to and from the center,” he said.
Before he became village board chair, Miceli, a middle school teacher, volunteered to spearhead River Hill’s traffic and safety improvements.
When he moved to a River Hill condominium a few years ago, he said the first thing he noticed was the difficulty walking across Great Star Drive from the condominiums to village center stores.
“To go across the street, you had to drive from the condos to the village center,” he said. “And it was less than a quarter-of-a mile.”
He tackled the complicated task of working with county and state jurisdictions—due to the mix of county and state roads that surround River Hill Village Center and the burgeoning strip of non-Columbia commercial real estate along the Maryland Route 108 corridor between Maryland Route 32 and Linden Linthicum Lane—to find ways to improve pedestrian safety.
Miceli said county public works officials ultimately were able to tap traffic safety grant monies for three special crosswalks or “pedestrian islands,” which were installed three years ago on Great Start Drive and on Maryland Route 108 at Linden Linthicum Lane.
“Now,” he said, “You can watch some of River Hill’s older folks maneuver their motorized chairs across Great Star to the village center.”
River Hill Residents Rally Against a Road
Residents' concern over traffic congestion in the village center spiked last year during the proposed road controversy.
Smith said county officials wanted to improve access to the former Gateway School site for a possible mixed-use development with a new road.
But any future road is now “on hold,” she said, due to village residents’ concerns about traffic and accessibility issues from Maryland Route 108.
Smith and the village at-large credited Greene’s testimony last year before the Howard County Council and Planning Board in winning approval instead for a county traffic study.
The study is examining traffic patterns and volumes and ways to improve congestion and access along the Maryland Route 108 corridor in front of River Hill Village Center, according to Smith.
Meanwhile, Howard County Director of Public Works James Irvin said this week the county is “in the midst of doing the traffic study and working with state highway (officials),” but he would not speculate when the study might be completed.
River Hill honored Greene as “Volunteer of the Year” last November for his efforts.
Not everyone frets about River Hill safety.
“Safety is a personal thing, and I don’t see it as a big deal,” said resident and real estate agent Eileen Robbins.
When she’s showing village properties, she said, people rave about River Hill’s amenities and top-notch schools. The village turns 20 this year, she observed, adding: “It’s aging beautifully.”