Hutzler's job shines light on developer Rhodes' megastore idea is the talk of Towson

February 19, 1996|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

As he sits in his company's sleek conference room, David G. Rhodes seems a little embarrassed by the sudden onslaught of attention. After all, he's just doing something he's done for years -- developing property.

But his latest project -- to rejuvenate the former Hutzler's building in Towson -- has become a major topic of conversation around town. Finally, there is hope for the abandoned department store that has been a community white elephant for six years.

Mr. Rhodes, the 45-year-old president of Heritage Properties, is promising to gut the building, fill it with value-oriented megastores and provide parking in a five-level garage. It also will have a catchy new name, Towson Circle -- a word play on the nearby traffic roundabout that will be completed in 1997.

It's an evolving $25 million project that the affable, low-key Mr. Rhodes has been working on behind the scenes for more than a year. But there remains much to do, such as addressing the nitty-gritty task of updating a 1950s building, going through the county review process and lining up prospective tenants, none of which has been signed yet.

"This kind of thing doesn't happen without the support of tons of people," Mr. Rhodes acknowledges.

Area business and community leaders agree it's a challenging project from many standpoints, including that it will be one of the few vertical power centers -- clustered megastores -- in Maryland. But they say David Rhodes is just the catalyst to make it happen.

"Dave's the perfect one to do it," says John F. Harrington, a Towson real estate broker who has known Mr. Rhodes for 10 years. "He's a nuts and bolts guy. He's the one who gets things done."

And that's pretty much what Mr. Rhodes, who has a master's degree in community planning from the University of Maryland, has been doing since he was a Baltimore City planner in the mid-1970s. He later spearheaded a York Road revitalization effort that led to turning around a downtrodden corner at Woodbourne Avenue in Govans and setting in motion the planning of nearby Belvedere Square with its markets and shops.

"The area was down on its heels," remembers Don Gerding, a community activist involved in the effort. "[Dave] did well. He applied what he accomplished on York Road into other ventures, such as what he is now doing in Towson."

Mr. Rhodes arrived in Towson 11 years ago via a development consulting group he formed with three partners. After working on several real estate projects with the Meridian Group, he was hired by partner Michael J. Batza Jr. to form Heritage Properties as an off-shoot.

Meridian eventually merged with Genesis Healthcare Venture, leaving Mr. Batza as CEO and Mr. Rhodes as president of Heritage, a commercial development and property-management company.

But it wasn't through Heritage that Mr. Rhodes first became interested in the future of the former Hutzler's building. He had been involved in numerous discussions about the lingering eyesore at various community organizations in which he serves as president of the Towson Development Corp. and member of the Towson Partnership and Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce.

"Through his involvement with Towson activities, he knew it needed to be done," said Wayne Skinner, executive director of TDC, a nonprofit community service group, adding that the Hutzler's building had been one of the organization's top priorities.

"It's Dave's brainchild and energy. He was the genesis of this project," Mr. Batza agrees.

The Towson Circle project is slightly different from Heritage Properties' usual commercial ventures, such as the multistory Towson office building at 515 Fairmount Ave., where its headquarters are located. There also are scattered out-of-state projects, such as a North Carolina industrial park.

And, even though Mr. Rhodes says that retail isn't the company's forte, Heritage has developed two BJ's Wholesale Clubs in Baltimore County and a strip shopping center in White Marsh.

"We don't see ourselves as mega-retail developers," Mr. Batza says. "[Hutzler's] is a real opportunity if we can make it work. It will be an asset for us and the community."

"We don't take this lightly," Mr. Rhodes adds. "It's rife with difficulties and the risks are unknown, but, in a way, it's like a lot of projects we take on."

Mr. Harrington, who worked for the Towson-based DeChiaro-Rachuba Group when it was developing Towson Town Center with the San Diego-based Hahn Corp., foresees several challenges for the nearby Towson Circle, such as traffic, delivery of merchandise and parking. But he points out that the wildly successful Towson Town Center faced similar problems in the beginning.

"It had, at the time, a lot of doubting Thomases," Mr. Harrington says.

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