Rite Aid buys the old Hecht's

January 25, 1995

Martin L. Grass, the 41-year-old president and chief operating officer of Rite Aid, may work in Camp Hill, Pa., but he lives in the Timonium area.

This enables him to serve on the boards of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Johns Hopkins Health System and the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. It also allows him to look at sites in this city and think how they fit into the expansion strategy of the nation's leading retail drug business.

In recent months, Rite Aid has decided to go to some unconventional places. It recently built a new store on Pennsylvania Avenue, next to the soon-to-be-redone Lafayette Market. Construction is about to start at the corner of North and Greenmount avenues and behind the American Brewery building on Federal Street. Yet another store is under consideration for a planned shopping complex at Howard and 21st streets.

All these are small potatoes, however, compared with Rite Aid's acquisition of the old Hecht Co. department store building at Howard and Lexington streets. Rite Aid hopes to open a large "category killer" drug store on the street level. It plans to lease the rest of the eight-story building for a variety of retail and office users.

"My feeling is that Martin Grass is investing in the future of Howard Street," says Laurie Schwartz, executive director of the Downtown Partnership.

As a result of the Rite Aid purchase and the recent opening of YoungWorld, a children's wear and accessory store in space once occupied by Epstein's, she detects more curiosity about the Howard Street area.

For decades, Howard Street, the city's one-time department-store hub, has been a trouble spot. Nothing has worked there and the district today is in worse shape than it probably ever has been. Yet dogged planning efforts have quietly continued.

Unlike in the past, planners now see Howard Street as a three distinctly different redevelopment challenges.

The southern end, from Fayette to Pratt streets, is close to several major hotels, the Baltimore Arena, a new federal office building and the expanding University of Maryland at Baltimore campus, which all are key factors in its redevelopment.

The middle sector, from Saratoga to Fayette streets, is seen as having some future potential as a retail stretch. Stores that the city would hope to attract are in the Toys R Us and Caldor's category.

The north end, up to Read Street, is designated for artist housing, craft galleries and performing arts spaces.

Is this a mere pipe dream? Perhaps. But Rite Aid's plans for the old Hecht site would tempt any bettor to place a wager.

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