A Gloomy Old Mall Gets Shiny New Life

COMMENT

November 21, 1993|By ELISE ARMACOST

Never mind NAFTA, Michael Jackson and whether the U.S. Naval Academy dairy farm is ripping us off. This week's "need to know news" is whether the new, improved Annapolis Mall is all it's cracked up to be.

The final verdict won't be in until March, of course. That's when Nordstrom, that upscale shopping Nirvana, opens, along with 25 other chi-chi shops: Ann Taylor, Eddie Bauer, Banana Republic, Vicky's Secret. The era of ear-piercing pagodas and tinny elevator music is drawing to a close.

The first phase of what mall honchos call "a complete rebirth" was revealed last week as County Councilwoman Maureen Lamb and a host of other "dignitaries," as a mall press release called them, smashed breakaway bottles against an imitation ship's bow.

The nautical theme is big at the new mall, but more on that later.

What you need to know right off is that the mall looks a sight better than it did before. "Complete rebirth" may be stretching it; you definitely don't walk in and think you've taken the wrong exit off U.S. 50. It's still the Annapolis Mall. But for $70 mil, CenterMark Properties certainly is sprucing the place up.

Aesthetically speaking, the old Annapolis Mall was -- let's not mince words here -- the pits. As any experienced shopper knows, each mall has its own personality. (Examples: Towsontowne -- yuppie extravagant; Marley Station -- friendly utilitarian; Owings Mills -- classic classy; Severna Park -- Night of the Living Dead.) Annapolis was dismal-claustrophobic. Upon leaving, one always felt relieved to breathe fresh air and see sky.

The renovations have changed that. They've opened up the ceiling with skylights so there's finally some light in there. They've gotten rid of that old commercial flooring and put down a classy beige marble with granite accents. There are lots of wood beams across the ceiling, too, which give an illusion of height and openness (they're also supposed to give the illusion of a boathouse; more on the nautical theme in a moment).

It's still a far cry from the airy, ethereal Owings Mills Mall, where all your troubles fade away amid the plants, pink marble and the gentle glint of the shoppers' diamond rings. But it's light years better than it was.

So far so good.

On to the Food Court, the centerpiece of Annapolis Mall: Part I.

Considering that the mall had no food court before, the addition of a McDonald's and a kiosk featuring leftover sandwiches from Chick 'N Ruth's would have been an improvement. CenterMark has done much better than that. They've created "The Galley" (there's that nautical theme again), with 15 eateries -- everything from Hibachi-San to Roy's.

The food selection is great. Shoppers, who by now must be heartily sick of hot dogs and soft pretzels for mall sustenance, should be ecstatic.

I have just one gripe about The Galley. Who picked the mint green/yellow/Pepto-Bismol pink color scheme? Somebody who just had a rainbow wedding? This is gonna get old quickly. Besides, green, yellow and pink are not exactly nautical colors.

Indeed, the whole nautical motif does not exactly jump out at you. I wouldn't have known it existed had I not read an article in a business publication saying the food court featured a "50-foot glass model lighthouse [serving] up a nautical flavor appropriate to the area."

You'd think a 50-foot lighthouse would be something you can't miss, but I couldn't find it. That's because the lighthouse is really LTC a giant skylight over the Au Bon Pain bread shop. It lights up at night, so maybe it looks like a lighthouse from the outside. Not from the inside, though.

Oddly enough, Timothy Lowe, CenterMark's development director, was pleased to learn that the nautical theme was sailing over some people's heads.

"It was intended to be subtle," he said. "We didn't want to come out to Annapolis and put sails all over the place. We didn't want to go overboard with the nautical motif."

Here is one shopper who's eternally grateful they didn't hang fishnet and seashells from the walls. But what's the point of a nautical theme if nobody notices it? At least they should have gone for blue and white in the food court.

One improvement that rates a solid A-plus is the new amphitheater in front of Hecht's. It's a work of art -- really.

The circular floor is engraved with a map of the world; a shimmering stylized sun, moon and solar system float in the space above. It's the work of artist Larry Kirkland, a county native now living in Portland, Ore. CenterMark was smart enough to hire him to do another sculpture to go in front of Nordstrom.

In conclusion: Shopping at the new Annapolis Mall will not take your breath away. You will not have an emotional, out-of-body experience. But there are lots of new shops and more on the way, plenty of food when you get hungry, more parking and an atmosphere immeasurably more pleasant than the old mall's.

It's not classic/classy. But it's getting there.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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