Westview Mall sets out to polish its tarnished image

August 25, 1991|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

Scott Davis has never shopped much at Westview Mall because of what he considers to be some good reasons.

"In my eyes, it was a dangerous place to shop. It was run down and it was a mess," said Mr. Davis, president of the Westview Park Improvement and Civic Association, which represents the neighborhood north of the mall, along U.S. 40 in Catonsville.

The June slaying of a 49-year-old grandmother in the mall parking lot and the shooting last September of a Baltimore teacher in another robbery attempt reinforced the opinion of many neighbors that the mall was a dangerous place.

But the company that purchased it two years ago has so far invested $20 million in renovations, beefed up security, courted nearby residents and launched an aggressive marketing campaign to attract quality stores and keep merchants' registers ringing.

This weekend, the mall will celebrate the opening of T. J. Maxx, a clothing store and one of the mall's new anchors, with a series of events aimed at attracting 15,000 potential shoppers.

Fashion shows, an appearance by a soap opera star (Morgan Englund of "Guiding Light"), a country music performance (Michael Johnson), balloons, mimes and the dedication of a 170-year-old clock at the center fountain are scheduled.

A special reception for the Westview Park community Thursday night drew about 500 people.

"We're committing to this community and to making this project work," said Alan Fink, general manager of the mall.

Westview had 57 stores when it was purchased in August 1989 for $23 million by Balcor Property Management Inc. of Skokie, Ill., according to John Powell, a senior vice president at Balcor.

The company began a $20 million renovation project, adding 150,000 square feet of shopping space to expand the mall so that it could house 85 stores when renovations are completed next spring, he said.

A Marshall's department store and a 10-screen cinema are to open next March, he said.

The project included major repainting and refinishing of the interior and exterior walls and floors.

Improvements include several touches intended to brighten up the ambience, including the addition of 27 skylights and installation of a series of striking Roman-style columns along the main corridor.

At the center of the mall, an 1821 French clock has been connected to a fountain and will display the hours of the day on a huge, laser-guided sundial. The result is a much brighter mall than a year ago, with an airy outdoor feeling similar to the atmosphere at most of the larger regional malls.

The project is being touted as a major economic shot in the arm for a corridor that had become tired-looking in recent years.

"Generally, folks around here are delighted to see the improvements. There was a feeling that it had gotten run-down over the years," said Gail LeCompte, a longtime Catonsville resident and aide to Baltimore County Councilwoman Berchie Lee Manley, R-1st.

But on June 6, at the height of the renovation work, Jane Frances Tyson, 49, was killed on the parking lot during a robbery behind the Value City department store.

Nine months earlier, about 3 p.m. Sept. 9, Katherine E. Dwyer, 44, had been approached by a gunman and shot in the arm as she was loading packages into her Toyota 4-Runner near the Caldor entrance.

The crimes brought unwanted publicity and, merchants say, a drop in business.

"The crowds slowed down for about a month, but then people came back. Life goes on, and people realize that," said Rita Segars, head cashier at Linda Lynn, a women's clothing store.

But the slaying also became a lightning rod for neighbors, many of whom said that thieves or shoplifters had gone through their backyards to flee the mall. Residents began to speak out, complaining that the mall threatened the security of their community.

"Everyone was just fed up," said Richard L. Smith Jr., a father of two whose back door is about 40 feet from the mall's rear parking lot. "I don't need any crazy running through my back yard and grabbing my kid and using them as a hostage or a shield or whatever."

Mr. Fink, the mall's manager, set up community meetings, met with residents in their homes and walked the parking lot a dozen times with them, passed out business cards with his phone number and encouraged neighbors to call him at any hour.

The result is a strengthened security force and a stronger working relationship with many of the neighbors who had been the mall's harshest critics.

Mr. Fink promised residents along Southridge Road, the row of town houses along the north side of the mall, that a vinyl-clad chain-link fence would be erected to separate the mall lot from the community and to block off the back yards as an escape route.

He also agreed to petition county public works officials to shut down two back streets, Morehead Road and Whiteway Road, and to bolster security patrols.

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