Retail center proposed for Hutzler's in Towson

December 18, 1990|By Meredith Schlow | Meredith Schlow,Evening Sun Staff

The former Hutzler's building on the corner of York and Joppa roads, which has stood vacant since the Baltimore-based retailer shut its doors last January, may once again have a chance to draw customers to Towson.

A newly formed husband-and-wife development team, Emporium Development of Towson, has proposed converting the building into a $15 million specialty retail center devoted to upscale home furnishings.

DECOR, the Home Fashion Center at Towson Town, would be a collection of national, regional and local retailers selling furniture, other merchandise for homes, and decorating services.

The center would house as many as 90 vendors and occupy all 200,000 square feet of the four-story building, said the Hahn Co., the San Diego-based developer that owns the Hutzler's building.

Hahn is also the developer of the adjacent Towson Town Center. Located at the corner of Dulaney Valley Road and Fairmont Avenue, the center is undergoing renovations due to be completed in 1992.

Hahn is currently negotiating with Charles and Laura Moore, the partners of Emporium. If Hahn accepts their proposal, DECOR could also open in 1992, Hahn said.

The couple -- and Hahn -- are hoping that the proposed DECOR center will appeal to dual income families, who have little time to spend driving from store to store comparison shopping, but have money to spend on the items they purchase.

Laura Moore was previously a manager with the Boston-based strategy consulting firm Baine & Co. The DECOR concept came out of her work, which involved "a number of different industries" including retail, Charles Moore said.

He is a Baltimore native who most recently ran his own venture capital investment banking business in Boston.

"We looked at potential other uses for that building and we felt we had a true winner concept," he said. "We've analyzed very carefully the retail needs [of the area] . . . we think the customer wants to see the selection, wants to comparison-shop. The average sofa shopper visits 4.5 stores before they buy a sofa. This notion of one-stop shopping provides tremendous convenience to the customer."

The center would provide a large range of decorating supplies, including furniture, antiques, lighting, wall coverings, window treatments, art, crafts, linens, china, glassware, cookware, kitchen cabinets and bath fixtures.

Although Charles Moore could not provide the names of any definite tenants, he said retailers have expressed "a lot of enthusiasm." The company's leasing package, he said, is currently being sent to national companies.

Bill Doyle, senior vice president of development for the Hahn Co., called the proposal "an interesting complement" to Towson Town Center, and added that DECOR would provide a much-desired link between old Towson and the renovated mall, which is scheduled to be completed in 1992.

Richard Story, director of economic development for the Baltimore County Office of Economic Development, said the office is "optimistic" about the proposal.

"Obviously this building historically has been a retail magnet for Towson. The loss of Hutzler's was catastrophic to this community. Hopefully, these retail operations will bring back some of the lost dollars."

Story said the office is most concerned with how a new retailer would affect local traffic flow, parking and "those kinds of things. We're interested in how it fits with the community, and making sure the general interest of Towson is maintained."

Doyle said he hopes to have the deal finalized by June 1991. The company still needs government approval "and there's a lot of business things that need to be sorted."

The idea of a variety of similar retailers in the same location is really not that far removed from that of a regular shopping mall.

The concept of a cluster of home-furnishings vendors is the "novel approach," according to R. Bentley Offutt of Offutt Securities, a Baltimore research brokerage firm.

"It's quite clear that if you have a cluster of anything, whether it's fast food stores or general retail stores, that you'll be able to attract more people than if you're all by yourself," he said.

Furniture stores in the past, he said, have been plagued by high mark-ups and low turnover, but "if you can improve the turnover of your inventory, you can lower its cost and make it even more attractive to the buyer . . . it seems to me that the public can benefit by being able to go to these types of stores," Offutt said.

Renovations would include cleaning the exterior of the old Hutzler's building, altering display windows, and installing a new awning system, a cornice at the top of the building and a new sign.

There would be a major glass entrance to the south side of the building, "which will help tie in old town Towson with the center and eventually to the mall itself," Charles Moore said. Customers would have access to the Towson Town Center garage from the building's basement entrance under Joppa Road, as well as through an overpass leading from the building's third floor.

Inside, the developers plan to preserve Hutzler's elaborate mahogany escalator core, which runs up the center of the doughnut-shaped building. The building is so dingy, Charles Moore said, that "it's hard to appreciate how nice the interior once was."

"I think it's a terrific retail site," he added. "It's a regional site, not a local site. I think that Towson is in for exciting revitalization."

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