A tall order ahead for Towson Circle Retail proposal: Undeterred by skepticism about access and parking, the developer says the $25 million project will rise to the challenge.

January 27, 1996|By Suzanne Loudermilk and Liz Atwood | Suzanne Loudermilk and Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

The proposal to redevelop the former Hutzler's building in Towson faces significant challenges -- such as limited parking and luring tenants to upper floors, industry experts say.

But, they add, the $25 million Towson Circle project could foreshadow a new kind of retail development, as land becomes scarce for sprawling, one-level shopping centers dominated by warehouse-style stores. And, they note, the project announced this week will introduce a relatively new concept to the Baltimore area -- a vertical power center.

"What the industry recognizes is that there aren't too many cornfields left, so we are, or should be, experiencing the recycling of the past," said Bob DiPietro, a partner with McLean, Va.-based retail developer Petrie Dierman Kugh.

That's exactly what developer David G. Rhodes, president of Towson-based Heritage Properties, is planning at Towson Circle, where prospective tenants will be located on four levels in the 270,000-square-foot former department store at York and Joppa roads.

"I want to keep it simple, efficient and cost-effective," said Mr. Rhodes. He has a contract to buy the Hutzler's site for $25 million along with a 2-acre parcel across Joppa Road for retail development and nearby land for a five-level, 800-car parking garage.

There have been other development proposals in the six years that the building has been vacant. But the trouble in marketing the building, built in 1952, has been the site's access, the floor plan, parking and delivery facilities.

Tom Maddux, a principal with KLNB Inc., a commercial real estate company, said it appears Heritage Properties has solutions to at least two of the problems. Heritage plans to gut the building to improve the floor plan, and it proposes a parking garage linked by a covered pedestrian walkway.

But access for customers and deliveries remains awkward, Mr. Maddux said, adding, "It's still going to be somewhat of a hard sell."

Wayne Skinner, executive director of the Towson Development Corp., a nonprofit community improvement organization, agreed that it might be hard to persuade some businesses to locate in a multistory building. "Most retailers prefer the street level," he said.

James A. Schlesinger, who is redeveloping nearby Towson Marketplace as a power center, also sees multistory parking as a potential problem at Towson Circle.

"There is the complication of a garage and the problem with getting the goods back and forth," said Mr. Schlesinger of Florida-based Talisman-Towson Partnership.

David Ward, a broker with Hicks & Rottner Associates, who grew up in Towson, predicts the Hutzler's project will be a "home run."

"Where sites are getting scarce, value-oriented guys are considering alternatives," he said.

Mr. Ward believes Towson Circle can capitalize on the success of Towson Town Center, a mall that has done well despite a somewhat intimidating parking garage.

He says access to the site is not an issue, because it is so visible, but he acknowledges that deliveries could be a problem. "They're going to have to be very creative with that," he said.

There are not many vertical value-oriented centers across the nation. But in recent years, such centers have been developed in New York City, Chicago, Florida, Virginia and Silver Spring. Another is planned for Parole outside of Annapolis.

Such multilevel sites probably are not suitable for retail giants such as Wal-Mart or Target stores. But they can accommodate stores such as Marshall's, T.J. Maxx and Borders Books & Music, which need less space and sell merchandise that is easy to carry to a parking garage.

Mark Schoifet, a spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers in New York, said the Hutzler's proposal reflects a national trend to develop multilevel power centers. Some, such as the City Place project in Silver Spring, are new; others, such as the Siegel Cooper Building project in New York, are renovated department stores.

Mr. Rhodes said Towson Circle, which has more than 50,000 square feet per floor, lends itself to large users. Many low-margin retailers don't want to pay expensive mall rents, he said.

And he said that his plans -- including adding several delivery bays that will be recessed under the building -- would address potential problems.

He has not signed any tenants, although he has approached California Pizza Kitchen as a possible restaurant tenant.

"It's tough to do," acknowledges Mr. DiPietro. "But you have to ask yourself, 'Whatever else would you do with the Hutzler's

building?' "

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