Tollgate may revert to open-air style Judge to rule on mall plan

April 04, 1993|By Frank Lynch | Frank Lynch,Staff Writer

A federal bankruptcy judge in Westbury, N.Y., heard final arguments Friday on a plan to infuse new life into the struggling Tollgate Mall by converting it into a strip shopping center.

The mall's owner, a limited partnership called Bel Air Square of Hauppauge, N.Y., filed in April 1991 for protection from creditors under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, which allows a company to reorganize to try to pay its debts.

At the time, the partnership owed more than $8.8 million in principal and interest on its mall mortgage of $9.3 million.

Vincent Polimeni, a New York-based developer who heads the Bel Air Square partnership, said if the court rules in his favor, he will begin returning the shopping center to its original open-air style.

A source close to the case said that State Farm Life Insurance Co., the main mortgage-holder on the 50-store mall near Harford Mall, wants to keep the mall enclosed.

A decision is expected within 90 days.

The interior of the mall, anchored by Kmart and Giant Foods, has been closed to the public for nearly three weeks since the last tenants left.

The lower level at the back of the mall, occupied by the Tollgate 7 movie theaters and Carvel Ice Cream, will remain open as will Kmart and Giant.

Bob Weinholt, owner of the Tollgate 7, has submitted plans to add a 340-seat theater in the site previously occupied by Tyler's Western Wear. "Like Kmart, Giant and Carvel, I'm staying at this location no matter who owns the mall," he said. "I started my business here in 1982 with four screens, and I'm about to install the eighth."

Unlike its commercial neighbors -- Bel Air Mall, Bel Air Plaza and Bel Air Town Center -- Tollgate, situated on 55 acres, has been plagued by troubles since it opened in 1980 as the Tollgate Town Center.

Nearly 100 businesses have come and gone in the past 13 years.

This movement of tenants caused consumers to lose faith in its ability to retain quality stores.

Soon after buying the 240,000-square-foot mall in 1985 from a group of Baltimore businessmen, Mr. Polimeni put a roof over the promenade between the anchor stores.

The move ran counter to conventional wisdom in the retail industry that suggests a food store should never serve as an anchor for an enclosed mall.

Mr. Polimeni's plan would not only remove the roof but also reconfigure the storefronts to make them visible from the parking lot off U.S. 1 (Baltimore Pike) and Tollgate Road.

Carol Diebel, Bel Air's director of planning and economic development, said she has heard about Mr. Polimeni's plan but as of Friday he had not filed for any permits.

She said she has not talked with Mr. Polimeni or anyone from his company in more than a year.

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