Westview owners restore some of mall's lost luster Emphasis on value,security raises sales

January 21, 1992|By Michael Dresser

The 1980s were not kind to Westview Mall.

Stewart's closed. Then Hutzler's. Hamburgers left for nearby Security Square Mall in 1988.

Westview, the jewel of the Baltimore suburban shopping scene when Governor Theodore McKeldin cut the ribbon in 1958, had lost its glitter.

The 1990s didn't start much better. Within the span of a year, two women were shot in robberies in well-publicized incidents in Westview's parking lot. One of them died. Longtime customers thought twice about going to the mall -- and didn't even think of going at night, mall employees say.

But with new management, a $20-million face lift and expansion, improved security and a shift in strategy, the old mall at U.S. 40 and the Beltway is beginning to show signs of a renaissance. Westview posted a 40 percent increase in sales during 1991, the mall's management says, and merchants agree that change is in the air.

"Definitely, we've seen an increase since the remodeling of the mall," said Pam Gradison, assistant manager at Casual Corner, a women's clothing store. "It has been a turnabout. The mall is gorgeous."

Essentially, what Westview did was move up by going downscale, positioning itself as a "value-oriented mall" while eliminating the cut-rate look that scared off affluent shoppers. The strategy shift came at an opportune time: just as the recession was pinching consumers and making discount the healthiest segment of the retail industry.

To anyone who has not been there in recent years, Westview's new look will come as a surprise.

Skylights let the sun penetrate the once-gloomy interior, and the halls are lined with ornate columns set off by pink and blue neon. In the center court, an antique French clock works in concert with a giant fountain to keep time with light and water.

A. Gary Shilling, a well-known New York economist, contends that the successful merchants of the 1990s will be those who offer discount prices while letting people shop in surroundings that let them keep their "middle-class dignity." This, it appears, is what Westview is doing.

"We just think we're going to recapture the family shopper, the value shopper," said Alan J. Fink, the energetic mall manager who came aboard early last year. "How many people do you know who have lost a job or gone through something wrenching in their career?" Those people, he said, will never be so bold with their spending again.

The lineup of stores reflects that conviction. The anchors are all discount-oriented stores: Caldor's, Value City, T. J. Maxx and a Marshall's department store scheduled to open next month. Many of the smaller stores appeal to the frugal consumer, too, including Just a Buck (the concept is what the name implies) and Gallo, a clothing store where nothing costs more than $10. Interspersed with the discounters are some traditional retailers, including Casual Corner, Tuerkes for luggage and gifts and Fader's for tobacco.

The mix has been potent, according to the mall's management company, Balcor Property Management in Chicago. Twelve new stores opened in 1991, and Balcor said that each exceeded its sales projections, helped by a 34-percent increase in customer traffic.

With the discounters as a draw, traditional retailers have benefited as well. Fader's, for example, posted a 43-percent increase over 1990 results, the store's manager said.

Not every store is showing such dramatic results, however. At Tuerkes, assistant manager Shirley Barber said 1991 sales were "only a little bit over" 1990's.

Still, she is encouraged by the changes she's seen. "The mall is picking up some. The traffic is beginning to come back. Customers who haven't been here a for long time are starting to come back," Ms. Barber said.

Westview's restoration was long overdue. The mall was built as a strip shopping center in 1957, then enclosed and expanded in renovations in 1963, 1968, 1970 and 1974.

In 1980, the mall was sold by Monumental Properties Trust to Equitable Life Insurance Co. in Washington, which hired a Philadelphia-based company to manage it. The cycle of major renovations ground to a halt and Westview stagnated.

When representatives of Balcor came to look at the property in 1988, Mr. Fink said, "it looked awful."

Still, the executives saw potential. The mall -- in a prime location on a major artery next to an interstate exit -- reminded them of a mall in Miami that they transformed into a thriving discount center. They saw a vast market area -- Catonsville, Ellicott City, West Baltimore, Arbutus and other communities -- with little competition in discount shopping.

And whatever its other problems, Westview was not a ghost town. The vacancy rate wasn't high, and there was still a nearby customer base. The mall wasn't living up to its potential, said Mr. Fink, but "there was still healthy business going on here."

Balcor bought the mall in 1989 and sent a vice president, Alan Muench, to Baltimore to oversee the multimillion-dollar renovation, now mostly complete. Another 12 to 15 stores are expected to open in the next few months, with a "grand opening" set for March. Still to come are a multiscreen United Artists movie complex and a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant.

Meanwhile, Balcor has upgraded security at the mall. It hired a new security firm staffed by off-duty and retired law enforcement professionals, improved communication and shifted some guards from the interior to the parking lots, Mr. Fink said.

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