Hunt Valley Mall: troubled past, uncertain future

February 16, 1992|By Michael Dresser

The day of Hunt Valley Mall's grand opening, customers had to cool their heels outside for more than half an hour because a building inspector found last-minute code violations. Three-quarters of the mall's stores hadn't opened. The Baltimore County executive refused to take part in the ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

Hunt Valley's fortunes haven't improved much since that dismal day in September 1981. A decade later, about 25 stores sit

empty, covered by plywood paneling or darkened behind security grates. Near an entrance, four empty stores stand in a row, like ghost soldiers.

"With all the bars, it looks like a jail," said shopper Kim Frederick as she ushered her children into her car one day last month. Francie Ritter, manager of the Wild Pair shoe store, gave a typical assessment of business at the mall: "It's slow. It's real slow. It's dead."

Last year was not kind to Hunt Valley. Already weak, the mall took a pounding from the recession. And it has been hemorrhaging stores for months.

The Big Sky shoe store abandoned the mall just after Christmas, and so did the Door Store. County Seat closed in September and opened a new store in Towson Town Center. Last month, the troubled Zale Corp. See MALL, 2A, Col. 1MALL, from A1suddenly closed all three of its Hunt Valley jewelry stores, Zales, Gordons and D.P. Paul, as part of its Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization.

But the greatest threat to Hunt Valley's future lies ahead. One of its anchors, Macy's, is in Chapter 11, and many merchants are worried that the Hunt Valley store won't survive when the chain reorganizes.

Cynics -- and there are many of them in the mall these days -- call it Death Valley. They joke that it's a great mall for people who hate malls -- no crowds, attentive service, and you can always get a parking space near the door.

But unlike some other struggling malls in the region, Hunt Valley shows no obvious signs of decay or neglect. The mall's management firm, Philadelphia-based Kravco Co., says it remains bullish on Hunt Valley. Rather than dwelling on its 15 percent vacancy rate, almost twice the 8 percent nationwide average for malls, it emphasizes that Hunt Valley is 85 percent leased. But even that number looks anemic alongside those from White Marsh, which says it is 100 percent leased, or Owings Mills, which says 97 percent of the stores are spoken for.

Kravco points to Hunt Valley's assets -- easy access off Interstate 83 at Shawan Road, ample parking and a location in the middle of an important employment center surrounded by some of the most affluent communities in Baltimore County. And, according to regional leasing director Lloyd Miller, Kravco and the mall's owner -- a partnership led by Equitable Life Assurance Society -- are laying plans for a major redevelopment of the mall.

Still, outside observers are dubious. They point to the vast areas to the north and west of the mall that have been set aside for low-density development and agricultural use. They note the stiff competition from larger malls with more prestigious anchors. And they wonder whether those who opposed the mall in the first place weren't right after all.

'A very slow opening'

Hunt Valley's problems began long before the first sale.

Baltimore County officials were never enthusiastic about the project, preferring to steer development toward White Marsh and Owings Mills, areas earmarked for growth in the county's master plan. They warned the Kravco-Equitable group that the county already had too many malls, but the developers had the land and the required zoning and were determined to push ahead.

Environmentalists feared that the mall would create runoff that would pollute the Loch Raven watershed, and residents of neighboring communities protested that it would open the door to dense development of their scenic rural valleys. They appealed to the Planning Board, which voted in 1979 to reject plans to begin construction of the mall. The board reversed itself only when a judge upheld the original zoning and ordered the members who voted against it to change their votes.

Two years later, at the time of the mall's "Grand Opening Spectacular," the wounds had not healed. When the mall opened Sept. 17, 1981, County Executive Donald P. Hutchinson, who had opposed the project, was a no-show. "How can I be hypocritical and cut the ribbon and say how great it is when I don't feel that way?" Mr. Hutchinson, now president of Maryland Economic Growth Associates, said at the time.

James D. Lucas, then Baltimore County's economic development director, was the county administration's senior representative at the mall's grand opening. In an administration that was cool to the mall, he was one of the more sympathetic officials, but even he was not impressed.

"It was a very slow opening, very poorly put together," he recalls.

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